WESLEY CHAPEL — In a rural pocket where neighborhoods give way to pastures and palms turn to pines, where the roads narrow and the pavement gives way to limestone lined by cattle fences, some of Pasco County's earliest settlers lie eternally beneath crooked rows of headstones. The names and dates etched into the granite harken to a time when family ties were forged over gator hunts and jars of moonshine.
Michael Boyette stood in the dew-soaked grass on a crisp fall morning and surveyed the cemetery. He wore boots, denim shorts and a gray T-shirt and twisted a pair of work gloves in his hands.
"Well, it looks like Mother Nature has already done some of our work today," he declared, looking at a wreath of dead limbs that had fallen around the trunk of an oak tree.
He was the first to arrive at Holton Cemetery on Saturday. Twice a year — usually in April and October — descendants of the Stanley, Cooper, Boyette, Gillette, McKendree and Helveston families come to tend the graves of their ancestors and share a meal and stories.
A sign at the front of the cemetery, on McKendree Road, gives the lay of this plot of land: "All are descendents of the pioneer families buried here and most are related to one another, often through more than one line."
They come because of family tradition, to honor their ancestors and "because we were raised that way" said Boyette, 58. And because "I promised Grandma after Daddy retired I'd do it, and I'm afraid she'll haunt me if I don't," he said laughing.
Boyette said he used to come out to the cemetery with his grandfather when he was in grade school. His grandfather would mow the grass with a tractor and Boyette trimmed between the headstones with a push mower. He remembers using his imagination to make up stories from the names carved in stone.
There was Malinda Stanley, born in 1892 and died in 1942, whose headstone stands next to six small nameless markers — five daughters and a son. Boyette's boyhood mind cast her as a baby murderer in the stories it spun. In reality, "she was a sweet woman," he said. "She just couldn't seem to carry a baby." Malinda Stanley actually became a midwife after her children's deaths.
Around Holton Cemetery, which overlooks Holton Lake, Boyette pointed out iron crosses placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy marking the graves of Confederate soldiers. The oldest headstone in the cemetery reads "James B. Wilson, 1834-1883, Second Florida Cavalry."
"But you know what?" Boyette said standing over the grave. "He was a damn Yankee."
Then, a pickup truck appeared between the cemetery gates and cut a wide curve around the graves before parking near a wooden shelter at the back of the lot. Gary Cooper, 60, and his four mop-haired boys piled out of the truck, ready for work. They grabbed brooms and a weedwhacker and took to the grave sites.
Eric, 12, and Travis, 14 stood on a marble slab covering a relative whose name they did not know, sweeping grass clippings and pulling weeds from between cracks.
Asked why they came to clean, Travis stopped his sweeping. He squinted his eyes while he thought. "If we're gonna die here, then just make it look good," he said plainly. "Put respect into it."
On the other side of the cemetery, retired Pasco Sheriff's Sgt. Marco Stanley, 58, used a leaf blower to clean the headstones of his father, mother and uncle. The plot belonging to his mother, Lillian, sits empty between her two husbands. She's 92 years old and was at home crocheting.
Stanley's father died when he was a child. His mother then married his great uncle who died in 1976.
"She promised him she'd never change her name," Stanley said with a smirk, "and she didn't."
More family showed up, and the buffet under the shelter grew. Bill Smith, an 86-year-old man with a wise, wobbling voice, took a spot in the shade and passed along his stories.
He talked of times when everyone in town could be seen on Sundays at the First Baptist Church in Wesley Chapel, and "if somebody didn't go to church, they went to inquiring about them," he said.
They knew every gator hole in Pasco and the surrounding counties. He remembers several nights of sculling a john boat along nearby Holton Lake with a headlamp and a 12-gauge shotgun waiting for sets of gator eyes to pop over the water's surface.
He remembers playing with friends in the woods, jumping out from palmetto bushes to scare each other. He later watched an uncle crouching into those same bushes, tending to a hidden moonshine still.
"That was for income," Smith said. "They needed it. Times was tough then."
Joe Ahrens, 61, recalled stories he'd heard about his grandfather, Adolphus Desco Helveston, the district fire chief for Tampa, who ran moonshine from Wesley Chapel into the city by bribing police officers with free samples.
The stories trailed off when relatives were called to supper, a Southern smorgasbord of potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, pulled pork and sweet iced tea. Before they ate, they bowed their heads and prayed.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.