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Monumental Influence
Tall stones mark graves of key citizens

By Deangelo McDaniel
DAILY Staff Writer

dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com 340-2469

The 20-foot monument among the crumbling tombstones at Rock Springs Cemetery in Mount Hope is easy to explain.

Pond Spring Site Director Melissa Beasley said the monument near the grave of Daniella Wheeler is about 30 feet tall, making it the tallest in the area.
DAILY Photo by Emily Saunders
Pond Spring Site Director Melissa Beasley said the monument near the grave of Daniella Wheeler is about 30 feet tall, making it the tallest in the area.
The community erected it in honor of James Wallace, a business owner who did a great deed for the tiny Lawrence County hamlet more than 135 years ago.

When he died on June 8, 1858, Wallace, a single man born in Greene County, Tenn., left his estate to construct and fund the operation of a school in the community.

He made no provision in his will for his burial or grave marker.

Tall monuments are rare today, but in the late 1800s, and at the beginning of the 20th century, they were common, especially for the wealthy.

Morgan County Archivist Susan Bzdell traces the monument design to Europe, the source of many family surnames in this area.

In Europe, she said, monuments were taller and thinner because of space limitations in cemeteries.

"A lot of old (European) cemeteries have bodies stacked three high and the monuments are taller to get the names of the dead on them," Bzdell said. "But there are some European cemeteries just like the ones in America where the tall monuments represent wealth and influence."

Regardless of the origin, historians agree that about all of the tall monuments in Lawrence, Morgan and Limestone counties stand over the graves of people who shaped local, state and national history.

"The majority of the monoliths tend to be for men of distinction," Bzdell said. "They represent a show of wealth and of importance in the community."

Pond Spring, site of the home of Gen. Joseph Wheeler, is perhaps home to the tallest monument.

That one is about 30 feet tall and stands over the grave of Daniella Ellen Sherrod Wheeler, the general's wife.

"I'm sure it's a show of the family's wealth," Pond Spring Site Director Melissa Beasley said. "The general was probably still alive when it was erected."

Daniella was the daughter of Richard Jones and Lucy Early Jones. She was born Aug. 20, 1841, into one of the wealthiest families in the area.

She married into another family of wealth and after the death of her first husband, she inherited the Pond Spring plantation.

In a 1940s scrapbook, Annie Wheeler called the monument a cenotaph, obviously meaning the family erected the monument to honor her mother and the general.

Joe Wheeler is buried in Arlington National Cemetery under a monument shaped like the one at Pond Spring.

Archivist Phillip Reyer said Limestone County does not have a lot of tall or ornate monuments.

But Limestone is the only area county that has a monument towering over the burial site of a governor.

Governor's gravesite

George S. Houston, the first Democratic governor after Reconstruction, is buried in the city cemetery in Athens. His monument is between 15 feet and 20 feet tall, Reyer said.

Houston defeated Republican David P. Lewis of Lawrence County in the 1874 gubernatorial race.

Although his win brought joy to Limestone County, Houston, who was born in Williamson County, Tenn., on Jan. 17, 1811, may be best remembered for his actions as a U.S. congressman in 1860.

After Abraham Lincoln's election, Houston, who opposed secession, held secret meetings with Northern Democrats in an effort to save the union.

On Feb. 4, 1861, Houston burst into tears on the House floor when Alabama's congressional delegation withdrew from the U.S. House of Representatives.

War of 1812 veteran

The monument honoring Nicholas Davis Sr. is as tall as Houston's, Reyer said.

Davis, a War of 1812 veteran, came to Limestone County in 1817, and represented the county at the first constitutional convention. He made two unsuccessful bids for governor, in 1831 and 1847. His grave is on Nick Davis Road.

"I'm sure the tall monuments in Limestone County represent a sign of prominence," Reyer said.

"These monuments are for people who were larger than life, or at least they thought they were larger than life."

Garth family

Some of the tallest monuments in Morgan County are in the Garth Cemetery in Southwest Decatur near Danville Road.

The cemetery contains the remains of Gen. Jesse Winston Garth and two of his daughters, who married into prominent families.

Garth, considered by most historians to be one of Decatur's founders, was born Oct. 17, 1788, in Albemarle Co., Virginia.

The general was a trustee of the Decatur Land Co., and by 1818, he had patents on more than 1,479 acres in Morgan County. According to the 1850 Morgan County census, he owned 189 slaves, real estate valued at $75,000 and personal property worth $150,000.

Garth was a War of 1812 veteran and opposed secession. After his death on Sept. 8, 1867, a local newspaper wrote that Garth was "a true patriot. He was devoted to the union and was willing to give up his hundreds of slaves to save the union."

Garth's oldest daughter, Susan Elizabeth, married Dr. Francis William Sykes, a slave owner from Lawrence County.

The monument that honors Dr. Sykes and his wife is about 20 feet high and perhaps the tallest in the cemetery.

On the other end of the cemetery is a monument someone erected to the memory of Garth's second daughter, Sarah Dandridge, and her husband, Dr. Charles Fenton Mercer Dancy.

The monument is between 15 and 20 feet high and has the names of the Dancy children on one side.

Sarah Dancy is described on the monument as "a woman of great intellect and culture. Her life was spent in doing good."

Decatur historian Kendall Bass has visited the Garth cemetery several times because of the tall monuments.

Prominent families

"All of the families buried out here were prominent people at one time and owned large tracts of land," Bass said. "The rich people had big fancy monuments and the poor people, if they had anything at all, had small markers."

One of the most difficult monuments to explain in the cemetery marks the burial site of a slave who belonged to Garth's wife.

The monument reads: "To the memory of Charlotte, a faithful slave, a sincere friend. She was born upon the estate of Nathaniel W. Dandridge, Hanover City, Va., and died 5th of April 1859, aged 50 years. Cheerfully, affectionately, faithfully she discharged the various duties of life."

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