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After over 30 years, tombstone returns to Belle Mina

By Seth Burkett · 340-2355

No one knows exactly where Ed Taylor’s headstone disappeared to for more than 30 years before the 100-pound slab of granite turned up on a roadside in Jefferson County earlier this month.

All police had to go on was:

Ed Taylor

Jan. 18, 1886

Dec. 5, 1969

Besides some scrollwork, that’s all that was on the stone.

It was clear the stone didn’t belong on the side of Pleasant Grove Road, where Sylvan Springs Volunteer Fire Chief William Johnson found it while jogging June 4, but where was the grave it was meant to mark?

Deputy Randy Moormann, property clerk for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, said he’d never before faced quite such a conundrum when it came to returning missing or stolen property.

“This is the weirdest thing ever,” Moormann said. “We found a shotgun in the mud in the river once and returned that, but this has topped that.”

When firefighters brought in the stone, “I made my determination then that I was going to return it to the owner,” Moormann said. “I had no idea it was anything other than Jefferson County.”

Moormann said a call to The Birmingham News revealed that an Ed Taylor had died in Morgan County in December 1969.

Here’s where I come in

The eyes of Sgt. John Bili, chief investigator for the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department, lit up when he saw me in the hallway outside his office Monday.

Media might be able to help with this one, Bili said.

Bili had received a call from Moormann seeking information on Taylor.

Bili said he remained unsure if the Ed Taylor of the tombstone was the same as the one who died in Decatur and whether, even if they were the same, he had been buried anywhere nearby.

He asked if The Decatur Daily kept obituaries on file, and I told him I would be glad to scroll through some microfilm while he looked into other sources.

Back at the office, I threaded a roll of microfilm onto the ancient machine in the library.

The Dec. 8, 1969, edition announced Taylor would be eulogized by Rev. H. Pendleton that Sunday at Jerusalem Primitive Baptist Church in Belle Mina and then laid to rest in Living Water Cemetery in Limestone County.

Dead at 83, Taylor was survived by his wife, son and daughter, as well as 10 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and 23 great-great grandchildren.

Doing some quick math, I realized that even the youngest of those great-great grandchildren would now be at least 37 years old, and I suspected the survivors whose actual names were listed were probably now deceased.

I contacted the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department to see if anyone had reported a tombstone stolen, but Capt. Stanley McNatt said he couldn’t recall any such report.

Figuring an unmarked gravesite in a Taylor family plot could at least reveal where the tombstone should have been, I struck out for Living Water Cemetery.

So far, no one had been able to tell me the graveyard’s location, so I went first to the Jerusalem Primitive Baptist Church, which was closed.

Winford Clark, who runs the Belle Mina Grocery next door to the church, suggested I ask John Henry Long for the graveyard’s whereabouts. Long, he said, had been around forever, knew everything and everyone in the area and had a memory like an elephant.

Over the phone, Long immediately issued directions to the cemetery near Mooresville.

In Long’s vernacular, the roads leading to the cemetery had names like “Little twisty gravel path right off the second bridge on the paved road.”

Repeating the directions for the third or fourth time, Long sounded slightly frustrated, and wanted to know: Why are you looking for the graveyard?

Because I’m looking for Ed Taylor’s grave, I told him.

“You won’t find it,” Long said. “There’s no headstone there.”

It turned out that Long was Taylor’s nephew.

Excitedly, I told Long that I might know where his uncle’s headstone was.

Long and others were sitting on the porch of his home on School House Drive when I arrived and announced that Jefferson County had the stone.

Everyone wondered aloud, what was it doing near Birmingham?

Long said Taylor’s headstone disappeared sometime in the 1970s, before family members even had the chance to see it.

They were never certain the stone had been delivered to the grave, but another stone disappeared from the cemetery about the same time.

Later, church members erected a gate to safeguard the graves, some of which date to the 1700s.

A twist

Meanwhile, Moormann had obtained a copy of the obituary from the Decatur Public Library. On Tuesday, he called Jerusalem Primitive Baptist Church.

Then Bili called Moormann to say he had spoken with Eleanor Taylor, a granddaughter of Ed Taylor, who lives in Decatur.

“We were all looking for the same thing, and it all just so happened that it all came together,” Moormann said.

Later that day, James Franklin of Jerusalem Primitive Baptist Church, who is in Belle Mina only on Tuesdays and Sundays, received the message Moormann left on the church answering machine.

Franklin is only at the church twice a week because he lives in Birmingham, where he works as a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy.

A relative of Taylor’s told me Franklin had passed the stone in the police station without realizing whose it was.

Moormann had never suspected that one of his co-workers could easily have answered all his questions.

Stone slated for return

Bili said Franklin called him Wednesday to say he would bring the stone to Belle Mina on Sunday.

“He said it’s something they (Taylor’s descendants) have always talked about and always wondered who took it. They’re very relieved,” Bili said.

After numerous phone calls and records searches, Moormann said he’s thrilled to see the stone finally heading home.

“How often do you get to return a headstone, especially 37 years later?” he said.

Now, Moormann can back up his saying, “Go to the grave, I’m still going to return your property. Alive or dead, I’m going to find you.”

Taylor’s relatives said they are looking forward to Sunday.

“We’re planning to get the tombstone back and place it on the grave,” said Bonita Collier. “The fireman who found it wants to be here when we do it.”

Collier, 44, said she was only five when her great-grandfather died, but she still remembers him.

“I was told that he was a real big deacon in the church and he didn’t do any cussing. He was just an upright man and helped everybody, and at church they all looked up to him,” she said.

“I’m glad to have it back,” said 75-year-old Eleanor Taylor. “We didn’t know where it was all these years. I was kind of young then, and now I’m in my 70s.”

One question remains:

“What I want to know is how it got down there! That was thirty-something years ago,” Taylor said.

That mystery may never be solved.

“It could have been any number of things,” Moormann said. “I think it had only been out there (on the roadside) for a short while. It has a few scratches, possibly from being slid across the roadway, but I don’t see any moss or dirt or anything to indicate it had been there a long time.”

By now, anyone who knows how the stone disappeared in the first place might have taken that knowledge to their own grave.

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