Houston & Peach

GMC students bring forgotten cemetery back to life

WARNER ROBINS -- A police officer who didn’t just fill out an incident report and go on to the next call, a retired couple who saw the unmarked graves of children and couldn’t let it go and a group of college students who could be doing something more fun on a weekend are among the forces that have converged to breathe new life into an old, forgotten cemetery.

For more than a year they have worked together to slowly bring Shiloh Methodist Church Cemetery out of the leaves, trees and brush that had buried it for decades. Rampant vandalism that plagued the grounds has stopped.

About 100 graves have been identified, but there may be as a many as 500 on the seven-acre site. Burials began in 1831. Everywhere there are oblong depressions in the ground that result from people being buried in pine boxes that collapsed.

Those restoring Shiloh have brought it so far that Saturday they offered a public tour. Few people took them up on it, but that didn’t seem to matter too much to those who have been doing work. The satisfaction of seeing the results of their efforts was enough for them.

Most of the work has been done by students at the Warner Robins campus of Georgia Military College, which adopted the cemetery as a community service project.

Freshman Machaela Verhage said she has only recently gotten involved.

“I honestly just did it for the extra credit, but now I am really interested in it,” she said.

She did some research on the unmarked graves of children, and learned that most of them died of pneumonia. She hopes to raise money to put markers on the graves.

The cemetery is in Peach County, next to the Houston County line. It is also in Warner Robins. A couple of years ago, Warner Robins police Officer Joshua Wilcox answered a call about vandalism at the cemetery. He didn’t like what he saw, especially when he noticed the graves of some war veterans there.

He told his mother, Diane Wilcox, about it. She is an English professor at GMC and has worked on other cemetery preservation projects. She got the school involved and regular cleanups began in November 2013. Since then they have done cleanups every 10 weeks or so.

Also key to the effort is Ron Bohnstedt, a retiree who lives in the subdivision adjacent to the cemetery. He and his wife took an interest in it after seeing the unmarked graves of children. He did some research, identified the graves and placed markers. He now is listed as the official cemetery caretaker. He said the students have helped a lot.

“They get quite a bit done,” he said.

They have created a walking trail through the cemetery. The trail is a winding path to the graves throughout the woods. While they have removed a lot of the brush and the trees, Diane Wilcox said they plan to leave many of the trees so that it will keep the unique feel of a cemetery in the woods.

“There isn’t another cemetery like it,” she said.

There are many notable graves, including veterans of the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Bohnstedt and the students have learned much about the veterans buried there and others. One grave with an interesting story behind it isn’t much to look at. It is the final resting place of Noble Richardson, who died in 1943. His grave marker looks like someone took a stick and wrote his name and date of death into concrete.

It piqued Bohnstedt’s interest and he managed to track down Richardon’s 94-year-old daughter. She revealed that Richardson died when he was struck by lightning while working in the cotton field that is still there today right next to the cemetery.

The church was torn down in 1961. Reggie Holleman, 77, attended the church for decades and has several family members buried in the cemetery. He fought for years to save it from development, he said, in a time when laws protecting graves were not as strong.

Among his family members buried there is his grandfather, David Holleman, who was murdered in 1929. David Holleman ran a store nearby on U.S. 41 and two young men came in one day and robbed him. As they were leaving, his grandfather got a gun and went after them and he was shot dead. His killers were caught and sent to prison.

For many years Holleman said he was one of the few people who cared about the cemetery. He is grateful to see the effort being put into it today.

In the 1960s, he said, the cemetery was a popular hangout for students from Warner Robins High School and Northside High School. Holleman said they did considerable destruction to the gravestones, and he remembered coming out with his father to run them off.

“I’m just thinking those kids would likely be in their 60s now, and I would like for some of them to have a conscience enough to come back and help us,” he said.

For more information, go to www.shilohcemetery.info, or on Facebook put Shiloh Cemetery in the search bar to find the page.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.