Old Rapides Cemetery: A "Hidden Treasure"

PINEVILLE, LA (AP) — Rapides Cemetery is "too great a treasure to keep hidden any longer."

         So says Bobby Hynson, a board member of the Historical Association of Central Louisiana and one of the organizers of an effort to clean up and preserve the historic burial ground in Pineville.

         "There's so many stories there," Hynson said. "When you think about the famous people, the politicians, just the ordinary folks buried there, plus the scoundrels and the scalawags, we can come up with a list of characters that's second to none."

         The cemetery is the final resting place of a who's who of Rapides Parish history, dating back more than 200 years. Within its gates, you'll find families familiar from street signs and place names across the area — Ball, Bush, Bringhurst, Deville, Foisy, Hill, Marye, Overton, Thornton and Turner.

         Like many old cemeteries, though, it's fighting a battle with age.

         As time passes, these cemeteries often lose constituencies with a vested interest in paying and working for upkeep. Graves are swallowed by the ground, obscured by vegetation or covered by fungi.

         To combat that, HACL and partners, including the City of Pineville, formed the Historic Rapides Cemetery Preservation Society.

         "Throughout the history of the cemetery, associations developed to care for it, then quickly fell by the wayside," Hynson said. "We certainly hope this project lasts longer."

         The group meets on the second and fifth Saturdays of each month from 8:00 a.m. to noon, weather permitting. They clear brush, trim or remove trees and branches that threaten to fall on grave stones and use a biological solution to clean markers.

         They are working on a comprehensive plan to uncover as many grave sites and map as much of the cemetery as they can, since many of the oldest graves are unmarked.

         "It's so rewarding when you can see the inscriptions and some of the art on the gravestones once you remove the black," Hynson said.

         Stakeholders have a model for how a cemetery can be a strong part of a town's identity and serve as an attraction for history buffs in American Cemetery in Natchitoches.

         Though Rapides Cemetery is not as old as American Cemetery, which is considered the oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase, graves dating back as far as 1803 have been discovered.

         Among the people buried in Rapides Cemetery are Alexander Fulton, the founder of Alexandria; George Mason Graham, known as the "Father of LSU" for his efforts to help found the forerunner to that university; Pierre Baillio, the builder of Kent Plantation House; Judge Henry Boyce, for whom the town of Boyce is named; and James Madison Wells, the controversial governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction.

         "To have something tangible as a reference and a touchstone is the only way to stay connected to the past," said local historian Fr. Chad Partain. "It's so much more difficult to hold on to an understanding of what went before when we lose that. That's why it's so important that we pay attention to that seven acres on the Pineville side of the river."

         Soldiers in the cemetery date back to America's oldest wars.

         "It contains the graves of veterans from every single American conflict from the Revolution all the way through Vietnam," Partain said. "To walk through that cemetery, to see the graves and read the names is the only connection we have to their service and sacrifice."




         Volunteers meet the second and fifth Saturday's of each month to help clean up Rapides Cemetery, located at 201 Hatti St. in Pineville. All are welcome to help.

         The Historic Rapides Cemetery is holding a photo contest as the first of planned annual preservation projects.

         Photographers 16 years and older can enter their photos of the cemetery in four categories — creative, black and white, essence of the cemetery and most endangered.

         The entry deadline is March 6. Winners will be announced April 10. In addition to prizes, top photographs will be displayed at Pineville City Hall and used for preservation purposes for the cemetery, including in a planned book.

         – by AP/ Reporter Jeff Matthews with The Town Talk

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