Set back on a residential street in Temple Terrace, bumping up against Jeff Meier's back yard, is the fenced-in and well-maintained Branch Family Cemetery. Two of its occupants fought in the Civil War.
A few miles away, on Sligh Avenue near 30th Street, motorists whoosh past the forgotten Robles Family Cemetery, seemingly oblivious to the vine-covered enclave with crumbling brick walls and overturned markers.
In Plant City, M.D. Fletcher, 74, takes care of the graves of two strangers in his front yard.
Some of Hillsborough County's long dead lie in out-of-the-way places, or so Chuck Matson has found. He has counted 126 cemeteries in the county, with 86,000 graves. On his website, hillsboroughcountycemeteries.com, he separates them into categories of active, inactive and destroyed, moved or lost.
"I made kind of a hobby out of it, you could say,'' said the Temple Terrace retiree.
He tells of two children at rest by the back steps of a home in east Hillsborough County. Their graves are part of the defunct McDonald family cemetery. Four-year-old Clarence McDonald died in 1899 "from eating too many green bananas,'' according to a notation; his 12-year-old brother, Harrison, died a year earlier after shooting himself in a hunting accident.
Sampson Forrester, born a slave in 1786, lies in Loving Care Cemetery, a still-active graveyard on Bessie Dix Road. According to a Depression-era Federal Writers' Project narrative, Forrester was taken by Seminole Indians as a child, recaptured a few years later and returned to his owner, who sold him to the Army to work as an interpreter and scout. He helped round up Seminoles, who were then shipped west in the "Indian removal'' program. The Army eventually granted him freedom and put him on the payroll. After the military, he settled on land on the east side of Lake Thonotosassa. He died at 102, apparently leaving lots of friends. His funeral procession in 1888 was nearly a mile long, Matson said.
The digger of grave facts includes succinct notes on his website: as to the graves of 16th century Spanish fishermen near modern-day Bayshore Boulevard, "destroyed by development''; at Barnes/Buzbee Cemetery in Riverview, "about 40 graves destroyed for citrus grove''; Port Tampa Cemetery was an "African-American cemetery destroyed for MacDill AFB.''
Matson, 70, disabled with a chronic lung disease, tromped across the county, taking pictures of out-of-the-way graveyards until 2010, when his health declined. Now, volunteers shoot headstone photos for him. Here are a few notable final resting places.
John Carney grave
Chances are Pvt. John Carney never figured he'd be buried alongside a street in suburbia. On an April day in 1856, he was working his fields east of Tampa's Fort Brooke when Seminole Indians attacked and killed him, reportedly shooting him five times. A private in the Florida Mounted Volunteer Militia during the Third Seminole War, Carney "was the one designated to raise food for the troops,'' said Matson.
He was buried on his property. Now, he rests a few feet from tree-shrouded Stearns Road in Bloomingdale, less than a mile east of the junction with Lithia-Pinecrest Road.
The original footstone remains, though a new headstone was placed in 2005 by the Veteran Memorial Museum and Park. Someone stole the original, which is pictured on Matson's site. Its inscription read: "Sacred to the Memory of John Carney, who was born Aug. 23rd 1804 and was cruelly massacred by the Indians April 17th 1856.''
People stop daily at the grave, which is in Roxie Creel's front yard.
"It's just weird finding a grave in the middle of a residential area,'' she said, "so people stop by to look at it.''
Oaks Tabernacle Cemetery
Early last century, the Oaks Tabernacle church was going strong on what is now John Sanchez Road in Plant City. The church eventually was torn down, but the cemetery remained, though the markers on just two graves endured. The property eventually was bought by the Fletcher family, and for decades now, the graves of Mary Iris Dykes (1920-1923) and her grandmother, Myra Lanier Rogers (1862-1925), have been in the family's front yard.
M.D. Fletcher, 74, takes care of the strangers' plots, as his father did. "I do it to honor my father,'' he said. His father adorned the graves with seashells, and Fletcher collected more when he was a kid on family outings to the gulf. "He'd say get the biggest and prettiest ones you can find.''
The graves, in turn, have done a good deed for him. The state wanted to take part of his land when Interstate 4 was being built, but then decided it could not disturb the graves. "Those graves did save our land from being a borrow pit out there.''
Fletcher said occasionally two descendants from Fort Myers stop by to look at the plots. He doesn't know their names. "They're really nice. They let me know they're out there.''
Branch Family Cemetery
Jeff Meier, who lives next to the Branch Family Cemetery on Overlook Drive, said the family comes out and cleans the grounds periodically, and members gather on patriotic holidays, such as Memorial Day, to honor their military veterans, among them veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Matson's site lists 45 graves of a family that settled in the area in the 19th century. John A.D. Branch (1844-1899) was a private in the 9th Florida Infantry during the Civil War. George E. Lightfoot, who died in 1895 and is also buried in the Branch Family Cemetery, served as a private in the 11th Georgia Infantry.
Neighbor James Jenkins grew up in the neighborhood and remembers a barbed-wire fence that once enclosed it. A tall fence with locked gate now secures it.
"Maybe in the '80s, on the Fourth of July, (the family) had a huge thing here. We were all invited, all the neighbors; we all came over,'' Jenkins said. "They had people dressed in Confederate uniforms, they did a 21-gun salute. They fired off muskets. It was just amazing.''
Robles Family Cemetery
Among the saddest cemeteries Matson has seen is the Robles Family Cemetery. Matson counted 22 graves, but it's hard to see where they all are. Vines cover the ground and climb over the tombstones, some upended, and crumbling walls.
The markers for Joseph P. Robles, who joined the Florida Militia during the Civil War and homesteaded 160 acres of land in the area, and his wife, Martha Ann Boyett, are still there. He died in 1951 at age 104; she died in 1936 at age 79. Both bodies eventually were moved to Woodlawn Cemetery.
Another pioneering clan, the Tom Bourquardez family, is well represented in the Robles Family Cemetery. The last person laid to rest there was Jerry G. Robles, who died at age 90 in 1971.
13-Mile Run Cemetery
Among the 19 graves at this defunct cemetery on private property off Livingston Road at Interstate 275 is that of Howard E. Godwin, who was killed in France during World War II. Also in repose there are Jefferson Hair, who was an Army wagoner during World War I, and Allan Scott Denison, who died in 1901, identified as a driver for the Concord Stagecoach Line.
"Those families, especially Godwin, are very old families both in Pasco and Hillsborough,'' said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus, who wrote about the Lutz area in Citrus, Sawmills, Critters & Crackers with her late mother, Elizabeth Riegler MacManus.
Her mother's ashes are in nearby County Line Cemetery, along with the graves of her father, brother and scores of other relatives. It was established in 1877.
"What was true of those cemeteries, they were sort of family things. Even County Line, you can't get in there unless you have a lineage back to a few families.''
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.