Tree clearing goes awry at Spring Hill Cemetery

BROOKSVILLE — Large block letters say that the person resting peacefully beneath the moss-covered concrete vault in Spring Hill Cemetery is Polly Ann Reese, who died in 2007. Only now, her grave is totally obscured by the crumbling remains of a huge, rotted oak tree.

The oak, which was long dead, was felled by volunteer workers in November and December who agreed to help clear the cemetery of several dozen trees to make way for the installation of security lighting.

The problem, cemetery caretaker Alyce Walker said this week, is that the men didn't do a very good job.

"It didn't turn out the way I hoped it would," said Walker, 82, who has looked after the 3-acre historic, African-American cemetery off Fort Dade Avenue since 1991.

Walker said she had been wanting to install security lighting at the remote site for quite some time in the hope of quelling some of the vandalism, drug activity and illegal dumping that has long plagued the cemetery.

Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative officials told her that they would install and partially pay for lights, but only if trees were cleared from the perimeter.

With no money to pay for a professional tree company, Walker said she opted to turn the task over to three longtime friends, none of whom were professional tree trimmers, who agreed to cut the trees for free. Despite their best efforts, she said, a number of trees fell errantly and caused damage to graves and other structures at the cemetery.

"I'll take the blame for it," said Walker. "(The men) were just trying to help. I took a risk and it turned into a mess. Now, I've got to figure out how to fix it."

Spring Hill Cemetery is populated mostly by modest grave sites, some of which date back to the Civil War, and is the resting place for some of Hernando County's most prominent African-American families. Hidden from view by thick woods, the site has a history as a popular gathering spot for partying teenagers and has long been a target of vandals.

Last June, two teens were charged with stealing a skull from a crypt. Both reached plea deals and were sentenced to 50 hours each of community service at the site.

Walker, a lifelong Brooksville resident, says she does the best she can with limited resources. It costs just $125 to be buried at Spring Hill Cemetery, and with few burials, it's hard to pay for the upkeep.

"I have to skimp and save," Walker said. "Renting the equipment is expensive by itself. When you add in the gas it takes to run a chipper for a day, you're talking about a lot of money."

For that reason, Walker says work on cutting up the downed trees has been slow. Her hope is to find more volunteers, preferably ones with access to some heavy equipment such as a tractors and dump trucks who would be willing to lend a hand in hauling off trees. In fact, Walker says she's praying for it.

"If there's one thing I have lots of, it's hope," she said. "I've got lots of hope."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

Fact facts

How to help

Anyone interested in helping remove the fallen trees at Spring Hill Cemetery should call Alyce Walker at (352) 796-1283.

Tree clearing goes awry at Spring Hill Cemetery 02/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 5, 2010 8:36pm]

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