Bill Floyd's passion for preserving the past has earned him an unusual nickname: Cemetery Man. "Somebody will call ever once in a while, and they want to know if this is where the Cemetery Man lives," says Floyd's wife, Joyce. Floyd gets calls and emails from as far away as Australia from folks hoping he can help them locate the missing pieces of their genealogical puzzles. And because he has documented information from thousands of tombstones in countless cemeteries in western North Carolina, he is often able to do just that. years with BellSouth. "So, I immediately started copying [the information] using a clipboard writing down the names and dates, and then coming home and putting them in the computer." After visiting a few more cemeteries, he decided to streamline the process: He purchased a word processor, built himself a portable typing table, and began typing at each grave site.
Interestingly, before giving way to higher technology, Floyd's trusty clipboard helped him make a discovery that would serve him well for many years to come. One sweltering July day, he was reading a anyone interested in trying this, Floyd advises that the stone must always be in the shade "even if you have to stand between it and the sun to make a shadow? and it's best to hold the mirror so that the sun is reflected at a flat angle.)
Shortly after embarking on his cemetery project, Floyd adopted a daily routine: He would rise early, grab some breakfast, and head out for the day. Sometimes he packed a sandwich and drink to take; other times he counted on making it back to his and Joyce's Forest City home. The idea to collect and organize the names and dates etched into gravestones, and make them available to others via a website, occurred to Floyd one day in 1995 when he was standing in a Rutherford County cemetery researching his wife's ancestry. He realized that no one had worked to assemble cemetery data in this part of the state since 1939 when the Works Projects Administration did so. "I decided right then I could do that for Rutherford County," says Floyd, who had just retired after 44
black, slate-looking stone with numbers and letters etched into it in the form of small, half-moon cuts. He had the entire stone read, with the exception of one date, which he just couldn't make out, no matter how hard he tried. Then it just happened that the sun reflected off the chrome clip on his clipboard across the date in question, "and it just jumped out, like black and white," Floyd says.
From that day on, he's used the small mirrors many times when trying to decipher hard-to-read stones. (For
for lunch. Often, the names he collected during his morning cemetery visits prompted him to go to the county courthouse for the afternoon, where he would research censuses, deeds, birth and death certificates, and other public documentation. Then he would sit down at his computer and input to his website. "There was just days after days of that," says 72-year-old Floyd. "Sometimes I would go six, days a week.."
"I was a cemetery widow," Joyce recalls with a laugh.
For several years, Floyd followed this daily routine, and he almost always did so alone. Joyce confesses that she had no desire to spend her days crisscrossing the county from one cemetery to another, nor, apparently, did the couple's Boston terrier, Bob, who accompanied Floyd just once.
Fortunately, even in the most rural of cemeteries, Floyd never found himself in harm's way, which he interprets as a sign that he was meant to do this work. "I've never been in a cemetery and had any kind of a run-in with anybody," he says. Plus, he continues, "I've found numerous yellow jacket nests, but they were always visible before I got into them. Never seen a snake not ever even seen one, not even a black snake."
In addition to collecting and organizing information from all of the cemeteries he could find in Rutherford County, Floyd also documented almost all of those in neighboring Cleveland County. He then covered some, although not nearly all, in Gaston, Lincoln, Burke, McDowell, Polk, and Henderson counties, plus some in South Carolina. His goal was to document as many cemeteries as possible in the area he says once made up old Tryon County, but physical limitations forced him to slow down considerably before reaching this goal. "Some of them old stones, you got to get down right close to them to see what you got," he says, "but my knees won't let me get up and down like I used to."
Although Floyd doesn't rule out the possibility of visiting a few more cemeteries himself, he would love to see someone else embrace his project and move it forward. He and Joyce have two sons, Duane and Kelly, and two daughters-in-law, Kim and Christie, but none of his family shares his enthusiasm for preserving this genealogical information. Over the years, a few folks have expressed a desire to become involved, but they've gotten burned out pretty quickly and understandably so. "You have to get interested in it, or it's drudgery," he admits.
For Floyd, this project has been anything but drudgery. In fact, every time he entered a cemetery, it became a treasure hunt of sorts. "One of the best things was looking for that next new name," he says. "It didn't start out that way, but every time I was in [a cemetery], I'd find a different first name or a different way to spell it. And, I got to looking for that new name."
Years of admiring other people's unique names helped Floyd finally come to appreciate his own. He never minded his first name (which is actually William), nor his last, but his middle name Dacus was another matter. "I used to hate it as a kid growing up, but I wouldn't take nothing for it now," he says.
Compiling and sharing
The information Floyd has gathered over the past decade has enabled him to create a website that has proved invaluable to people across the United States and beyond when tracing their western North Carolina roots. The site consists of more than 1,200 pages, Floyd says, and while he may not be physically able to scout out many new cemeteries to post on it, he is, nevertheless, updating the site constantly. One project he has been working on for more than a year involves taking the 1850 Rutherford . County census and the related cemetery and marriage records, and running the genealogy forward on many of those people until about 1910.
The files for Floyd's website have been backed up on CDs, which are available for sale through the Genealogical Society of Old Tryon County. Floyd is not a member of the society, nor does he benefit from the sale of the CDs. His reasons for making the CDs available were twofold: He saw it as a way to help the society raise funds for its work, and it was a way for him to ensure that the information from his website will be available long after he is gone. Generosity and foresight are two of the hallmarks of Floyd's character.
He is constantly looking ahead and thinking about what can be done to preserve various aspects of the past, and he never hesitates to act on his ideas. "When he thinks of it, he does it," says Joyce.
A perfect example: The only known surviving editions of the Rutherford County weekly newspaper The Sun (from 1926 through 1929) are bound in oversized books. When it occurred to Floyd that these old papers would eventually suffer irreparable damage from people looking back through them, he decided he could protect the fragile pages by taking digital photos of them. He brought the books home and spent untold hours on his deck, painstakingly photographing each page and compiling a set of four CDs. Again, he presented the CDs to the Genealogical Society of Old Tryon County to sell.
Floyd has even worked to preserve the present, which is his way of helping future generations have access to the past. Riding around Rutherford County, he found himself wondering, "What would I give to see what this area, or any area of the country, looked like 200 years ago?" The question set the wheels in motion for another project, and Floyd was soon riding around with a digital movie camera mounted on a tripod' and pointed out his windshield. He has already traversed all of the main roads in Rutherford County, shooting video of the scenery and providing commentary. Years from now, he believes the images (filling more than 50 DVDs) will be of interest to anyone who lives in this area. Preserving the past (and the present) is a never-ending job but it's a job the Cemetery Man gladly takes on each day.
[This article appeared in the magazine OUR STATE-Down Home in North Carolina (Vol. 73, No. 10, March 2006) . It was written by Kathy Grant Westbrook who writes from her home in Four Oaks, NC.
[ Subscription information to OUR STATE may be obtained from www.ourstate.com ]
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