Gilleland Family Cemetery:
A Preservation Challenge
Recently, a New Jersey resident came Catawba County to visit the last tangible memory of his ancestors. In a neglected cemetery in Sherrills Ford, he discovered the stones memorializing his long-dead family members. Passing behind an electric fence, he was saddened to learn that cows had trampled the grave stones, all of which were laying flat upon the ground. Many had been broken--all had suffered indignities that only cows can inflict. The cemetery had been the resting place for many pioneer members of the Gilleland family who arrived in Catawba County before the Revolutionary War.
The cemetery is currently inaccessable, with no public access, contrary to NC General Statutes (see below). The landowner has expressed no inclination to protect the gravesite, in spite of offers by family members to enclose the cemetery at their expense. Such disregard for our precious past and for the memories of the long-dead is challenge constantly faced historians who lack the resources to protect these historic treasures.
To better understand the historic nature of the cemetery and the men, women and children who lie buried there, a list of the graves stones and their inscriptions are provided here. Of note is the fact that some of these people were born well before the Revolutionary War, during a period when the Catawba Valley was under attack by Indians.
stones were read in 1986 and their incriptions recorded.
Since then, many have disappeared and others have been destroyed.
above cemetery survey was was performed on 23 March 1986
Bray Sherrill, Samuel F. Sherrill and Jan Brown.
The ultimate indignity
This is the cemetery as it currently exists, represented by photos taken by Jeffrey Thomas, descendant of the Gilleland family.
Additional pictures of the
gravestones in this
threatened cemetery may be found here.
As a footnote, Mr. Thomas has attempted to gain the attention of the public by contacting local officials and the newspaper. Thus far, those responsible for enforcing state and local ordinances have been strangely unreceptive. The Hickory Daily Record has been exceptionally helpful in publicizing the plight of this threatened cemetery. A front page report and the follow-up article by the NC State News follows:
Cows overrun cemetery
By KIM GILLILAND
CATAWBA - Jeffery Thomas wants to preserve the graves of his ancestors. They rest in a burial site off the beaten path and inside what is now a cow pasture.
The landowner wants to use his land as he sees fit. Hes raising 200 head of beef cattle and does not want them disturbed.
Can the two sides agree about the property?
It may take the courts to decide this dispute between the graves and the grazers.
For 15 years, Thomas, a registered nurse from New Jersey, has been tracing his genealogy. His search ended in a remote area of southeastern Catawba County.
Thomas visited there recently on his way back from a trip to Georgia. On Aug. 4, with directions from the county librarys genealogist in hand, Thomas drove the twisty rural roads to the plot where his fifth great-grandfather, Thomas Gilleland and his wife, Mary, lie.
What he saw dismayed him. Just 200 feet off Hopewell Church Road is a stand of trees. Cows stood grazing, hunkered in the shade trying to beat the midday heat. The headstones of Thomas beloved ancestry, dating back to 1824, lay on the ground. As Thomas surveyed the scene, his heart sank.
"I actually stood on that cemetery and cried," he said. "I find it frightening that the landowner allowed his cows to take over the cemetery. This is my family history."
Landowner Gary Dellinger bought the property about 15 years ago. His cows freely roam the land.
Dellinger, who owns a pre-cast and rental company in Denver, discovered the cemetery as the land was being cleared. He says he wanted to leave the cemetery intact.
"If I didnt want the graveyard there, I would have pushed it down," Dellinger said.
Thomas thinks the cemetery belongs to his family, not Dellinger. Hes willing to spend the money to clean it up and put a fence around it.
"Its our main objective," he said. "That cemetery is a part of Catawba County history."
Ward Sutton owns a cemetery relocation business in Rocky Mount. He deals with cases like this every day.
Sutton says Dellinger should allow Thomas access to the cemetery.
"He (Dellinger) didnt buy the cemetery, he bought the land up to that," Sutton said. "Those people have rights to that cemetery."
N.C. law seems to agree. General Statute 65-74 requires that "A descendant, with the consent of the public or private landowner, may enter the property of another to discover, restore, maintain or visit a private grave or abandoned cemetery."
Statute 65-75 states that a descendant can petition the clerk of court to allow access to the cemetery.
Dellinger has no problem with allowing a fence around the cemetery. He does have a problem with access to the cemetery. He says he cant leave the gate unlocked all the time.
Dellinger wants to work with Thomas. He just hasnt heard from him.
"If he really cares about his ancestors, and was truly sincere about keeping up the cemetery, he would call me," Dellinger said. "If I have a problem, I go to the source, I dont go to a newspaper."
Thomas says he has tried numerous times to reach Dellinger, but was unsuccessful.
"I honestly didnt know how to reach him," Thomas said. "Im more than willing to work with him, Im not trying to cause him any problem at all.
"I dont want this to go to court. At the same time, hes got an electric fence. What am I supposed to do, jump the cattle gate?"
firstname.lastname@example.org | 322-4510 x5406 or 304-6913
the Catawba County area, voices speak
in support of preservation of the historic cemetery.
Regarding the story in the Aug. 27 paper, "Cows overrun cemetery," I can certainly understand Mr. Thomas's anger and frustration.
Like him, my roots are also in the Catawba-Lincoln-Gaston County area, and I have done my share of searching through cemeteries that have been and still are subjected to abuse and neglect from man and the elements. However, my husband and I have been most fortunate in that we have made it our habit to ask the landowner's permission to visit a particular cemetery and we have always been treated with the utmost courtesy on those occasions.
Mr. Dellinger is quoted as having said, "If I didn't want the graveyard there, I would have pushed it down." I hope he was misquoted and that he most certainly is not of the opinion that he has a right to destroy an irreplaceable piece of history simply because it happens to lie within the confines of his property.
After all, one has only to access the genealogical resources in local libraries to confirm that the Dellingers were instrumental in settling this portion of the Piedmont and that the remains of these dear people, as well as those of my own Bollinger and Hager ancestors, are scattered throughout the region.
I hardly think Mr. Dellinger would want the graves of his kin desecrated by having someone "push it down."
Quite often, the fragile old tombstones contained in these abandoned cemeteries are the only written testimony to a life once lived. The history contained in their inscriptions might be our only link to the past. These places need to be protected, and I do hope that Mr. Thomas and Mr. Dellinger can come to a mutual understanding on this matter.
Today, we spend countless thousands of dollars in our efforts to preserve our history by restoring landmarks and older homes in commemoration of our forefathers, yet we deny many of these simple folks from bygone years the dignity of a final resting place free from the encroachment of man. What is wrong with this picture?
Judith McSwain Rock Hill, S.C.
[Hickory Daily Record, "Your Voice," (editorial page, September 5, 2006]
UPDATE: This cemetery has been saved from destruction. A fence has been erected around it and the broken gravestones will be repaired. A dedication will take place during the summer of 2007. Details to follow.
Clarification of Laws pertaining to cemeteries
in North Carolina, please visit the
North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources web page
PRESERVING CEMETERY DATA
THE NORTH CAROLINA CEMETERY SURVEY
--Derick S. Hartshorn
Member Assn. for Gravestone Studies
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