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Thursday, December 1, 2022

Check out these historic cemeteries from Jefferson, Orange, Hardin, Chambers, Jasper counties.

As the final resting place for many after they die, cemeteries are permanent fixtures in communities across the world.

They offer a place to mourn and honor loved ones who have left this earth and serve as markers of a community’s history, even after the community itself is gone.

Being tied directly to death, cemeteries are often seen as a connection to the spirit world, which at times can give them an eerie feeling, making them permanent fixtures of lore, particularly around Halloween.

So, whether you like to explore cemeteries for wealth of history they offer or because you want something potentially spooky to do on Halloween, we’ve spoken with five local historians who gave insight into the must-see cemeteries in Jefferson, Orange, Hardin, Chambers and Jasper counties.

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Jefferson County

As the most populous county east of Harris County, Jefferson County has its fair share of cemeteries, some of which were established by their first burials back in the 19th century.

Two of the more notable cemeteries in Jefferson County include Magnolia Cemetery in Beaumont and Greenlawn Memorial Park in Groves.

Magnolia hosts some of Beaumont’s founding and most influential families, such as the McFaddins, and is home to numerous monuments, mausoleums and other interesting memorial architecture that makes a stroll through its grounds fascinating to say the least.

“How Magnolia is to Beaumont, Greenlawn is to Port Arthur and Groves and most of the area there,” said Jefferson County Historical Commission Cemetery Chair Paul Prosperie. 

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Like Magnolia, Greenlawn features numerous ornate statues and mausoleums, detailing the histories of some of the area’s most interesting residents.

Notable residents of Greenlawn include Thelma “Tad” Tadlock, a Port Arthur-born dancer and choreographer who is featured in the Museum of the Gulf Coast.

Tadlock’s credits include Broadway musicals such as “Make a Wish” and the 1980 film “Heaven’s Gate.” 

Other residents of interest include Rudolph Lambert, who was one of the first soldiers from Port Arthur to be killed in France during World War I.

Lambert, who has a monument named after him in front of the American Legion Post 7 in Port Arthur, was first buried in France, Prosperie said.

“When they brought him back (to Texas), for some reason they buried him in Magnolia,” Prosperie said. “Then after that, they buried him in (Greenlawn).”

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In the same section where Lambert is buried is a memorial to Hugo DeBretagne, who was killed at Tarawa in World War II. DeBretagne’s remains, however, do not accompany the memorial.

“He died on the third day of fighting, and they buried him at sea,” Prosperie said. “That little stone there is a memorial to him that his family put there.”

Also at Greenlawn is a memorial to those killed in the April 1926 Gulf Tanker Venezuela explosion in Port Arthur.

The explosion killed 25 crew members and injured 11 others. The incident made its way to the first page of The New York Times when it occurred.

Unmarked at Greenlawn is a mass grave of victims of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 whose bodies could not be exhumed due to the potential of disease spread.

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Sabine Pass Cemetery also features a mass grave of victims of yellow fever who died around the Civil War, Prosperie said.

Also buried at Sabine Pass Cemetery is Kate Magill Dorman, who moved to the area in 1851 with her husband and opened the Catfish Hotel.

Dorman transformed the hotel into a hospital as yellow fever spread throughout Sabine Pass, and she treated residents and soldiers there.

Several Civil War soldiers from both sides are buried there as well.

Prosperie said the Sabine Pass Cemetery is one of the oldest in Jefferson County.

Cemeteries serve as an important facet of communities, Prosperie said.

“People pass on — that’s our family,” he said. “We don’t just throw them in the hole and just forget about them. Take of them, take care of the memory. It’s the right thing to do.”

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Orange County

Traveling east to Orange County, local historian Margaret Toal said there a few cemeteries worth checking out.

The first sight worth seeing isn’t a traditional cemetery at all, however.

“There are some really old markers on Lamar State College Orange’s wall,” Toal said. “Over the years, settlers settled around the banks of the Sabine River because they could get their water there and everything else and it spread out. And somewhere, there were some early 1840s-1850s — some of the dates are gone — and over the years, the graves had been lost.”

Toal said the graves ended up being buried beneath a post office that was built on the land during World War II. The graves were rediscovered when Lamar Orange tore the post office down and they placed the grave markers on a wall.

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Other must-see sights in the county include Evergreen Cemetery in Orange.

Toal said she, along with the Heritage House Museum, conduct a tour of the cemetery in spring and visit five grave sites.

While touring through Evergreen, one might notice grave markers that look like logs or timber.

