There were no haunts, ghosts or goblins out on Saturday as about a dozen souls toured Bartow’s Oak Hill Cemetery in search of history and to view the final resting place of some of its heroes and founding fathers.
The Polk County History Center’s Civil War Veterans Cemetery Tour on Saturday was hosted by Polk Historic Preservation Manager Myrtice Young, History Center Curator Maria Trippe and History Center Curator of Education and Programming Shelly Drummond.
Trippe kicked off the 90-minute tour with a brief history of Gen. Evander McIver Law, the senior Confederate soldier buried at the cemetery on West Parker Street in Bartow. Trippe showed the cemetery tourists some Law artifacts including a book about the Civil War battle at Gettysburg containing terse margin written notes in Law’s own hand. The display case also contained photos of Law in his CSA uniform and a portrait of his wife Jane, who is buried with him in Oak Hill.
Trippe explained that Law established the South Florida Military Institute in Bartow in 1893, fashioning the military academy after his alma mater, the Citadel, and played a major role in other Bartow educational facilities established during his lifetime in Bartow. One of those was Summerlin Institute, founded by his fellow Bartow founding father and Confederate Army veteran Jacob Summerlin.
Following Trippe’s briefing, the tour group divided into those who opted to walk the few blocks from the History Center at Broadway and Main west to the cemetery on West Parker Street to be joined by those who drove the short distance to avoid the heat.
At the cemetery, Drummond took on the docent role and guided the group from grave site to grave site, pointing out the differences in burial traditions evident in both the tombstones and the manner in which graves were maintained. She explained that the earliest graves in the Oak Hill Cemetery were maintained without grass or planting as was the custom of the days the burial ground was established in 1848.
“Back then,” Drummond explained, “graves were kept clear of vegetation and plants as a sign of respect. That continued until the 1850s when what we think of as traditional cemeteries surfaced with monuments and plantings. You’ll also see more symbolism in the grave markers starting at about that time.”
She pointed out Masonic markings on some tombstones along with lambs depicted on some markers, especially those of children. “The lamb was popular, particularly on children’s graves,” she said.
Drummond also pointed out the more modern stones that continue to decorate most cemeteries today. “You will see larger monuments and headstones,” she said. “And the appearance of grassy lawns. “ She added that early cemeteries like Oak Hill usually had the headstones facing east, traditionally so “the dead can face the rising sun.”
One of the highlights of the tour was the family plot occupied by Jacob Summerlin, once a Cracker Cowboy who supplied cattle to the Confederacy during the Civil War. “Summerlin,” said Drummond, “also donated the land to the county on which the Old Polk County Courthouse and now the History Center stands.”
Summerlin’s grave is surrounded by his descendants, but is still maintained “in the old fashioned way, with no grass,” she added.
The old cemetery, while small compared to many, contains graves of dozens of Bartow notables including Streaty Parker, who also was a member of the “Cow Cavalry” who supplied beef to Confederate forces during the Civil War.
“Parker was also one of the city of Bartow’s first city councilmen,” Drummond added.
While most of the military graves, many marked with an iron CSA cross planted by the Daughters of the Confederacy, were former Confederate soldiers, there are two graves of Union Army soldiers too, Drummond said.
The tour will be repeated the first Saturday of every month from now until November. The group meets at the History Center at 11 a.m. Those taking the tour are cautioned that the cemetery grounds are uneven so appropriate footwear should be worn.