Front Page - Monday, December 07, 2009
Mount Holly Cemetery, an interactive history book
My interest was piqued after visiting Mount Holly Cemetery for the Tales of the Crypt at the end of October. During the event, I was introduced to nine characters, which is only a fraction of the people interred at Mt. Holly. Since the cemetery is nicknamed “The Westminster Abbey of Arkansas,” I knew there was more to learn about this institution in the middle of town.
Thankfully, I was already acquainted with Kay Tatum, who serves on the Mt. Holly Cemetery Association board of directors. Tatum invited me on a personal tour of the cemetery and promised me I would meet numerous people during our time together.
I arrived at Mt. Holly, located right off of Broadway and less than a block from I-630. A handful of people were visiting gravesites and I spotted Tatum speaking to a small group of visitors in front of a memorial. Although it’s located next to a busy interstate, the cemetery is remarkably serene.
After a few minutes, a smiling Tatum approached me, eager to start our tour. Steve Adams, the sexton for Mount Holly, decided at the last minute to join us and he added extra insight to the history of the cemetery.
“Mt. Holly started in 1843, but it was not the first city cemetery, the first city cemetery was located at 5th and Gaines Street,” Tatum said as we started walking. Prior to 1843, the city of Little Rock was outgrowing the original cemetery and needed more space. “A committee formed with General Albert Pike as the head and they searched for some new land for a cemetery. He found this land, four city blocks and Chester Ashley and Roswell Beebe purchased this land and donated it to the city of Little Rock,” said Tatum.
It’s hard to believe, but the city ended at 10th St. in 1843. So the land that was chosen for the cemetery was actually outside of city limits. It was also one of the highest points in the city, which is probably where the Mount part of the name derived from. But what about the Holly part?
“Holly because of all the native holly that originated here on this plot,” answered Tatum. “We planted several hollies, but there are not any of the original trees left,” added Adams.
When the cemetery opened in May of 1843, people were “anxious to buy plots.” Tatum explained that in January of that year, there were several earthquakes, so people were eager to find a secure place for his or her loved ones to be interred. “They opened with a picnic, just like we do in April every year. Plots sold for $2.50, $3.50 and $5, your $5 plot got you a lot better location and a little bit closer to Jesus,” Tatum said with a smile.
When the new location opened, it was illegal to bury anyone at the old cemetery. Many of the gravestones were moved from the previous location, which Tatum said explained some of the pre-1843 death dates. According to the Mt. Holly informational brochure, the earliest birth date recorded is that of Peter LeFevre, born in Canada in 1750. The first interment was of William Cummins in April 1843.
“We have veterans from the Revolution War to the War of 1812 [buried here]. Including 159 Confederate soldiers and 13 Yankees,” Tatum said. “We have 11 governors, 14 state supreme court justices, four confederate generals, 22 Little Rock mayors, newspaper editors, Pulitzer prize winners, military heroes and a red light district madam — I always like to add that! We like anything scandalous.” Adams added, “Buffalo Bill’s sister is buried here. And I just found out we have three military ladies buried here. We’ve got all kinds.”
The way Tatum presented and talked about the people buried at Mt. Holly brought each one back to life. I had to remind myself that we were talking about authors, governors and soldiers who had died. To say that Tatum is educated and knowledgeable about the cemetery is an understatement. Here are some of the people I met along the tour and what I learned from my tour guides:
Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Churchill – In addition to being a general, Churchill was also governor of Arkansas from 1881 to 1883 and a veteran of three wars including the War with Mexico and the Brooks-Baxter War.
John Gould Fletcher – He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for his book Selected Poems, his wife, Charlie May Simon, wrote children’s books.
Henry Brookin – “Let me introduce you to our fireman,” said Tatum as she lead me over to Brookin’s memorial. “Anytime there was a fire alarm, anywhere in the city, he would go to it, he was a very dedicated fireman. The fire wagon [he was riding on] was going around a corner a little too fast, hit a bump and he fell off and died several days later.”
James Woodson — Mayor of Little Rock from 1895 to 1900. His claim to fame is that when he was 12 years old, he was the drummer boy for the Ninth Arkansas Infantry in the Civil War.
Louis Loughborough — She was a well-known preservationist and part of the ladies association at Mt. Vernon.
We came upon a large plot with many gravestones and memorials. Tatum informed me that it belonged to the Cunningham-Hanger family. The Cunninghams were the first white family that came to Little Rock in 1820. Matthew Cunningham came to town in Feb. of 1820. “He bought 100 acres, which is now downtown Little Rock,” said Tatum. His wife, Eliza, was the first white woman to make Arkansas her permanent home. “I say white, because there was nothing but Quapaw Indians here at that time. The slaves that she brought with her where the first black family,” Tatum added. Their youngest daughter, Matilda was born in 1825, in 1850 she married Peter Hanger, who was a wealthy businessman in Little Rock.
David O. Dodd — Dodd’s story was one of young heroism and an untimely death. Crossing over into Union territory during the war proved to be a fatal mistake. “They found his notebook that had Morse code written inside. They asked him to reveal what it said and he refused,” said Tatum. “David said that he would rather be hanged than betray the confidence of a friend.” He was executed and died at the age of
17 as a spy.
George Watkins — Watkins was a Supreme Court justice. His son, Anderson Watkins is buried nearby. Anderson was the commander for the Eighth Arkansas Infantry. Anderson’s best friend was John Murray, who is buried nearby as well. Both of these gentlemen died in the Battle of Atlanta. Murray was killed the day his nomination for brigadier general was confirmed. He never knew he made the rank, but was honored as a brigadier general.
Unfortunately, space will not allow me to include all the people I met during my two-hour tour of Mt. Holly. I suggest visiting the cemetery and speaking with Tatum or Adams personally. Also, make plans to attend the Tales of the Crypt, which is (usually) held the second Tuesday in October. Furthermore, on the last Sunday of April, Mt. Holly holds its annual picnic to commemorate the opening of Little Rock’s oldest existing cemeteries.