Tornado ravaged Rose Hill monument being restored

Tornado-ravaged Johnston obeliskbeing restored to Rose Hill Cemetery

lfabian@macon.comMarch 28, 2014 

For 60 years, 10,000 pounds of pink Scotch granite lay in two pieces in the dirt near the banks of the Ocmulgee River.

A 16-foot-tall obelisk toppled from the Johnston family plot at Rose Hill Cemetery when tornados raked across Middle Georgia in the dark of night on March 13, 1954.

One twister scoured Macon, killing six people and injuring more than 50 others as it wrecked 900 houses and leveled 400 more, along with nine other buildings.

Macon News reporter Perry Morgan described the fury.

“The throat of the tornado screamed like a thousand banshees,” he wrote in the paper.

The force of the storm ripped the shaft of the obelisk from its elaborate 12-foot-tall base marking the 1887 grave of William Butler Johnston, the man who commissioned what is now known as the Hay House.

The obelisk crashed down on the grave of family member George Washington Duncan, destroying his matching pink granite marker.

A note on Duncan’s white marble replacement slab commemorates the tornado.

Sixty years plus one day after the twister, a crane recovered both pieces, including the point that was buried tip down in about a foot of dirt.

Fervor from Friends of Rose Hill fueled the recovery and restoration project.

“We’ve been talking about this for a while,” said Chris Howard, chairman of the group, which has led the charge for the repair. “It seemed too daunting of a task and, logistically, too difficult to get to.”

The Johnston tomb’s arches and columns rise up from the bank next to the nearly identical Bond tomb, which was immortalized on the back cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s first album.

Lisa McLendon, executive director of the Big House Museum, who is also on the Friends committee, said people often ask about the cemetery.

“We do have a lot of fans who go down there to see the Bond monument,” said McLendon, who enlisted friends at Southway Crane to donate their equipment.

Two weeks ago, crews hoisted the pieces on a truck bound for Clark Memorials, where they were cleaned and prepped to be put back together at a reduced cost.

Holes were drilled in each jagged end for a stainless steel dowel to be inserted before the granite is glued back together.

Trains thunder past the Johnston plot each day and Jeff Ellis, co-owner of the monument company, wants it to be secure.

“The pin will make sure it’s not walking anywhere,” Ellis said. “I like to be overly cautious. I sleep better at nights.”

Crews planned to glue the monument back in place this weekend until it rained. Moisture interferes with the adhesive, Ellis said.

An unveiling ceremony will be scheduled in the coming weeks, said Janis Haley of Historic Macon Foundation.

“I think it’s a tremendous thing to do,” Haley said of the restoration commissioned by the Friends’ volunteer organization, which is a subsidiary of the foundation. “We’re so thankful to Southway Crane Co. resurrecting it from its own grave, so to speak. They did a terrific job and brought it out safely.”

Lisa Felton, a Johnston family descendant, is thrilled her family plot is being restored.

“My grandmother, Mrs. William Felton, she always talked about that tornado,” said Felton, who was in first grade when the storm tore the roof off her school building. “She was so worried because it was her responsibility to maintain that plot.”

Felton hopes her two sisters and other family members will be able to attend the dedication, scheduled for 2 p.m. April 23.

“I know it would mean a lot to my family,” she said. “I think it will be good for Macon and historic development.”

Friends of Rose Hill also has been restoring retaining walls with SPLOST funds for the city cemetery.

Private donations to the effort can be made through the Historic Macon foundation website.

Look for Rose Hill Cemetery under the “explore” tab of www.historicmacon.org.

“It’s snowballed,” Howard said. “We hope this is just the beginning of a larger plan for that part of the cemetery.”

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