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Tumbled stonework marks the entrance to the Garth Cemetery off Danville Road in Decatur.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Tumbled stonework marks the entrance to the Garth Cemetery off Danville Road in Decatur.

Overgrown cemetery may be Decatur's hidden treasure
'Lost' graveyard seen as tourist draw

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com 340-2469

Decatur has a tourism treasure less than 100 yards from a public street.

But it might as well be in another country because there are no tourism pamphlets promoting it and access is almost impossible.

The Garth Cemetery in Southwest Decatur near Danville Road is one of the oldest in the city and where Gen. Jesse Winston Garth, one of Decatur's founding fathers, is buried.

"I'll bet you most people in Decatur are like me," said Harold D. Lott, 65. "I have lived here all my life, and I have never seen it. I've heard about it, and I want to see it, but I'm afraid of the snakes."

The cemetery is part of a 20-acre tract held in trust by Garth descendants, according to the Morgan County revenue commissioner's office.

Tax records show access through a private driveway off Danville Road. You can drive to within about 50 yards of the cemetery, then you have to walk through a snake-infested thicket.

"This is sad," Lott said. "This is a big part of our city's history, and we need to protect it."

Although he has never seen the cemetery, Mayor Don Kyle agrees. But, as long as the cemetery is private property, the City Council can't spend public funds to maintain it.

If the family is willing to donate the property to the city, Kyle said, he sees no reason the council wouldn't accept it, especially because of its historical significance.

"If we're going to accept it and spend public money, we should make it accessible to the public, especially the local history buffs," the mayor said.

Phil Wirey, an environmental engineer at 3M, researched and published an extensive report on the Garth Cemetery and the people buried there.

"When you think about historic places in Decatur, this cemetery is in the top three," he said. "It would be great to restore this because it is definitely a Decatur asset and would be a huge tourist attraction."

Melinda Dunn, who manages the Old State Bank building, said she regularly gets visitors asking about old cemeteries.

She hesitates to tell them about Garth Cemetery because she knows it's overgrown and not easily accessible.

"It's difficult to promote something that's not accessible," Dunn said. "We get early cemetery buffs who come in here all the time because they like looking at early markers."

Dunn has even had Garth descendants inquire about the cemetery.

"They are eager to visit it," she said.

The reason the cemetery is so valuable to Decatur is clear, Wirey said.

Garth, Isaac Lane, McKinney Holderness, George Peck and Dr. Henry Rhodes were the first directors of Decatur Land Co., which laid out the city's streets.

Unlike the others, Garth remained in the area and built one of the largest plantations in Morgan County.

"George Peck died in 1826 and is buried here, but it was Jesse Garth who had the biggest impact on Decatur," Wiery said.

Born to Thomas Garth and Susan Durrett Garth on Oct. 17, 1788, in Albermarle County, Va., Garth left Virginia after losing an election in 1817.

By July 1818, Garth had recorded almost 1,500 acres in Morgan County. An 1837 survey map shows Garth's home is the only structure within miles of Decatur. The 1850 Morgan County census shows him owning 189 slaves, $150,000 in personal property and real estate valued at $75,000.

A veteran of the War of 1812, where he received the rank of general, Garth opposed secession.

Wiery said Garth spent time at Monticello and Thomas Jefferson may have influenced his opinion on secession.

"They had fought for and were loyal to the Union," Wiery said.

Garth was too old to serve in the Union or Confederate armies, but two nephews from Lawrence County fought for the Confederacy.

A Mason who also served in the state legislature, Garth died Sept. 8, 1867. His plantation house was gone by 1880. Garth's second home, called Cotton Gardens, was submerged when Wheeler Dam was constructed in the 1930s.

The last burial in the family cemetery occurred in 1932 when Garth's granddaughter, Unity D. Dancy, died.

A stone wall surrounds the cemetery, which has burials dating to the 1840s. An iron fence is atop the wall. In addition, a locked, eight-foot, chain-link fence surrounds the stone wall.

Morgan County Archivist John Allison is preparing paperwork to get the cemetery listed on the Alabama Historical Commission Cemetery Registry.

"Having it on the registry means there is an official record," he said. "This cemetery is too valuable to our local history to let go."

One of the most difficult monuments to explain in the cemetery marks the burial site of a slave who belonged to Garth's wife.

The monument reads: "To the memory of Charlotte, a faithful slave, a sincere friend. She was born upon the estate of Nathaniel W. Dandridge, Hanover City, Va., and died 5th of April 1859, aged 50 years. Cheerfully, affectionately, faithfully she discharged the various duties of life."

Wiery, who has researched several cemeteries in the area, said it is the earliest marked grave of a slave he has found.

"This is another reason why the cemetery needs to be cleaned and preserved," he said. "This would be great for everybody in Decatur if the city owned and maintained it."

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