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Resting place of city fathers, Civil War vets and a hermit is neglected

ST. PETERSBURG

It's easy to miss, this expanse of neglect partly hidden behind brick walls. Here lies the man who developed Bayboro Harbor. St. Petersburg's first mayor. The inventor of the first practical automatic telephone system. And on these grounds too, where oaks and red cedars drip Spanish moss, is an ancestor of Albert Whitted. Greenwood Cemetery, on the edge of Historic Roser Park, is the final resting place of St. Petersburg pioneers, other notables and veterans of the Civil War.

But to walk through Greenwood is to sense a place forgotten. Weeds are knee-high in places, and burrs prick and cling. Signs warn of collapsed burial sites, and fallen branches dot the landscape. Evidence of visitors can be seen in discarded snack wrappers, a beer can or two, and a rare sprig of long-faded plastic flowers.

"I have never seen it look so bad. It breaks my heart," said Shirley O'Sullivan, walking through the grounds recently. She is a descendant of C.A. Harvey, the real estate investor who developed and named Bayboro Harbor.

O'Sullivan had last visited on Father's Day and, as is her custom, scattered a handful of shells on the headstone of her father, Daniel James Sullivan III, the first St. Petersburg tennis player to be nationally ranked and a legendary tennis pro. He is buried in the Harvey family plot.

Other Harvey descendants include Harvey Ford, a lawyer and the husband of mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford. O'Sullivan said she and the Fords have been involved in past efforts to clean up the cemetery at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and 11th Avenue.

The current condition distresses Eric Sweat, who rents an apartment across from the 4.1-acre cemetery.

"I remember coming here as a kid just to walk and look at the graves and look at the dates," said Sweat, adding that until about a year ago, the grounds were being maintained.

Greenwood dates back to 1892 and is said to be the city's oldest cemetery that is not affiliated with a church. It was established by Henry Peter Bussey, owner of the city's first funeral home. As secretary-treasurer of the Greenwood Cemetery Association, P.V. Cunningham raised money for an endowment to keep up the property and was its administrator until his death in 1973. The responsibility fell to Frank Ryll, but money has always been scarce.

In an interview a decade before his death in 2002, Ryll spoke of the difficulty of getting relatives of those buried at Greenwood to assist, "because, frankly, there just aren't that many of them around anymore."

In a 2002 book about the cemetery, the Pinellas Genealogy Society summed up the state of the property: "Sadly, Greenwood Cemetery has fallen victim to senseless vandalism and neglect over the years: many headstones have been destroyed, stolen, toppled and lost beneath the soil."

Its future, the society said then, was in the hands of lawyer Marian McGrath, who newspaper articles said was president of the cemetery's board of directors. McGrath did not return recent calls or an email request for an interview.

Community efforts to take care of the cemetery — where Scouts on a cleanup mission discovered voodoo dolls several years ago — have been sporadic.

Kai Warren of the Historic Roser Park Neighborhood Association said the neighborhood and MLK (9th Street) Business District worked together to clean up the grounds about a year ago.

"I would like to get it designated as a historic landmark," said Warren, who is on the board of St. Petersburg Preservation. "I think eventually we might be able to get some grants to help fix up some of the headstones and maybe some extra money for basic maintenance. We're hopeful that the city would take some responsibility, too."

Will Michaels, author of The Making of St. Petersburg and a former executive director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History, also is concerned about the site.

"It is a kind of city treasure in terms of the people who are there and their lives," he said. "There are so many people there who were connected with the guiding and making of St. Petersburg … It's not just a cemetery. It is a monument in itself."

Over the years, Greenwood Cemetery, with its Civil War memorials honoring both Union and Confederate veterans, has garnered attention as the burial place of Silas Dent, the "hermit of Cabbage Key," and Lt. Almon Brown Strowger, inventor of the automatic telephone switch that made the dial telephone possible.

Then there was Beulah Acklin. Her husband built a 15-square-foot mausoleum for her. Inside, he added wallpaper, pictures, her favorite figurines and plants. He even installed a telephone and a neon sign with Beulah's name in 6-inch letters, welcomed visitors to the cozy nook and let them look inside his wife's casket. He eventually remarried. Beulah's remains were taken by relatives and interred elsewhere.

Phil Graham, landscape architect of the Dalí Museum, has ancestors at Greenwood. One is Clarence Warren Graham, who died in 1904. He retired to St. Petersburg at age 38, having already made his fortune.

Graham has helped with cemetery cleanups. "It would be nice if there was some sort of an annual or biannual effort, or some sort of a little fund to help keep it up better," he said.

Walter H. Askew, who died in 2001, is among the few recent burials. His widow, Mary Askew, who lives in Largo, had been familiar with the problems at Greenwood.

"Around the time that Walter was buried, it was much better than it had been," she said.

The historic cemetery meant a lot to her husband, whose grandfather, John Wesley Askew, an early city sewer supervisor, was buried there in 1915, she said. "It is where I expect to be buried myself."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Resting place of city fathers, Civil War vets and a hermit is neglected 07/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 1:55pm]
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