Isaac Washington Hudson Sr. had trouble breathing, which is how he and Amanda and their 11 kids came to settle a desolate coastal community in Florida that would later bear their name. The salt air off the Gulf of Mexico made the Alabama refugee feel better.
Sadly, they hadn't been here long when their 16-year-old daughter Ida Melissa got sick and died in 1878. Hudson went looking for a proper burial site, settling on some higher ground about a mile east of their home.
Fourteen years later, Hudson would join his daughter beneath a few spreading oaks. And as the community grew, the cemetery added headstones with such names as Knowles, Hatcher, Hay. Still, it remained quaint and quiet until the great Florida land rush after World War II and the construction and expansion of U.S. 19. Today the highway is six lanes and speeding motorists barely notice the 2-acre cemetery that is sandwiched between an ABC liquor store and a shopping center.
Jeff Cannon, 30, is vice president of the Hudson Cemetery Preservation Association. He routinely walks the property, picking up trash. A few weeks ago, he read in the paper about a fight at a homeless camp in nearby woods, and it left him shaken. The ex-convict charged with stabbing another man 20 times had exchanged angry words with Cannon just a short time earlier.
Cannon, a descendent of the Knowles family who has earned a reputation over the years for his efforts to chart and clean up historic cemeteries, is fed up with the men who work the intersections and medians for handouts. He hates that he has grown so cynical, but he has little sympathy for these men who get cash and head straight for the ABC.
"Then they use the cemetery for a drinking and meeting place,'' he said. "They leave their garbage, empty beer cans, empty liquor bottles, drug paraphernalia, clothes, blankets, food and other items for the families to clean up.''
Cannon says relatives of those interred are afraid to visit because they might run into the men. These men doze against headstones, he said. "They relieve themselves.''
One day last week, Cannon showed me around the cemetery. As if on cue, a scruffy man in a baseball cap rose from the ground as we walked up to a granite memorial to three Hudson men who died in the two world wars — John O. Hay, Elmer W. Brady and Coree J. Equevilley. He reeked of alcohol, and as he rushed to leave said, "This means a lot to me as a Navy veteran.''
Whether that was true, he left behind six empty Hurricane High Gravity Lager aluminum cans. Cannon dug them out from under a hedge that surrounds the memorial also littered with cigarette butts. "I came in here the other day and filled a 16-ounce cup with cigarette butts,'' he said.
As bad as things seem some days, Cannon said, the cemetery looks "100 percent better'' than it did before the association organized a cleanup day last April. "Last year, the grass was knee high,'' he said.
Maintaining and protecting the cemetery is a challenge, but it pales compared to the more daunting task of getting legal control. Dennis Kingsley, the preservation association president, has been dealing with this issue since retiring from the Army as a first sergeant in 1987.
He said a group called the Hudson Community Club took control of the cemetery in 1957 when it was in disrepair. The club no longer exists, and Kingsley says there is only one burial plat registered with the county. "Of all those the club sold,'' he said, "they didn't register any. It's a mess.''
Kingsley said he is working with an attorney to determine who might legally be able to sign over the property, which still has plenty of room for graves. Until then, it's difficult for the preservation association or anyone else to complain about vagrants or any plans to widen a roadway that might take a portion of the cemetery.
"We have no standing,'' he said.
Kingsley's grandfather was Michael Knowles, who ran a fish house in Hudson. Most of the other Knowleses were spongers who made their way up from the Bahamas. Many are buried in the Hudson Cemetery and Kingsley says he feels an obligation to them.
At 62, he's about to wrap up his second career — a corrections supervisor for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. He'll have some extra time to devote to a historical treasure that time and "progress'' has placed in jeopardy.