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County seeking to move graves at industrial site

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Uncovering the past will take on a literal meaning in the next few weeks if the state Department of Historic Resources approves Henry County's application for a permit to relocate 25 graves.

The county asked for the permit to "archaeologically remove and relocate approximately 25 burials located near Price in Henry County," according to a public notice.

The permit is expected to be approved within the next two weeks, according to Henry County Administrator Benny Summerlin. The remains are located on a portion of land known as the ROMA property in Ridgeway, he said.

The county recently bought the more than 620-acre site to develop an industrial park near the state line.

Relocation of the remains is necessary because the cemetery is "located among the best portion of the land. They are just some really old graves from back in the 1800s," Summerlin said.

"Most of the stones in the cemetery are unmarked," he added. Legible dates are visible on only one stone, Summerlin said.

"One of the markers has 1897 etched onto it and additional markings that are not clear," Summerlin said. The remainder "are simple, rectangular stones with very little detail on them."�

Only one name was legible, Summerlin said. He did not recall the first name but said the surname is Payne.

A majority of the stones that were used to mark the grave sites are so time- and weather-worn that they now look "just like rocks," Summerlin said.

The county hired Circa-Cultural Resource Management LLC., a Williamsburg firm, to undertake the excavation, Summerlin said.

Dawn Frost, an architectural historian with the excavation company, said a public notice is published for 30 days to allow for public comment before excavation begins.

Any information local residents provide, such as the names of those buried there, would be helpful to the excavation team, she said.

"We're in that public notice phase now," Frost said.

County officials made an effort to locate possible family members by conducting a deed search that reached back to 1880, Summerlin said.

The outcome of that search was hindered by the fact that the various tracts of land "have been reconfigured numerous times over the past 200 years" into the current tract, Summerlin said.

"We haven't been able to identify any heirs" as a result of the deed search, he said.

Excavation will follow the comment period, likely beginning within a month, Frost said.

Remains recovered from the site will be transported to the Smithsonian Institution, where they will be examined to determine race, gender "and any other information they can provide," Frost said.

Remains will then be re-interred in one of two other cemeteries adjacent to the ROMA property, Frost and Summerlin said.

The entire project is expected to be completed within 30 days after it begins, Summerlin said. However, no cost estimate for the project is available due to the variables involved, such as the condition of remains.

Summerlin said he did not know if other artifacts will be found.

"There is probably not much there," due to burial practices at the time, he said.

Information supplied by Pat Ross, director of the Bassett Historical Center, indicates a number of events immediately followed a death during that period.

Initially, a bell was tolled to announce a death in the community, and a neighbor was contacted to build a wooden casket, she said.

Many people said the bell rang once for each year of age, according to information Ross provided.

While a neighbor or family member helped make the casket, the body was most often prepared at home, Ross said, and after preparation, the body was "laid in state" in the living or family room, where it was viewed by family, friends and neighbors.

"There was a big dinner for everyone," Ross said. The following day, the body was most often buried in a family cemetery.


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