DADE CITY — Vicki Brandel takes a routine trip to Williams Cemetery in Dade City when visiting the graves of her father, grandparents and several uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews.
The trip is anything but routine when she visits her great-grandmother’s grave.
It requires trespassing on private property, stepping through a barbed wire fence and then finding the cedar tree that family history says marks close to the spot.
Her great-grandmother Lina Jane Bryan Gaskin was among Pasco County’s pioneering residents buried in Prospect Cemetery, located off the 34100 block of Prospect Road in Dade City.
The cemetery disappeared in the 1980s. Some bodies were supposedly moved. But Brandel says others, like her ancestor, remain in the ground.
Today, the cemetery is part of an undeveloped 80 acre parcel owned by Price Realty LLC.
“I’ve kept quiet for too long,” Brandel said. “I’m done keeping quiet. There is a cemetery out there. It is time that we honor it and mark it again.”
Pasco historian Jeff Cannon says he has evidence.
He visited the cemetery site in 2006, jabbed a stake into the ground and hit something concrete a few inches below the earth.
With a shovel, Cannon carefully uncovered the type of concrete slab used to cover and mark a grave. He says it was the gravesite of Eugenia Osburn Howell and the slab matches a description given by her descendants. He photographed the slab and then covered it with dirt again.
“What more do you need to see?” Cannon said of the photograph.
But Howell has a marked burial plot in Williams Cemetery, where those interred in Prospect Cemetery were supposed to have been moved.
That is a symbolic marker that provides family a place to visit, Cannon said.
Using the front and back, the marker there honors eight of the family’s earliest Pasco ancestors, beginning with David Osburn, who died in 1877 and helped establish Prospect Cemetery. Others mentioned include David Osburn’s “grandchildren at Prospect Cemetery.”
“Whoever put that marker there wanted us to know the kids are still at Prospect Cemetery,” Cannon said.
Those grandchildren are Howell’s children and, according to Cannon, are buried alongside her at the erased Prospect Cemetery.
Cannon shared with the Tampa Bay Times a letter sent to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office on June 24, 1986, from Howell’s descendent William Eugene Jones. It tells the history of Prospect Cemetery from its birth through erasure.
The Times could not locate a member of the Jones or Howell families.
Cannon obtained a copy of the correspondence a few years ago from the Pioneer Florida Museum & Village’s archives, when he was head of the now defunct Pasco County Preservation Society.
“My great, great uncle David Osburn gave this land for a church and cemetery,” the letter reads. “The property was given to the Methodist Church South on April 28, 1888.”
A copy of a deed provided to the Times by Cannon reflects that history. Cannon said Prospect Church was built on the land with an accompanying cemetery.
Still buried there as of 1986, according to the letter, were ancestors Early Osburn, who is also listed on that Williams Cemetery headstone, Howell, who was Jones’ grandmother, and two of her children.
“My great-uncle and great-grandfather had made a brick and cement vault over my grandmother’s grave and then cemented a few bricks together as a marker for the deceased,” the letter says. His grandmother had six bricks and the two children each had four.
Howell’s 1925 death certificate does not cite a cemetery. The church shuttered in the mid-1940s, according to Cannon, but the cemetery remained. Those with family buried there took care of the maintenance, says the letter.
Jones visited the property in 1957, according to his letter, “and found the cemetery in good condition.” Some bodies were moved to Williams Cemetery in the early 1960s, but Early Osburn, Howell and her children were not.
Price Realty purchased the land in 1985 from the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, according to the deed available through the Pasco County Clerk of Court’s website.
When Jones visited the cemetery on June 4, 1986, he wrote, the bricks marking his grandmother’s grave had caved into the concrete slab, leaving an open hole.
“Look at my picture of her grave,” Cannon said. “The slab has a hole at its head. My picture verifies what is written in the letter.”
Jones was “very shocked and appalled at the sight of the cemetery,” he wrote. “I would like to see a historical marker” placed at the cemetery “and keep the property as a sacred resting place.”
The Pasco County Attorney’s Office replied to Jones on July 14, 1986. Cannon has that letter, too. It says that Pasco County “is presently working” to preserve its cemeteries.
“Nothing was done,” Cannon said.
Then, 10 years ago, he provided the Pasco County Planning and Development Department with enough evidence of Prospect Cemetery’s existence that they marked it as being on Price Realty’s parcel.
The Times left three voicemails for Price Realty, emailed them once and left a note on their office doorstep. They did not respond.
Cannon and Brandel met in 2005 through their shared interest in finding Prospect Cemetery.
Her family Bible, dating to the 1800s, says her great grandmother died in 1892. The Bible also includes a lock of her great-grandmother’s hair.
According to family oral history, Brandel said, her ancestor was was buried near a cedar tree at the edge of the cemetery. Howell and her children were buried next to her.
Cannon found the tree and then Howell’s grave.
It is possible that Howell and her children were moved after the letter was sent in 1986, Cannon said, but he thinks that process would have destroyed the century-old concrete slab.
“It is still in the same place,” he said.
Bradel is certain her ancestor is there.
“Don’t touch her,” Bradel said. “She has been there for over 150 years. Leave her alone. Instead, remove that barbed wire.”
There are no pending plans for that land to be developed, according to an email from the Planning and Development Department.
All known burials at Prospect Cemetery were white people, Cannon said, so it falls outside the jurisdiction of the state’s Abandoned African American Cemeteries Task Force, which formed earlier this year to protect erased and endangered Black cemeteries.
Cannon’s work to mark it as a cemetery with the county means that acre of land must be surveyed for graves before development is allowed.
Patricia Toole lives on the property abutting the cemetery acre. She said people “occasionally” ask if they can park on her property while they climb through the barbed wire to visit a grave.
Two months ago, Toole said, she noticed trucks pulling sleds on the property owned by Price Realty.
She showed the Times a photograph she took. The sleds look like ground penetrating radar.
“I asked what they were doing, and they said looking for graves,” Toole said. “I asked if they found anything. They said they did.”