Volunteers Maintain Abandoned Cemeteries

Hometown Heroes, People
on October 28, 2001

Imogene Green lost track of how many times her grandmother, Jenny Miliken, told her about that awful day in 1900 when her daughter fell ill as the family’s horse-drawn wagon traveled through Parker County, Texas.

They found a doctor, but 12-year-old Etta Elizabeth died before the doctor could put a name to her illness. The Milikens had to bury her and start their long journey home—leaving their daughter’s grave behind with no one but strangers to care for it.

The image haunted Green for years. “Having to bury her child, then climb into that wagon and ride away,” she says sadly.

The knowledge of where her daughter was buried died with Jenny Miliken. Green wanted to find the grave and care for it, but didn’t know where to look. Then she met Mary Kemp.

Green attended an open house at Kemp’s ranch in Parker County, just a few miles south of Weatherford, Texas (pop. 19,000). “Mary said her passion was abandoned cemeteries,” Green says.

Two days later, Green’s phone rang. It was Kemp calling to say, “I’ve found your little girl.” It was three days short of a century after Etta Miliken died.

An entire association now watches over Green’s aunt.

“It wasn’t easy,” Kemp says. “But I’m so proud of finding little Etta Elizabeth’s grave.” Kemp uses several methods to locate graves, including researching church and county records and working with historical societies. In Etta’s case, she simply figured out where the grave would be.

“The only doctor in the area was Doc Tanner, who lived at the foot of Nebo Mountain. I just looked through the cemetery that was a quarter of a mile as the crow flies from Doc Tanner’s place, and there she was. The grave was clearly marked,’’ Kemp says.

The idea for the Parker County Abandoned Cemetery Association was born when Kemp’s husband, known simply as V., stopped to rest on a rock and realized it was a tombstone in a cemetery neglected and forgotten after the farm closed in 1930.

“I just couldn’t stand the thoughts of it in that shape,” says Kemp, 73. So she gathered a handful of volunteers who went to work. Today, the well-manicured Poor Farm Cemetery is fenced, and marble headstones gleam above graves once marked by rocks.

“We raised money by selling quilts and afghans,” Kemp says. “It wasn’t an association at first, just a few people who wanted to do the right thing.”

Now the group has a charter and a president, and an open house at Kemp’s ranch each spring raises money for their work. The mission is unchanged: to restore and maintain every abandoned cemetery throughout the nearly 900 square miles of the county.

Kemp is called whenever problems arise involving a cemetery. For instance, a rancher out tending his herd found a group of would-be grave robbers digging in a tiny cemetery. He chased them off and called Kemp. The association put a wall around the burial ground and repaired the damage.

“There are four people buried here, a young couple and their two babies,” Kemp says. “They were traveling through Parker County in the 1850s when they died. We don’t know where they were going or what killed them.”

Locals who found the family buried them, the children in the arms of their parents.

A group of law enforcement officers found a gravestone in a barn of stolen goods. The stone bore the name of G.D. Massey, Confederate soldier. Kemp contacted a group that documented Confederate history, and they located Massey’s grave in Louisiana.

“Thanks to her (Mary), we were able to contact the soldier’s family in Louisiana,” says Howard McClurkin of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.

The association has restored about 50 abandoned cemeteries in the county since 1985.

“I wasn’t alone,” Kemp says. “Without all the volunteers, without my husband, none of this would have happened.”

Kemp is a widow now, but she’s still a woman with a mission.

“I’d like to think someday, after I’m gone, people will care enough to look after my final resting place.”