Georgia group aims to restore forgotten cemeteries

By Savannah King The Times | 4/15/2014, 6:11 p.m.

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (AP) - A temporary, handwritten sign marks the site of the small cemetery. It reads "New Bethel Church, Strickland Cemetery.''

The final word has already faded though the sign was erected only a few months prior. The sign was placed there by the Restoration and Preservation Mission, a Gainesville-based organization that focuses on restoring abandoned or neglected African-American cemeteries.

"You couldn't tell there was anything there just walking through the woods unless you stumbled on a headstone, literally,'' said Dave Bahr, executive secretary to the president of the Sugar Hill Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I was actually surprised. When I saw this cemetery, I was surprised it was so grown up. You didn't see any big trees but in the next 20 years you would have seen trees start to grow up in the middle of it.''

Utility crews stumbled upon the cemetery and notified city officials.

James Brooks, a member of the mission, said Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann told him about the cemetery after it was discovered and he investigated.

Mission members and youth volunteers from the Sugar Hill Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cleared the overgrown cemetery on Strickland Drive in Gainesville one afternoon in December. But the forgotten cemetery has revealed a mystery, leaving the volunteers with few clues and more questions.

Fewer than 10 headstones from the 1920s to the 1950s are marked graves, and property records indicate the owner is the defunct New Bethel Church. The church is thought to have been located next door.

A few of the graves are marked with stone monuments. The more recent, marked graves belong to members of the Welchel and Quillan families.

One of the most recent of the marked graves belongs to Dr. E. Welchel, who was born in 1883 and died in 1953.

"He was a dentist, a black dentist in the local community,'' Brooks said. "I think he was reared over in that area there before they built the lake. There were blacks who had farm land that's now under the lake. And that's right near the edge of where the lake is now.''

Mission member Anderson Flen said a few of the gravestones appear fairly new and expensive, indicating a level of permanency in the forgotten cemetery.

"But there again, who were these people? It's such a mystery around there,'' he said. "It's a story we're trying to uncover that we just haven't gotten a complete handle on.''

Volunteers placed dozens of red and white flags to designate other possible gravesites, several indicated by sunken ground.

Brooks said community volunteers are helping to research the genealogy and will try to contact any surviving relatives.

Noah Johnson, a member of the Think Initiative aimed at encouraging boys toward success, was tasked with researching the cemetery.

The 16-year-old said he researched the names inscribed on the tombstones through local records at the library and through online services such as Ancestry.com. But he had little luck.