Sometime in 1983 while on my first reporting job after college my then-new friend and newspaper colleague Fletcher Waynick told me about something I thought was pretty interesting. He thought it would make a pretty good story and I agreed. It was my first lesson in “you never know what you might find in the oddest places.” Fletcher was the staff photographer for the Reidsville Review at the time. The story I got out of this was basically about what becomes of abandoned cemeteries. It was published 35 years ago and I lost the clipping probably 30 years ago. So what follows about a trip to the woods in Rockingham County is mostly from memory. Parts of this are from a column I wrote in 1997 for the Daily News in Jacksonville. I haven’t shared the story very often. Here goes …
It was in the woods just like Fletcher said it would be. There wasn’t any doubt about it, not really. Fletcher was never one to just make something up — then or now. But some things you have to see with your very own eyes to believe.
It wasn’t all that easy to get there. Any sign of a path was painted over by advancing forces known as nature. Snarls of grapevine, honeysuckle, kudzu and fallen trees made each step a minor wrestling match. Aging trees reached for the sky like a slew of bank clerks threatened by outlaws in movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“Are you sure where we’re going?” I asked Fletcher. It was a hot day, almost mid-summer and Fletcher’s normally fair complexion had turned the color of a winesap apple. I had a heavy smoking habit back then. I was out of breath in about three minutes.
“Yep,” he said. “It’s not too much further.”
We walked deeper into the woods until we came upon a small clearing, a very small clearing, surrounded by encroaching underbrush. “History book says a church used to be here,” Fletcher said and snapped a photograph. “It should be right around here.”
He was right.
It was on the ground ahead, a handful of gravestones, all toppled. Some were broken into shards with the pieces scattered about.One was cracked in several places but had been pieced back together like some great oversized stone jigsaw puzzle. The church was long gone, just this one-time cemetery remained.
The carving in the large stone was still readable. It was the grave of Martha Martin Douglas. The gravestone revealed that she was the “wife of Stephen Douglas of Illinois.” Yeah, the Stephen Douglas known as “The Little Giant.” The Stephen Douglas who famously debated Abraham Lincoln. Martha Martin, the daughter of a wealthy Rockingham County landowner Col. Robert Martin from the Madison area, was the first wife of Stephen Douglas.
Martha Martin Douglas passed away in 1853, five years before her husband faced Lincoln in a race for the U.S. Senate, the election and debates that made both men famous. The two married in 1847 and the couple moved to first Springfield, Illinois and then Chicago. She died at age 27 shortly after giving birth the the couple’s third child — a daughter who subsequently died as well. According to historical accounts, the deaths left Douglas and two sons “bereft.”
Yet here she was more than 100 years later, her grave marker shattered, forgotten and achingly deserted in a forest off a highway that connects Reidsville and Eden in North Carolina.
Since that day I’ve seen abandoned cemeteries before. My one-time home in the historic coastal town of Swansboro was littered with old graves dating to the Revolutionary War and into the late 1800s Houses were later built on a hill overlooking the White Oak River right on top of those graves. Some homes still had old grave markers in their yards when I lived there. One house burned to the ground a block from my apartment. Graves were found in the basement. Caskets made from cast iron were discovered in two gravesites there — a man and wife — who died just after the Civil War. One man took on the job of finding their now scattered family members and having the graves moved to a more formal cemetery.
All of these stories make me ponder what happens to old gravesites after those buried there are long gone. These signposts of those who came before us treated as if they never existed at all.
I had no answer in 1983 either when I turned to Fletcher and asked, “I wonder if Martha Martin ever thought it would come to this?”
“Probably not,” Fletcher said and snapped another photograph.