- By Ken Herman American-Statesman Staff
Today the “What Is That?” team heads to another dead end. It seems that cemeteries — especially old ones — are a frequent and understandable source of queries.
This cemetery question comes from a local health care executive. I guess there’s something of a link between health care folks and cemeteries, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Here’s the question from Greg Hartman, the Seton Healthcare Family’s president for external and academic affairs (I think the query is more from the Hartman family than the Seton Healthcare Family): “There is a small but apparently very old cemetery on the north side of Old Bee Cave Road, between Highway 71 and Travis Cook Road, just west of the Natural Gardener store. We’ve lived out here in the southwest part of town for a long time so I first noticed the cemetery years ago.”
Perceptive executive that he is, Hartman also has noticed that Our Town, including his part of Our Town, has been growing and changing.
“There is beginning to be a lot of new development in this area,” he told me, “and it appears that fairly soon this site might be overtaken by apartments or new houses. So the question is not only ‘what is it’ but will it be moved or built around with the approaching development?”
Good questions on an important topic. I drove out to the cemetery and found six hard-to-read headstones in a shady grove. There indeed is a good bit of development in the area, including, when I was there, a truck involved in what looked like it could be preliminary work on development near the little cemetery in question.
For information on this cemetery, I went to Dale Flatt, the go-to guy to go to for all local cemetery information. He’s the founder of Save Austin’s Cemeteries.
Flatt says this is the Dittmar-Bell Springs-Bassford Cemetery. He sent me an Austin Genealogical Society report about it.
“This is an old cemetery with about 20 burials,” the report says. “Not all of the stones are legible and not all burials have a tombstone.”
The report lists two Bassfords, two Dittmars, three Hudsons, a Townsley and 11 “unknowns.” There are birth and death years for only three of them. A.C. Dittmar was born in July 4, 1871, and died Feb. 3, 1881. P.C. Dittmar was born Nov. 16, 1880, and died Dec. 3, 1881. And J.W. Townsley was born in 1854 and died in 1900, though specific dates aren’t listed.
May they all continue to RIP despite the encroaching development where they are RIPing.
Flatt says Hartman’s concern is well-placed because this cemetery is a small area on a large tract, one that could be in development’s path.
“This site has been documented, but, as you can see in the deed and the Travis Central Appraisal District file, the cemetery is not identified as a separate subset of the property,” Flatt told me. “Your friend is correct that if the cemetery is not acknowledged in the deed or on a plat, it has an increased risk of being lost.”
And Flatt says there are a lot of small, old cemeteries like that in Travis County, as many as 200.
“There are good stewards that have cemeteries on their properties and take care of them,” he said. “And then there are people who have a cemetery and say, ‘I want to sell out to a developer’ so they just remove the headstones and say there’s no cemetery here.”
That’s among the reasons Flatt maintains a database and photos, including of the one Hartman asked about.
“I know the area,” Flatt said. “There are a lot of apartments and other things going up on those large tracts. That is a growth corridor.”
When things go right, there are two paths for old cemeteries in the path of development, according to Flatt. Developers can build around them and incorporate them as parkland or they can go through the legal process for moving the graves. Both have happened as Austin has grown.
The worst-case scenario for old cemeteries, Flatt said, is “they become dumping grounds and forgotten about.”
That’s a shame indeed.
For now and the foreseeable future, there’s good news about this old cemetery. The man who owns it (and who asked not to be identified) lives nearby and says the tract including the cemetery has been in his family since his grandfather purchased it in the 1920s. One can only imagine the purchase price and the appreciation in the century since.
For now, there are no plans to sell or develop the land.
“I’m not going to say some day it won’t be,” he added.
And he assured me the dirt work I saw going on was minor work just to fill a low spot.