“What it is, is the Woodmen of the World was a big lodge and real popular with people,” Toal said. “I found out over the years that (groups) like the Elks Lodge and the International Order of Off Fellows, they were social groups, but they also had insurance. And the Woodmen of the World, part of their death insurance included a gravestone and their symbol was a log. So, that’s why we have so many logs.”

Toal also recommends visiting Hollywood Cemetery, also in Orange.

Hollywood Cemetery was originally dedicated for Orange’s Black residents and is situated on the edge of a marsh. That being so, most of its graves are above ground.

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“The white people lived on the high ground and gave the low ground to the Black people,” Toal said.

Hollywood’s graves have been heavily impacted by natural disasters with Hurricane Ike’s storm surge in 2008 causing “three or four dozen” coffins to float out, Toal said.

Local legend blues singer Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown is buried in Hollywood.

“His tombstone keeps getting broken because of all the floods but it’s really cool looking piece that has a cutout guitar on it,” Toal said.

While walking through Evergreen herself, Toal came across the gravestones of three sisters who all died on the same day.

“They were about five, three and two, or something like that,” she said. “I was wondering, ‘What happened there?’ Their parents weren’t there. Then it hit me because local history is my passion and they died in the October 1886 hurricane that hit Johnsons Bayou and left bodies floating in Sabine Lake. The rescue efforts were out of Orange. So, I suspect heavily that their bodies were recovered, which makes you wonder what happened to their parents — were they lost and never found? Did they live later and go off and not be buried here?”

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Toal said mysteries like that one are one of her favorite things about taking a walk through cemeteries.

“You can just let your imagination run wild,” she said.

For those who might be looking for a more supernatural experience, Toal recommends Wilkinson Cemetery near Little Cypress.

“I have a 71-year-old cousin and a 69-year-old cousin and they swear that in like 1967, they were double dating out there and they saw a wolf-man,” she said. “Other people out at Wilkinson have said they have seen floating green (orbs) follow them.”

Hardin County

To the west, Hardin County Historical Commission Chair Jimmy McKim said its harder to find the big, ornate cemeteries that Jefferson County offers.

“Hardin County is so spread out,” he said. “People have asked why we don’t do a cemetery tour and the problem is they’re so spread out and there’s not just one cemetery that has most of the notables in Hardin County.”

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But that doesn’t mean Hardin County doesn’t have interesting places to take a walk through, McKim said.

Hooks Cemetery south of Kountze was started by the Hooks family, who were prominent fixtures in Hardin County.

There’s also the Old Hardin Cemetery, west of Kountze, which was established in 1865.

McKim said McNeely Cemetery in northeast Kountze is probably one of the oldest established cemeteries in the county with burials dating back to the 1830s or 1840s.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, limestone was a popular headstone material, McKim said.

“Limestone sort of melts away over time,” he said. “Or it was sandstone (and) sandstone holds up better than limestone but it still gets old and can be damaged. Limestone in particular, (the headstones) were beautiful I’m sure when they were brand new but they literally melt away.”

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The soft rock material can make the preservation of graves using it more difficult, McKim said.

As for Hardin County notables, McKim said many of them are buried out-of-county, such as in Magnolia or Forest Lawn in Beaumont, two cemeteries that offer perpetual care — a service Hardin County cemeteries don’t typically provide.

“Many of our cemeteries, we’ve got some that are well kept up, but then we’ve got a lot that aren’t kept up at all because it comes and goes,” he said. “Some group will get up and they’ll sort of work for a few years and kind of clean the cemetery up and then those die and then the younger ones are too busy to care about cleaning a cemetery and it falls back into disrepair.”

Being a largely rural county, many Hardin County cemeteries — typically family plots — have been overgrown and are sometimes the only reminder left of communities that no longer exist, such as the Olive Cemetery, three miles north of Kountze.

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The Olive-Sternenberg Lumber Mill Company anchored the Olive town, a company town where land was leased by the lumber mill.

At one point, the town had a population close to 1,200, according to previous Enterprise reporting. But by 1915, the lumber was gone and the town disappeared. Burials in the cemetery date back to at least the 1880s, according to the Texas Historical Commission.

The Olive Cemetery was overgrown with just a few headstones sticking out here or there until the 2011 wildfires came through the area, uncovering some of the hidden graves.

“Cemeteries are protected sites, but there’s nothing to protect them from neglect,” McKim said. “Your local cemetery is a history book and the pages are those headstones.”

