Local volunteers cleanup forgotten cemetery

Published 7:00 am Saturday, June 29, 2019

Vanessa Mitchell Polk spends her Saturdays burning piles of brush and picking up trash in an effort to make the Spring Branch Cemetery a dignified resting place for the 135 people buried there.

The cemetery has a storied history. Some of the people buried there were previously interred at the Gainesville Cemetery.

That is until the Gainesville Cemetery was relocated when NASA purchased the land that became Stennis Space Center and the surrounding buffer zone, Polk said. That is why many of the deceased were reinterred in the Spring Branch Cemetery, located in the buffer zone. Then, the Spring Branch Missionary Baptist Church was torn down, and the cemetery fell into disrepair, Polk said. 

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When Polk first saw the cemetery, headstones were broken, slabs marking graves had sunken into mud pits, a grill and an old mattress had been abandoned at the entrance and everything was overgrown with pine brush, she said. One of the headstones shows signs of damage possibly from gunshots and cemetery signs have been stolen, Polk said.

Her gut told her that it was wrong to leave the resting place in disrepair, she said.

“My mother tells me, to do this is in my blood, because my grandmother Dorothy Mitchell helped save the Cedar Rose Cemetery when vandals came in and destroyed headstones,”

Polk said.

Cleanup began in November 2018 and involved over 50 volunteers, including Pearl River residents and the Junior Enlisted Association Navy at Stennis Space Center, Polk said.

About 10 Pearl River County residents donated their time to cut down trees in the cemetery, remove grave markers from the dirt, and clean headstones to make them readable, Polk said. Volunteers used metal detectors to locate slabs and headstones. The JEA Navy volunteers lifted a broken obelisk inscribed with names of some of the deceased from the ground and placed it back on its base, Polk said.

“Without their help this would never have happened,” Polk said.

Polk took $3,000 out of her retirement account to rent a mulcher, because the ground was wet and soggy, she said.

“That was the only way I could think of to get the money for it,” Polk said. “I figure I’ve been smoking since I was 12, I probably won’t live to see that money. I figured, put it to good use.”

People have also donated money to order replacement headstones for ones that were broken or damaged, Polk said, and family members have donated flowers to place on the graves.

One hundred graves in the cemetery will remain unmarked, but Polk hopes to create some kind of memorial for them, she said. 

Most of the people buried in Spring Branch Cemetery lived in the 1800s, Polk said, although the newest grave was from 1966. She has taken on this task because she feels the cemetery is important to local history, and may even contain the grave of Gainesville’s founder Ambrose Gaines, although she has not located it yet.

“It’s really special to me because my ancestors are from Gainesville and Logtown and Santa Rosa and Napoleon. I felt like I was honoring them,” Polk said.

The cleanup project will take two years, Polk said, and once all of the brush has been cleared she hopes to create crushed concrete or gravel paths through the cemetery. A volunteer made a wooden cross for the cemetery, and a new sign has been ordered.

There is still a lot of work left to do, Polk said, including burning tree stumps and putting up a fence. When the weather cools in the fall, more volunteers will be needed for additional cleanup and landscaping, Polk said. Polk hopes when the project is complete, Hancock County will take over maintenance for the cemetery, she said.