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History lives at Rose Hill Cemetery thanks to semiannual tours

There’s a lot more to Rose Hill Cemetery than meets the eye.

Those rough stone blocks in that retaining wall came from the collapsed ruins of one of the towers at Fort Hawkins, the first white settlement in this part of Georgia.

That flagpole towering over a hillside of Confederate graves came from Cochran Field, where Royal Air Force pilots trained during World War II.

That patch of grass may cover the remains of an early Maconite — after all, only one third of the graves in Rose Hill are marked.

With its skyline of monuments, terraced plots and variety of trees, Rose Hill offers a pleasant walk at any time of year. But to really appreciate the history of the place, you’ve got to take a ramble.

In 1977 the late Calder Payne, working with the Middle Georgia Historical Society, began giving twice-yearly cemetery walking tours called Rose Hill Rambles. The tradition continues under the auspices of the seven-year-old Historic Rose Hill Cemetery Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the 169-year-old city property.

Sunday, about 200 people turned out for the most recent ramble. The man with the megaphone and the facts was Phil Comer, a writer, historian and toxicologist. Comer has been giving tours of the cemetery since the ’80s.

At the plot for one of the many Napier families represented in Rose Hill, Comer related an anecdote he heard from Buford Birdsey, an avid cemetery supporter who died recently.

“This man was a lawyer and one time he was in a courtroom in south Georgia and the judge asked, ‘How do you pronounce your name?’ And he said, ‘Well, the hoity-toity members of the family pronounce it the French way, Nah-peYAY. Some of the no-account members of the family pronounce it Napper. But I pronounce it NAY-peeyer.’ Then the judge said, ‘Well, Mr. NAY-peeyer, I’d like you to know I married a Napper.’’’

In researching the stories of the people buried at Rose Hill, Comer has traveled to Atlanta, Savannah and Milledgeville to find information unavailable in Macon. When he began his research he made it a point to interview older Maconites to get first-hand accounts of the people whose names appear on the tombstones.

Comer said he was a relatively late convert to the cult of local history.

“I grew up in Macon with the attitude of ‘Let’s get the heck out of here, there’s nothing here,’’’ he said. “I went to the Midwest and the people there are wonderful, but they don’t have that sense of place. ... As soon as I came back to Macon I said, ‘Wow, there is just an energy here, a connection to the past, and these stories need to be told.’’’

The stories include those of Anna Jordan, beloved nanny of the well-to-do Smith family and one of the few blacks buried in Rose Hill; James H. Blount, a former congressman whom President Grover Cleveland sent to investigate the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii; and Lieutenant Bobby, a canine military mascot who fell down an elevator shaft at the Dempsey Hotel.

Comer said the most visited graves in Rose Hill are those of Allman Brothers Band members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. The graves are now enclosed by a fence to prevent vandalism.

“You can’t really spend any time in the cemetery at all without somebody stopping you and asking directions to the graves,” he told the crowd during the 90-minute tour.

As Comer walked toward the cemetery gate after the tour, a minivan pulled up next to him.

The driver had a question.

You guessed it.

Comer cheerfully pointed out the way.

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