Saturday, January 15, 2011

Cemeteries for Christmas

A decaying house we passed on our cemetery trip. Seemed to fit the theme, and I love the colors.

Okay, this should be the last in my series on mid-winter procrastination. For those who are NOT fans of cemeteries, we'll be returning to regularly scheduled house & garden programming shortly (coming soon: You too can mass-produce monster trellises!).

Somehow or other, neither of our families ended up celebrating Christmas on Christmas this year, so we were at loose ends. We love having major holiday meals at Chinese restaurants--it feels so transgressive to forgo the turkey and have dan-dan noodles instead--so we did dinner at T&S Seafood on N. Lamar in Austin. (And, I might add, they amply repaid our trust in them, proffering up a rapture-inducing Christmas dinner of salt and pepper shrimp, calamari, and combination seafood on flat rice noodles. Ooooh so yummy.) And to work up an appetite, we hit a bunch of tiny local cemeteries in the bitter, freezing cold.

We saw:
Manda Methodist
Kimbro Community
New Sweden
Rose Hill
Kimbro Family (sort of)

Manda Methodist was the first scheduled stop on our tour. It pretty well gives the flavor of a lot of the cemeteries on our stop--lots of flat farmland, not a lot of trees. I've never been to Iowa or Kansas, but I imagine they look much like this.

The sparse little Manda cemetery in the foreground; siloes in the background. This is the resting place of "Mother" B. Bengtson, 1835-1899.

Based on this tombstone alone, these folks have had a good 180 or so years to plant some trees (nothing fancy--some nice tough cottonwoods or cedars or even hackberries would soften things up nicely)--but they evidently like their cemeteries open and clean and flat.

Is this a Swedish thing, I wonder? Because we're in the Swedish hinterlands of the Austin area, settled by Germans, Bohemians, and most of all, Swedes. The area is now thinly populated, and to an outsider like me, its Swedish heritage is pretty well obliterated, outside of cemeteries. There aren't any Swedish restaurants, for example, nor have I heard of any big Swedish festivals, or any Swedish language communities (unlike Castroville, for example, with its Alsatian architecture and food, or Cestohowa/Panna Maria, with its dwindling community of elderly Silesian speakers). The Swedes just left behind tombstones, street names, and one old church. (If I'm mistaken about this, I'd love to be corrected. How awesome would a Texas-country-Swedish cafe be?)

To be fair to Manda, there are a few trees toward the back, by the hay bales. But it's mostly just open and windswept. And there's plenty of room for new additions, which is rather sad. Families like the one above and especially the mighty Forsdahls made arrangements for whole clans of descendants to be buried together; but the their family compounds are mostly empty. They must have died out or moved away. Or perhaps they're just exceptionally long-lived and the descendants haven't had to make use of their family plots yet. But that's not how it feels. It feels well-tended but sterile--a relic of fruitless dreams and plans from a nearly forgotten era. It feels like the kids moved off to Austin or Dallas or San Antonio and married there and had children there and are now buried near their own nuclear families.

After much misdirection and confusion, we also eventually found the Kimbro Community cemetery, which, with its single cedar, manages to be even flatter and bleaker than Manda.

It does, however, have recent interments, which is nice. And someone regularly changes some of the silk flowers (but not all, which is interesting. What did the deceased do to deserve this final revenge on the part of the flower distributor?) Also, there's a view of the picturesque New Sweden church from this cemetery. Can you see a tiny pointy thing more or less in the middle of the horizon? That's it!

The spare and tidy Kimbro Community cemetery. Home to many a Swenson and Jacobson, including Christina & Ola Swenson, born in Malmo, Sweden, in the old century.

Next we visited the much more extensive New Sweden cemetery, where, to my delight, we found tombstones in Swedish, like the one below, which I cannot decipher, beyond "Har hv... J Edwin Sanderstrom..."

Or this interestingly austere marker. I like to think that it says "Here lies an impassioned bibliophile," but I imagine the book is meant more as a religious symbol than as a testament to S. August Anderson's love of the written word.

New Sweden was the only place that had those awesome old ceramic photographs inset into the headstones--and only one at that.

Mr. Stenholm, New Sweden cemetery:
"Although he sleeps, / His memory doth live, / And cheering comfort / To his mourners give;[sic] / He followed virtue as his truest guide; / Lived as a Christian -- / As a Christian died"
Thanks to our recent research, I've asked Matt to make sure that nothing on my tombstone rhymes. I love these old black-and-white photos, though.

While searching for the elusive Kimbro Family cemetery (in somebody's sorghum field on FM 1660--we could only glimpse it from afar), we stumbled on the Saul cemetery, which is distinctive for its love of fancy ironwork, its pleasant woody backdrop along Brushy Creek, and the slaves purported to be buried there in unmarked graves.

I'm not exactly clear on what purpose these gates serve, but they certainly are interestingly... complicated. I asked Matt if we should erect some of these around us when we croak--y'know, to keep out the riff-raff--but he said "No."

We also found--deep in the back end of beyond--Rose Hill cemetery, unnervingly located down this scary path marked by a crooked sign and bare tree.

Rose Hill appears to have been a German settlement, and someone appears to be in the process of restoring it. Broken tombstones, like the one below, are marked.

While other stones appear to have been neatly patched back together with cement.

And all the graves here rated fresh silk flowers. All this effort is very touching and romantic--what a nice thing to do, prolonging the frail relicts of the dead and preserving a link to history.

