WARNER ROBINS -- A large, old and forgotten cemetery is being rejuvenated by people who dont have a single relative buried there.
About 40 students from the Georgia Military College campus in Warner Robins spent time Saturday cleaning up what used to be Shiloh Methodist Church cemetery, where possibly as many as 300 people are buried. Burials began there in 1831.
A couple of years ago Warner Robins police Officer Joshua Wilcox responded to a call about vandalism occurring at the cemetery. The vandals were long gone when he got there, but he couldnt let go of what he saw that day.
It wasnt just that tombstones were broken and graves run over with four wheelers. The cemetery itself was abandoned and had long ago surrendered to the trees and bushes that had grown up all around tombstones so old that the words etched on some are no longer legible.
The church itself shut down in 1961, and the building was long gone.
A history buff, Wilcox noticed the graves of Civil War soldiers. He did some research and determined that one of them, Thomas Phillip Tucker, was with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee when he surrendered at Appottomax, Va. Another, Ulysses Gunn, came home after being wounded in the battle of Cold Harbor. He was part of the family that Gunn Road was named after.
The cemetery has the graves of at least two other Civil War soldiers, a Buffalo soldier who may well have been with Teddy Roosevelt when he charged San Juan Hill, and World War I and World War II veterans.
The neglect of the military graves in particular didnt sit too well with Wilcox. He would regularly check in on the cemetery while he was on patrol to make sure there was no further vandalism.
He started to notice that someone was maintaining a small part of the cemetery just behind a subdivision but he didnt know who was doing it. Then one day he saw a truck parked nearby and left his card on it.
That same day he got a call from the owner of the truck, Ron Bohnstedt, a retiree from Arizona who lived in a house adjacent to the cemetery. The cemetery is the reason Bohnstedt and his wife bought the house.
The Bohnstedts had a stillborn child many years ago, and someone stole the marker on their childs grave. As they were strolling through the cemetery while looking at the house, they noticed several unmarked infant graves and it touched their hearts.
They bought the house and have been maintaining about two acres of the 7-acre cemetery. Bohnstedt used various records to identify each of the infant graves, and he has placed markers on them.
Meanwhile, Wilcox started pestering his mom, Dianne Wilcox, about helping him out with the cemetery. Dianne Wilcox, a GMC professor, had done tours at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon.
The more she learned about Shiloh, the more she began to see it as similar to Rose Hill. GMC encourages its students to serve the community, and she thought the cemetery would be a good project. She said it will be an ongoing effort.
Bohnstedt appreciated the help so much that he had T-shirts made for each of the students.
It would take me months to do what they have done in a few hours, Bohnstedt said.
With most of the cemetery covered by forest, few people even know about it, including those who live in the subdivision next to it. It is located at the Houston and Peach county line near Eagle Springs Elementary School on U.S. 41.
Ive lived on U.S. 41 all of my life and I never knew this was here, said Brandon Vaughan, a GMC sophomore, as he pulled weeds from one of the graves.
GMC sophomore Taylor Combs, who plans to be an archeology major, said she found working on the cemetery interesting but she was sad to see the damage that had been done.
Im really surprised somebody would come out here and disrespect somebody like that, she said. Its a shame people would come out here and rob a grave.
Bohnstedt said it was only last week that he determined the cemetery is located in Peach County, and surrounded by Warner Robins.
Anyone interested in the effort to clean up the cemetery can visit the website www.shilohcemetery.info. The website also list family names of people buried there.