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Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Polly Steptoe died in 1907, at age 70. Amelia Lawson, who was born in 1864, left this world at age 60.
Their gravestones are among scores scattered along an easy-to-overlook plot of land along Orange Avenue, tucked between a motel parking lot and the northbound Interstate 581 on-ramp. Right across the street from the Roanoke Civic Center, it’s called Old Lick Cemetery.
Partly sun-drenched and partly hidden by spots of deep shade, the roughly 4-acre cemetery (my eyeball estimate) is owned by First Baptist Church of Gainsboro. Nobody has been buried there for decades.
In that time the inexorable growth of weeds, trees and grass has slowly taken it over. The place is looking a lot better these days, thanks to five local Girl Scouts.
Let’s give a hand to Hannah Stewart, 14; Savannah Lindsley, 13, and MacKenzie Duncan, 15, all of the Bonsack area; Jasmin Wilhelm, 13 of Monterey; and Sami Graham, 13, of the Read Mountain area in Botetourt County.
They are the latest volunteer caretakers of the cemetery, which dates back to the days when our city was known as the town of Big Lick.
Former columnist Shanna Flowers covered much the same story in 2006. Back then, the cleanup effort was waged by volunteers Bob Hale and Garrett Morris and his wife Linda. The problem is, even the staunchest do-gooder efforts come to a close. But trash keeps flying, and trees and weeds don’t stop growing.
“It really is a national problem,” said Darrin Bailey, Hannah’s stepfather. A while back, he read an article about neglected cemeteries across the country in USA Today. “We saw it on a local level right here,” he added.
The eighth- and ninth-graders gave the project more than an ordinary effort. Theirs was a carefully planned, year long commitment toward their Girl Scout Silver Award.
Twice a month on weekends since May 2012, they have gathered litter, cleared brush, picked weeds, cleaned tombstones and prettied the place up with some paint. Each of the girls put in about eight hours a month.
Actually, “we started in April 2012,” said Deidira Stewart, Hannah’s mom. She’s co-leader of Girl Scouts Cadette Troop 138 with Savannah’s mom, Brenda Lindsley. “That’s when we started planning, going down there and evaluating.”
The labor began in May, and each girl would do two four-hour stretches per month. It was not at all haphazard. “We’d have a set plan each time for what we wanted to do,” Stewart told me.
One month, the project was sanding and refinishing three worn wooden benches. On another occasion, the girls used brightly colored paints to craft images of angels, butterflies, birds and flowers on stepping stones.
They restored the lettering on the sign that fronts Orange Avenue and spread weed-killer on multiple occasions to fight the jungle that had overgrown much of the land.
They also procured two truckloads of free mulch and spread it, and persuaded Darrell’s Tree Service to donate some brush-clearing and shredding services.
Some of their work was away from the cemetery.
The girls raised and spent more than $1,000 on the project. Some of it came from the proceeds of Girl Scout Cookie sales. Other money came from a spaghetti dinner fundraiser they put together at Glade Creek Lutheran Church in December.
A large chunk — about $800 — was spent hiring a contractor to repaint the fence along Orange Avenue.
Historians have estimated that at one time, the cemetery contained more than 900 graves. Most of them were moved years ago to Coyner Springs when the construction of 581 claimed some of the land. Roughly 90 tombstones remain, said Clarence Lee, a trustee of First Baptist Church.
He said First Baptist bought the land between 1860 and 1870, about the time the church was erected at the corner of Jefferson Street and Patton Avenue Northwest. The church discontinued using the cemetery about 1930, Lee said.
Friends and family of the girls and members of First Baptist will gather Saturday at 10 a.m. to recognize the girls’ work.
After that, though, the weeds will keep bouncing back. The trees will keep growing. The trash will continue to fly. Who’s going to be next to come along and help keep the place tidy?
That’s unclear — but Lee says the church would be grateful if others stepped forward.
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