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'Forever' resting place may become a memory

Dallas historian Frances James received a letter and map in 1992 about an "Old Negro Cemetery" south of the Garvin Memorial Cemetery site near Love Field. The graves may be there on what is now private property, she said, "but I cant' get anyone interested' in finding out.

Development and inattention threaten cemetery


By ROY APPLETON / The Dallas Morning News

Grocer and farmer James G. Garvin died three months after dedicating land for a public cemetery in 1897.

James G. Garvin was thinking of the future and the farm families near Bachman Branch in April 1897 when he, his wife Eliza and two neighbors dedicated land for a public cemetery.

"In consideration of our reverence for the dead," the donors wrote in court papers, the country graveyard would be "a place of sepulture for the people ... forever."

Three months later, Mr. Garvin a Dallas grocer, farmer, Democrat and active Church of Christ member joined three of his previous wives, two fellow Confederate Army veterans and other North Texas pioneers in what would become the Garvin Memorial Cemetery north of Dallas.

And there it stands today, beside the rush of Northwest Highway. A place squeezed over the years by development, a lawsuit and city government. Another piece of hallowed ground with a hollow future.

Stones mark the grave
of Capt. Pleasant G. Swor
of the 5th Tennessee Infantry.

Dallas historian Frances James remembers the words of Jesse Swor, a local florist and longtime overseer of the grounds, where five of his family members were laid:

"He said, 'If you ever read my obituary, you had better plan on taking over the cemetery. There's no one else.' "

With Mr. Swor's death in 1987, Mrs. James became the one in spirit and motherly concern as she has at 20 or so other abandoned grave sites in the last 20 years.

"I've just been baby-sitting the cemetery," she said, walking toward the headstones, plaques and state historical marker for a burial ground at least 127 years old.

Mr. Swor drew a map in 1970 showing 70 graves, some unidentified. Stones mark the resting place of Capt. Pleasant G. Swor (1834-1878) of the 5th Tennessee Infantry. But a marker for Pvt. William Robert Swor (1823-1888), Capt. Swor's second cousin, also of the 5th Tennessee, is missing or covered up.

The map recalls other families who helped enliven an area known for farming, the Cochran family's store and chapel and the James A. Smith Masonic Lodge a land now of homes and shopping centers, a short walk to Dallas Love Field and the Dallas North Tollway. Mathis, Mackey, Mayes, Mowat, Morris, Lively, Cox, Sparkman, Halbert, Derr, Davis. And Garvin.

But some names aren't to be found these days amid the thriving Johnson grass and new plantings of sage, crape myrtle, lantana and zinnia. And the Swor map doesn't include a supposed burial ground nearby for blacks.

Mrs. James, a former member of the Dallas County Historical Commission, received a letter and map in 1992 about an "Old Negro Cemetery" south of the Garvin site. The writer said her great-great-grandparents were buried there, as well as "Greens, Turners, Shepards, etc."

But after a search, "I found one thing that may have been a [tomb]stone," Mrs. James said. The graves may be there on what is now private property, she said, "but I can't get anyone interested" in finding out.

At the Garvin cemetery, Dan Dietemann directed the plantings and the laying of a path to the graves earlier this year in pursuit of an Eagle Scout badge. In 1997, the Sons of Confederate Veterans placed stone markers on the graves of the two Swors and Mr. Garvin, a sergeant in the Missouri Infantry.

Scouts and neighbors have handled most of the cemetery's sporadic cleanup since Jesse Swor's death, said Mrs. James, who counts on and appreciates the volunteer labor.

She is still troubled by the missing markers. "Who knows what else is here? You can't see," she said. And she is concerned about what has happened to the cemetery, about the lawsuit that took away more than an acre of its land. And what the place will become.

The site, part of a 640-acre headright granted by the Republic of Texas to settler Wilson Baker, had been a graveyard for "several years" before James Garvin buried his first wife, Catherine, there in 1875, Jesse Swor wrote of the cemetery's first recorded burial.

Mr. Garvin's 1897 court dedication of the land for burials added some authority to the setup, as did a 1955 Dallas court ruling. Owners of the cemetery that year had sued a man for allegedly encroaching on their property. And in ordering the man's removal, a state district judge said the land "is to remain a cemetery at all times hereafter."

But two years later, the Dallas City Council voted to prohibit future burials at the site, which hadn't added a grave in decades. And the cemetery owners kept fighting off invaders, such as the man who fenced a portion of the grounds and sold the land to a garden nursery.

Mr. Swor and others lost that fight, with the judge ruling that the land had "lost its identity as a cemetery."

"Do we want this to happen to our remaining kinsmen and friends buried at Garvin Cemetery?" Mr. Swor asked in a 1985 appeal for help in establishing a fund for perpetual upkeep of the grounds.

Two years later, he was dead. And 11 months later, Dallas attorney Frank Finn was in court saying he wanted to "remove the cloud" on the title to an acre-plus of cemetery land.

Mr. Finn said the land, particularly beyond the graves, was neglected and too often a jungle.

"I mowed it, leveled it, tried to keep a path open," said Mr. Finn, who owned land nearby and said he couldn't find anyone who would claim responsibility for the site. He said he never knew of a Jesse Swor.

Mr. Finn filed suit against the cemetery's last recorded owners and their unknown heirs, saying he had been in "actual, open, notorious, exclusive, hostile and adverse possession" of the property surrounding the tombstones for more than 10 years. Although dedicated for cemetery use, the land beyond those markers had never been a cemetery and couldn't be one by city order, said Mr. Finn, saying he was entitled to all but the 3,584 square feet of graves.

None of the cemetery owners responded to notices filed in a legal trade publication. And their court-appointed attorney agreed with Mr. Finn and the judge that James G. Garvin's "forever" burial ground should be pared.

Mr. Finn had thought the parcel had development potential there along Northwest Highway.

"I thought the land was commercially viable, but it turned out not to be," Mr. Finn said. "Unfortunately, the graves were right in the middle of it."

The cemetery remains a possession of the 1955 owners, Arthur S. Mathis, et al., and their unknown heirs.

Unable to find a buyer for the rest of the land, Mr. Finn last year donated the site to a group called Friends of the Military. The Dallas organization operates as Vet-to-Vet, a group that helps veterans deal with combat injuries.

"It's a natural for a memorial, hence my gift," Mr. Finn said.

James W. Johnson, the Vet-to-Vet founder, said of the land that abuts back yards and an apartment complex: "I don't think we're going to do anything but keep it up."

And that's fine with Mrs. James, "if they'll leave it alone and not dig anything up and keep it clean."

I've just been baby-sitting the cemetery." says Dallas historian Frances James. Scouts and
neighbors have handled most of the cemetery's sporadic cleanup in recent years.

She still doesn't like what's happening to the cemetery one of at least 236 in Dallas County. And she wants to find and protect all the Garvin cemetery graves. Wherever they are.

In time, Mr. Johnson said, the group may erect a memorial to all veterans those who fought before and after Capt. Pleasant G. Swor's Civil War.

As for the cemetery itself, "my intention is upkeep. Period," said Mr. Johnson, an Army combat medic in Vietnam.

But then, "We don't know what's going to happen with the future," he said. "I'm leaving it just the way it is unless my attorney says different."



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