State Officials Express Concern Over Forgotten Cemetery

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 …”

  • Monty wilson

    About 6 years ago I wrote an article in the Coyote, a Fort Worth Stockyards tourist paper no longer in existance, the article was titled Gone and almost Forgotten. It is about a forgotten cemetary at 28 th street and Main close to Billy Bobs Texas. It contains the graves of the first Tarrant County Judge, Doctor and Sherriff. Tombstones are knocked down, grass is overgrown and the street people use the tombstones for cooking. It’s still there and nothings been done with it either. I contacted the state officials back then also. If you would like more info e mail me or ca me at 817 583 1158

  • Brian Marvin

    This is a news story? After 18 years of this sand operation someone has came up stating the cemetary is vanishing? I dont like it on private property but maybe a story on the family that knew they had family buried there 3 years ago doing something to clean up site. Maybe Boy Scouts? Girl Scouts? Church? I would like to see news of something positive like family coming together to reclaim a cemetary that no one knew was there.

  • Lori Davis

    Ive been there. They let our bike club ride our bikes over the roads and hills on this property. I’ve seen the cemetary but didnt know it was there until about 5 years ago when the owner took me to it. Im going to talk to my family and friends to see about cutting limbs and general clean up.

  • Elizabeth

    The oldest cemetary in North Texas was almost destroyed by a large corporation a decade ago until I applied to the state for historical preservation. The company had plans to move 250 graves including civil war soldiers to build another unnecessary office complex at Renner Rd. & 75. This cemetary remains neglected and often vandalized because it is “out of sight – out of mind”. What a shame that we don’t honor our history any more and teach our children to respect them.

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  • Beth Sullivan

    I always hate seeing our history disappear, but what bothers me most about this investigation is Mr. Carr’s claim that this didn’t happen on his “watch”. As co-owner and operator for the last eighteen years, it is clearly his responsibility. There are marked differences to the property when comparing Google maps and Microsoft maps. I can only hope that your investigation will encourage him to enforce the eroding areas as he has said he plans and protect these founding fathers. Thank you for your investigation.

  • Robert

    Why dont people come out and clean up the cemetary? Where are the families? We can sit behind our computer and state our concerns but never do anything about it. This pit has been in operation off and on since the 60’s and 70’s. Where was the concern then? It sit vacant during the 80’s and was everyones playground that had a 4 wheeler or grew pot. Lets sit back and look at the property from the 60’s to present and see what improvements have been made or we can sit on our butts infront of our computers and state our concerns. Why should I maintain and why i’m I responsible for this cemetary Beth?

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