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Chambers County

To the southwest, Chambers County Historical Commission member Darla Willcox said that the Wallisville Cemetery is a can’t-miss site.

In fact, one memorial there is related to the more-than-a-century-old murder-mystery of Sheriff John Lighter Frost.

Frost was murdered in 1900 while on his way back from serving sequestration papers to squatters in Smith Point, Willcox said.

“He went down (there) on horseback and he never made it back to Anahuac,” she said. “They found his horse and a hat but they never found him.”

No one was ever convicted in Frost’s murder.

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Frost is memorialized in the cemetery with a Woodsmen of the World headstone, and there are several pictures of him at the Wallisville Museum, Willcox said.

A woman murdered by serial killer Henry Lee Lucas is also buried in Wallisville Cemetery.

Another point of interest is Anahuac’s First Cemetery, also called Old Mexican Cemetery, located at the end of Missouri Avenue in Anahuac.

The cemetery was established in the 1830s and contains “internments of the community’s first settler,” according to its Texas Historical Commission marker.

Its earliest known burial is that of Land Office agent Benjamin Freeman who died in 1835.

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Jasper County

Jasper County is home to numerous historical cemeteries, one being the Watts-Fuller Cemetery, located about 9 miles northwest of Jasper toward Lufkin and sits atop “one of the highest hills in Jasper,” said Jasper County Historical Commission Chairman John Johnson.

The cemetery’s first known burial was Thomas Watts in 1841, who is buried next to a boulder sticking out of the top of this hill.

One of the more interesting things about the cemetery isn’t who is buried there, but the trees that grow there, Johnson said.

“Within that cemetery, there’s a rare species of oak called Arkansas Oak, and it’s the only ones known in Texas,” he said. “It’s been recognized there for a long time, and we realized it’s connected to that cemetery. And probably some of those early settlers might have brought those oak trees and planted them.”

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The creek that runs below the hill was home to a lead mine, which was used during the Civil War to make lead bullets.

Johnson said another cemetery worth checking out is the Indian Creek Cemetery, part of the historic Dixie Freedom Colony.

Freedom Colonies were settled by formerly enslaved people following Emancipation, according to The Texas Freedom Colonies Project.

“At the end of the Civil War, all of a sudden, a bunch of enslaved people were freed,” Johnson said. “So, what were they going to do? Most of them were illiterate and had one or two skills in life. They had common sense but they didn’t have education and they couldn’t read, write or cipher. But you would have maybe two or three out of the group that could and had been trained (and) they became the kind of de facto leaders. They didn’t have a lot of help, but they had each other…together they made a good community.”

Johnson said Freedom Colonies usually have three fixtures: a church, a school and a cemetery.

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Richard “Uncle Dick” Seale was born enslaved around 1797 in Alexandra, Virginia, according to The Texas Freedom Colonies Project

“At some point Joshua Seale became his master,” the Texas Freedom Colonies Project’s description of the Dixie Freedom Colony states. “They settled in the Indian Creek area near Bevilport, Texas about 1850, and Joshua established a plantation there. Records show that Richard Seale was allowed to join the Baptist church that Joshua and his family attended in Mississippi. In 1853 Joshua Seale assisted his enslaved, under the leadership of Richard ‘Uncle Dick’ Seale, in building a church. This church, known as the Dixie Baptist Church, is the oldest protestant church built by the enslaved west of the Mississippi River.”

Johnson said the cemetery is largely used by the Black community, though Black and white people are buried there.

Like Olive Cemetery in Hardin County, Hamilton Cemetery is the last remnant of the Zavala township — not to be confused with the city of Zavalla which is located in Angelina County.

The Hamilton Cemetery, also called the Old Zavala Cemetery, is located about 12 or 13 miles outside of Jasper, said Johnson.

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Zavala, named for empresario Lorenzo de Zavala, the original grantee of the land that was to become Jasper County, was founded in 1834, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

A fire destroyed the town in the 1840s and it was sold shortly afterward to and English man. The community, which at one point was home to about 40 families, disappeared and its post office was discontinued in 1856.

While little remains of the town today aside from the cemetery, Johnson said there is now a Historic Texas Cemetery marker and a centennial marker on the land to inform people of the community that once thrived there.

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Nicole Aniston
Nicole loves to write and works as a corporate communications expert by day. She's been working in the field for quite some time now. Her training in media studies has provided her a wide perspective from which to tackle various issues. Public relations, corporate communications, travel, entrepreneurship, insurance, and finance are just few of the many topics she's interested in covering in her work.
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