American Legion volunteers bring life to forgotten cemetery

The Laurel (Miss.) Leader-Call

By Mark Thornton • 12 hrs ago 

An old flag flapping in the breeze in the middle of town led to a grave discovery — more than 50 of them, actually. An overgrown, untended cemetery, between Masonite and Interstate 59 on Melon Street, was obscured by overgrown weeds and brush, much to the surprise of Stuart Breland.

He was driving on his garbage-collection route one December morning when the red, blue and what used to be white-striped cloth caught his eye.

“I must’ve come through here 100 times and never noticed it before,” said Breland, who was a longtime city worker in Laurel before being hired by WastePro. “I knew we had to do something.”

So Breland organized a group of his fellow Sons and Supporters of American Legion Post 11 to take on the project of cutting and cleaning the cemetery and helping make the headstones legible. And they responded, chainsaws, clippers and weed-whackers in gloved hands.

The volunteers began work there on Jan. 8 and worked another weekend in mid-February, cutting and hauling off underbrush and trees, to bring new life to the old, forgotten graveyard.

Now all of the markers and headstones — some of which are large and ornate but were still obscured by weeds and brush — are visible and mostly legible, all adorned with brand-new flags, courtesy of the American Legion.

The work was done by Bart Delong of Heidelberg, who is also a city worker, along with Mike Garris and his wife Belinda of Ellisville and their son Bryan and his girlfriend Loyce Liu, retired Northeast Jones teacher Mark Sellers, Brandon Simon of Laurel, Allen Knight and Breland. All are riders and/or supporters of Post 11.

Their work uncovered a treasure trove of city history. Many of the markers date back to the early 1800s, and as is sadly common with the time period, several show the final resting place for babies and young children. Some of the headstones are broken, but there was nothing the volunteers could do about that.

Several of the headstones — including the one that had the flag that caught Breland’s eye — belonged to a member of the Holifield family, but it is actually known as the Windham Cemetery, according to the website PeopleLegacy.

The earliest headstone that can be read is for John McConky, born 1823 and died in 1906. There are about a dozen members of that family together, many of whom died young in the early 1900s — Ruth, 18; Amanda Eva, 17, John, 12 and baby Catherine Jewel. Three Barnes children — Evie A., William Thomas and Mary Belle — died before their 10th birthdays, in 1895, 1906 and 1913, respectively. Sexton Windham died a week before his 13th birthday in 1915.

Another of the earliest markers was for Susan Adeline Stephens, who lived a full life, being born in 1835 and dying in 1905. Nearby, Ida A. Stephens Pilgrim died during childbirth in May 1893. She was 17. At the back of the cemetery are four small headstones that are difficult to read, but all appear to be for infants with the last name Holifield who died in the early 1900s.

The most recent burial there appears to be for Mrs. Maude Holifield, who was born in 1884 and died in 1978.

Merry Tigert said that her husband’s great-grandparents, Alice and W.H. Tigert, are among those buried there. They were some of the first residents in Laurel, she said, noting that he died working for a sawmill for Gardiner Green back in 1895, according to the book “The Yellow Pine Capital of the World.” The cemetery belonged to the Nazarene church that used to be on Masonite Drive, she said.

All it took was one tattered flag to draw the attention of Breland and get the other legion brothers and sisters involved, Brenda Garris pointed out. Breland is keeping that soiled star-spangled banner and putting it in a shadow box as a reminder of the renewal project it helped lead them to.

“It was grown up so badly you could hardly get inside,” she said, recalling the first time she saw the cemetery. “The Sons of Legion and the American Legion Riders joined hands and brought this sacred place back.”

But why did they spend their Saturdays working so hard for strangers from yesteryear?

“We are veterans and sons and daughters of veterans,” Garris said. “We added flags to all graves for the appreciation of the times these people lived.”