But the best find of the day was Shiller. We stumbled upon it by accident--I don't think it even has a historical marker. It's weedy and overgrown and full of trees, which is exactly how we like our cemeteries.

It's like Where's Waldo for little Pugsley and Wednesday Addams--can you spot the cemetery?

It appears to be full of Czechs, as most of the tombstones are in Czech. This one, for the baby Josef, says "Zde. odpciva v panu zesnuly. Josef. Vincenc. Syn. F. a M. RIPL. Mar 2o cervna, 1895 Zemr 14 cervna, 1895."

It was a gorgeously blue there, despite the cold, and the trees and rolling pale gold pastures made a much more picturesque setting for this cemetery than most of the others.

Like so many of these early settlements, this one seems to have lost a disproportionate number of infants and small children, and there are many of these in this cemetery, their markers rising out of the dead weeds in an appropriately plaintive fashion.


Anonymous said...

If the Shiller cemetery is your kind, you two need to visit the St. Mary's Colony cemetery. From Goat Creek go back toward FM 812 and Cedar Creek. It's the first road on the left. Road winds it's way back to an old African American church (abandoned) with the cemetery across the "road" from the church. Church sits under a water tower. We found it 2years ago, all weedy, knocked over and broken stones, etc. Pretty secluded. As we left a bobcat was standing in the road checking us out and making sure we were leaving (I guess)


Bob said...

Reading this brought back so many memories. I roamed all those places when I was growing up and knew so many people out that way. My Aunt and Uncle were married in the New Sweden church. Back then it had electricity supplied by an old Wincharger generator. [think wind mill but for electricity] As the preacher gave a sermon the lights were constantly dimming and brightening. The Modeens lived right down the road from the church and I was friends with them and worked for them as a kid. The Swedes were good, hard working people but were not well thought of by the other ethnic peoples of the area. I have no idea why. An older colored man once told me "Even us colored people don't want our kids going to school with Swedes".

There was a small colored church down at the end of a gravel road with a cemetary in the back. I'm not sure I could find it now. Our neighbor, Mr. Monroe, got married the second time there. He already had eleven kids and his first wife died in her forties. [can't imagine why] He invited all of us to the wedding. When all the food was put out, they insisted that we go first. It made me feel really uncomfortable. Until that day I had never thought about Mr. Monroe being colored, he was just Mr. Monroe. He out lived most of his kids and they are all buried in that cemetary.

You've made me want to go drive around there again. If I do I'll send you an email and try to stop by. I need to see Mr. Poldrack as well.

Elgin_house said...

Thank you for sharing, Bob! I love the detail about the lights dimming & brightening. I'd never even heard of a Wincharger before.

I also had no idea that Swedes used to be looked down upon--how strange. I guess that might explain why the local Swedish culture doesn't seem to have left a very strong mark on the culture of the area.

Next time you're in the area, please do let us know! You can visit with Bob & Lyn Fish, and we can show you the pond (though it's looking kind of seedy at the moment. If there's a way to make a pond pretty in winter, I haven't yet found it.) But we'd love to have you anyway :-)

Anonymous said...

I looked up Mr. Stenholm.and this seems to be a match.-"J. A. STENHOLM. When Johan Stenholm passed away, one of the early Swedish pioneers in Texas left this world. He holds a place of honor, because he was there in the very beginning of Swedish settlement. The strong, tall man, a head taller than most others, will long be remembered because for what he meant to both New Sweden colony-community and church. He was born in Stengärdshult, Småland, in 1848. He came to New York and later went to Chicago, Illinois. He later came to Galveston, and from there to Manor, in 1871. He worked for the railroad in Texas for sometime and then started farming. He bought land in New Sweden in 1880, one mile from the church, and lived on his own farm during the rest of his life. He and his family belonged to the Swedish Lutheran Church in New Sweden from its founding. He served as a deacon for nine years, and for seventeen years as a trustee. He was there when they bought the land for the church and when the church and parsonage were built. In June 1913, he and Pastor Alfred Scott made a journey to Chicago, Illinois, where he consulted a doctor. On June 21, he died peacefully at the Augustana Hospital, and his pastor brought his remains back
to New Sweden. On Midsummer’s Day, Stenholm came back to his dear home for the last time, and the following day, he was laid to rest in the New Sweden cemetery.
He is survived by his wife, Mathilda Maria Stenholm, born Gylfe. She was born in Forserum, Småland, in 1849. Her father, Magnus Gylfe, was a shoemaker. She came to America and Manor, Texas, in 1872 and married John Stenholm in 1873. Like most immigrants, her passage had been arranged in Sweden, and she must therefore work when she came here to pay for her passage. She was her husband’s support in the best meaning of this word. The large group of children, who were brought up in this home are proof of what kind of home this was and is. After Mr. Stenholm’s death, Mrs. Stenholm has had a beautiful home built for herself and her son, John, near the old homestead. Here she spends her days in peace and quiet in the evening of her life. She still takes an active part in the work of the church, and the mission, and cares for her family as the tender mother she is.
The Stenholms had these children: Carl, born in 1874, August, 1875, Anna, 1877, Oscar, 1880, Christina, 1882, Walter, 1884, Mary, 1886, Helga, 1888, John, 1889, Bella, 1891, and Andrew, 1892."

Anonymous said...

Sorry regarding the last comment . The site about John Stenholm has a different tombstone pictured.

Elgin_house said...

No worries, Stenholm-Anonymous. I'm charmed and delighted to know other folks are interested in this stuff!

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