As another Decoration Day nears, some cemetery board members express concern about future support

In 1950, the Corps of Engineers moved 272 graves from the original Friend Cemetery and five smaller cemeteries that would have been inundated by the impounded waters of Bull Shoals Lake to a 1.05-acre site on what is county Road 863 near Isabella. Since then, the Donley family has donated more land for the “New” Friend Cemetery.

Kay Stockton remembers when the annual gathering at Friend Cemetery would attract a big turnout. “Folks would come from all over, and you’d see relatives you hadn’t seen for a year,” she said last week, looking over the cemetery records that became her responsibility when her cousin, Doyle Kelley, retired from the volunteer secretary/treasurer job about five years ago. Now she wonders if anyone at all will join her June 5 at the cemetery pavilion on County Road 863 near Isabella. 

During Friend Cemetery’s annual Decoration Day gathering in previous years, relatives put flowers on the graves of loved ones and shared a time of fellowship over a basket dinner. The Friend Cemetery gathering has always been held the first Sunday in June, Stockton said, a week after the nation officially marks the Memorial Day holiday on the last Monday in May. 

The holiday, first called Decoration Day – and still called that in many areas, including Ozark County – is officially set aside to honor Americans who died in military service during war, but in many parts of the country, it’s also become an unofficial holiday for remembering all deceased loved ones by decorating their graves. Most other Ozark County cemeteries hold their annual gatherings, if they still have them, sometime during the holiday weekend, with notices announcing date and time published in the Times.  

But in recent years, the crowds have gradually thinned at many of these cemetery gatherings, including Friend’s. Instead, area residents often decorate their relatives’ graves in the days leading up to the holiday but don’t attend the official meetings. Or, in some cases, family members are unable to come at all. 

The result isn’t just a dwindling of a longstanding tradition of fellowship and remembrance. It also means that, for some cemeteries, financial support dwindles too. Since the beginning of cemeteries here and in other rural areas, families buried their loved ones free of charge and then donated funds for upkeep. At annual cemetery meetings, it’s common for the person serving as treasurer to be handed checks or cash donations. Or, as Stockton said, “We passed the hat, and people throwed in whatever they wanted to donate.”

Without those meetings, most donations have to be mailed or delivered to the cemetery treasurer, whoever that might be at the time, or deposited in the cemetery’s bank account. Sometimes, relatives don’t make the effort – or aren’t able to.  

Meanwhile, the expense of maintaining the cemeteries seems to continually increase, especially during a grass-growing season like the current one when the price of gasoline for mowers is soaring. As an example, Stockton estimates that Friend Cemetery will spend at least $1,000 this year for mowing. “Plus, there are always other expenses, like if a tree falls and you have to get it cleaned up,” she said. 

In response to the rising expenses and dwindling donations, in recent years several Ozark County cemeteries have started a new “tradition” – charging for some burials, usually those of persons who have no family in the area that might be counted on to donate for future cemetery upkeep. Calls to a handful of Ozark County cemeteries found fees usually in the $300-$350 range.

The Gainesville Cemetery Board was one of the first Ozark County cemeteries to start charging fees for those who have no other family members buried there. Board member Jeff Nash told the Times the fees started after new, unidentified burials appeared in the cemetery several years ago. It was thought that the unknown people in the graves were from outside the county and had been buried there to avoid burial fees that were charged in the areas where they had lived – and died. The Gainesville Cemetery has since then been fenced and gated.

To help raise money for the Friend Cemetery, Theodosia native Doyle Kelley, when he was the Friend Cemetery treasurer, after taking over the job from his father, came up with some innovative fundraisers 30 years ago. With other relatives and cemetery supporters, he and his wife, the former Clarinell “Claire” Henderson, and Doyle’s sister, the late Mosolene Shaw, collected donated items, including quilts, a gun and other appealing gifts, and raffled them at Hootin an Hollarin. 

Doyle and Claire, both Gainesville High School graduates, were living in Wichita, Kansas, at the time, and in 1992, Doyle commissioned artist Carolyn Hendryx, of Ebersole Arts, Crafts & Lapidary there to create a picture of the village of Theodosia, imagining how it might have looked before Bull Shoals Dam was completed and the waters of the Little North Fork of the White River were impounded, covering the town. Hendryx created the “rendition” based on several old photos Doyle provided. 

Springfield resident Sally McAlear, who hopes to include the Old Theodosia image in a collection of her mother’s childhood recollections of Theodosia and Lutie, said recently that everyone knew the picture, created from separate photographs of Old Theodosia’s former structures, wouldn’t look exactly how the village had appeared back then, “but it would be similar.” (A story about Old Theodosia, inspired by the Hendryx “rendition,” is planned for an upcoming edition of the Times.) Doyle had artistic prints made from the picture that he and other cemetery board members sold for prices ranging from $10 to $27.50 each, depending on size. 

Claire and Doyle Kelley are now 85 and live in Lewisburg, Kansas. Claire said in a recent email conversation that she couldn’t remember how many total prints were made but that all of them had sold and, altogether, the fundraising effort generated about $20,000 for the Friend Cemetery. 

For Doyle, and others who support the little cemetery, the work has been an act of respect and honor for their Ozark County pioneer ancestors, perhaps especially for those burial at Friend Cemetery was not their first grave, but their second. 

Friend Cemetery was one of several in this area that were moved when Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes were impounded. In fact, six smaller cemeteries, totaling 272 graves, were relocated by the Corps of Engineers in December 1950 to what is now officially called the “New” Friend Cemetery on County Road 863. The book A Survey of Ozark County Cemeteries, published in 1989 by the Ozark County Genealogical and Historical Society, says the cemetery’s original 1.05 acres “was secured in 1950 through a deed granted by J. J. and Louella Friend to Walter W. Herd and George Stafford, trustees for the incorporated new cemetery.” Since then, the Donley family has donated additional land. 

A 1996 story by Michael Ellis in Ozark Watch magazine said noted that most of the graves were “quite old” so the bodies had disintegrated. (The first recorded burial in the original Friend Cemetery on the Little North Fork was a 6-month-old child, Jennie Coker, who died in 1856.) Except for one grave, all of the disinterred remains were placed in rough pine boxes measuring 18 x 18 x 3 inches. 

The contents of each grave were recorded, with some of them described as “nothing more than ‘dust’ or ‘black dirt,’” Ellis wrote, adding that other grave contents included rings, combs, Masonic emblems, eye glasses, “a watch & fob,” “85 cents in money,” “a .44 cal. cartridge,” and “a badget bearing the words ‘American Detective Association.” 

One of the 272 graves that were moved from land now submerged beneath Bull Shoals Lake was that of Doyle Kelley’s and Kay Stockton’s great-grandfather, Samuel Pellham, who died in 1933 at age 69. His wife, Sarah Ann Duggins Pellham, died at age 83 in 1953, three years after the cemetery was moved. So, unlike her husband, she was only buried once.

Since then, some of the Pellhams’ descendants who have died have been buried in the Friend Cemetery while others have been interred in different cemeteries around the area, including, for Stockton’s relatives, the Lutie, Thornfield and Hicks cemeteries. She also oversees the Welch Cemetery, not because she has relatives there but because “there’s no one left to do it.” 

Those graveyards, like many others in Ozark County, are managed by volunteer board members who share Stockton’s concerns about the future and hope the families of those buried there will continue their support. But it’s a concern, she said, because, “the old ones are gone, and the young ones don’t care.”  

Ozark County Times

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