THESE TIMES: Stories beyond the headstones
As Van Morrison says, “It’s a marvelous night for a moon dance, with the stars up above in your eyes.”
Don Price, cemetery sexton, has been giving these monthly tours of the Orlando cemetery since 2004. The event started as a thank-you to volunteers who pitched in to clean up the cemetery after four hurricanes pounded the state in a six-week period. He said they were asking if the people buried in Greenwood were the same ones whose names grace the streets of downtown Orlando — names such as Bumby, Gore and Robinson.
He invited me recently to walk around a graveyard in the dark, and although I’m not afraid of ghosts or the walking dead, I was a little hesitant to say yes. He does a fantastic job, though, of keeping things light by sharing witty epitaphs and throwing out lots of puns.
He also really knows his Orlando history, having worked in the cemetery’s archives for 28 years. Throughout the two-hour, one-and-one-half-mile walk, he casually tells the stories — no script here. He points out which of President Thomas Jefferson’s grandchildren is buried there and who lies at the highest point in Orlando. He explains the city’s connection to Shakespeare and how the term “magic” came here long before the professional basketball team or Disney theme parks.
Participants can see the final resting place of July Perry (a prosperous black Ocoee businessman who was killed in a 1920 race riot that broke out after he attempted to vote), find out which part of the cemetery has the headstones turned the wrong way, learn why there are multiple cemetery entrances and discover which member of the Pounds family lies there.
Price, who lives in Winter Garden, shares interesting facts about the cemetery’s notable resident, such as dairyman T.G. Lee, Mayor Bob Carr, embalmer and undertaker Carey Hand, Principal William R. Boone, pharmacist Maynard Evans and hardware store owner Joseph Bumby.
One of the most fascinating stories is the one surrounding the mausoleum of Fred S. Weeks, a northerner who bought land locally around 1905 but discovered it was swampy and worthless. The angered man erected a headstone at the entrance to the cemetery (which was also a public park) and carved the names of the swindlers (who also happened to be attorneys), along with a Bible quote that mentions thieves. Not liking the negative publicity, they returned his money, and the headstone was removed; however, Weeks bought 15 cemetery plots and built a mausoleum — and again included the Bible quote and the attorneys’ names. (These names were later removed.)
Up paths and down hills we trekked, covering roughly 20 of the cemetery’s 120 acres.
The next tours are at 8 p.m. May 1 and June 5. Price suggests you register early: These tickets are a hot commodity and go fast. In the meantime, check out his tweets of not-too-well-known history facts about Orlando on Twitter: @orlandocemetery.
When you do score a ticket, take some cash. The tour is free, but the cemetery selects one charity to speak for a few minutes and collect donations.
A couple bucks, some history, a little exercise and fresh air — not a bad way to spend a Friday night.