By Jack Douglas Jr., CBS 11 News

DENTON COUNTY (CBSDFW.COM ) – On a small patch of land, in the middle of a sprawling sand and gravel pit near Denton, dozens of people — early settlers of North Texas and their children — are buried in graves dating back to the 1800s. The names on many of the tombstones have been swept away by the relentless Texas wind and rain over the past century. Some markers have fallen over; others, unmarked, have been worn down to rock stubs, barely protruding from the ground.

But it is the constant digging in the quarry, bearing down on the barbed-wire borders of Wolfe-Foster Cemetery, that worry Rick Strickland the most, particularly on one side where a backhoe shovel cut especially close, inviting the onset of erosion.

“To me it’s obvious they have no respect for the cemetery, digging that close to it,” said Strickland, who learned about three years ago that he had ancestors buried in the nearly abandoned cemetery. If excavation continues, and stays close to the burial border, he is afraid the cemetery is “just going to disappear.”

Click here to see Denton County records from the cemetery.

It is a legitimate concern, say state officials and cemetery preservationists who have seen countless Texas burial grounds, all with valuable historical significance, get swallowed up by urban sprawl and new development.

“I think it’s safe to say we’ve lost historic cemeteries,” said Anne Shelton, a cemetery preservationist with the Texas Historical Commission. “It’s not something we want to repeat in the future,” Shelton added. She stressed that the first step in saving an old burial ground is to formally designate it as a historical site, a relatively easy procedure.

Gerron Hite, who is Shelton’s predecessor at the state’s historical commission, said there are an estimated 50,000 cemeteries in Texas, but the whereabouts are known for only about half of them. Although retired from the commission, Hite continues to look for and document long-forgotten cemeteries, knowing that some of them have been lost forever.

It is a big loss.

“Cemeteries are a historic resource,” said Hite. “They have information on the stones. Sometimes it’s the only evidence you have of a community, a community totally gone.”

After seeing video of Wolfe-Foster Cemetery, taken by CBS 11 News, Hite said there is a real need to be concerned about the cemetery’s future, especially on the side where the quarry’s shovels dug closest. Heavy rains, he said, could cause devastating erosion, unearthing the graves and causing them to fall into the sand and gravel pit. “So that definitely is a problem,” said Hite.

There is no need to worry, said Robert Carr, co-owner and operator of Airport Sand and Gravel, who says he plans to shore up the cemetery’s side with fresh dirt.

Carr said he is phasing out the quarry’s operations and redeveloping the 400-acre piece of property for a residential development consisting of expensive homes, lakes, a golf course – and a well-maintained Wolfe-Foster Cemetery.

He blamed the cemetery’s precarious situation on a previous quarry company, which he said did the most intrusive digging long before he and his father began leasing the property 18 years ago.

“It didn’t happen on my watch,” said Carr.

That is disputed, however, by several people, including the landowner, another person living close by and Strickland. They said extensive digging in the pit has continued through recent years, getting ever closer to the boundaries of the cemetery.
Strickland is not the only one concerned about the welfare of a cemetery that is encircled by a sand and gravel pit.

“They’ve just dug all around it, made an island of the cemetery,” said Joanne Thorson, 82, who has lived down the road from the burial ground for 30 years. “I just don’t think that’s right,” Thorson said. “It’s not honoring the dead.”

It is not too late to save Wolfe-Foster Cemetery, as long as everyone agrees to work together, said Chet Robbins, executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, one of several state agencies that work to protect and preserve cemeteries and ensure that there is easy public access to them.

He said he is most troubled by the fact that, while the sand and gravel pit is lined with No Trespassing signs, discouraging anyone from coming in, there is no inviting sign that directs people to the old Wolfe-Foster grave sites.

“Let’s do the right thing. Why can’t some one put something out there … that says this is a cemetery?” Robbins said.

Unfortunately, he added, there are scores of Texas cemeteries that are in danger of being lost, either through neglect or through a lack of information on where they are. Wolfe-Foster Cemetery is one of them.

“I’m concerned about any one that’s buried in any grave — about the conduct, the treatment, the respect, the dignity, the care,” Robbins said. “So am I concerned about this? You bet I’m concerned …”