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Volunteers clean up Camden Cemetery to preserve local history

By Clare McCarthy
March 25, 2017 at 11:56 p.m.

Above: Camden Cemetery cleanup volunteers Marlena Jackson, left, Brian Page and Thomas Scott Jr. work Saturday to cut and clear small trees and brush growing around the grave markers in Easton. Below:  The Camden Cemetery dates back to the 1800s and had fallen into disrepair.

A group of volunteers met Saturday near Easton to clean up a cemetery dating back to the 1800s and that has fallen into disrepair.

Jeanne Collins, board member of the Gregg County Historical Commission and chairwoman of the commission's Cemetery Preservation Committee, organized the cleanup in hopes of preserving history and learning about the people buried there.

"It's important for the whole historical preservation of our society that we maintain cemeteries," Collins said. "It's history; it's the state of Texas. These represent the genealogy of people that used to live in this area."

Camden Cemetery is tucked away in the woods near Easton, where the former community of Camden, otherwise known as Walling's Ferry, used to be.

According to local legend, Camden was one of the earliest communities in Gregg County and grew around a crossing of the Sabine River — John Walling's Ferry. Steamboats could navigate up the Sabine River to Camden in the 1850s, but the community went into a decline after the Civil War. By the late 1860s, much of the town's populace had fled.

But the Camden Cemetery still remains.

"Nature is probably the biggest enemy of cemeteries," Collins said. "The weeds and the vines grow up; trees fall on them. When they're in the shade, moss grows on them, and then the letters on the stones get deteriorated."

Collins partnered with Alanna Richardson, a former minister at Prayerful Temple in Longview, to find volunteers to help clean up the cemetery.

The two worked together in October to clear brush and weeds from another East Texas cemetery that was in disrepair.

Richardson said it is important to clean up older cemeteries because there is a lot of history hidden in them.

"In order to preserve history, I think we should clean it up, make it look as nice as we can," Richardson said. "These were somebody's families someday, and I know if they could have, they would have kept their family's gravesite as clean as possible."

Community members, church-goers and members of the local Rhoer's Club (with the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority) joined Saturday to help. Collins said she expected about 20 people to come between 10 a.m. and noon.

Volunteer Shelia Williams said she came along with her daughter Tia to help make a difference in the community.

Tia is a member of the Rhoer's Club and was invited by Richardson to participate in the cleanup.

"A lot of the young kids these days don't know about the history from generations ago," Williams said. "So, we are here to clean up and get the names on the stones and maybe research the names and find the history on them."

Williams wasn't the only volunteer interested in the names on the gravestones.

Archie Rison, member of the Historical Cemetery Society of Texas, came from his home in Dallas to help with the Camden Cemetery.

"It doesn't matter what cemetery it is, the history needs to be told," Rison said. "It's just so important. We can't just leave these people here, because they are a part of the Texas history, whether they be black or white or brown."

Rison said he is from Nacogdoches and has a true passion for finding old cemeteries and the history behind them.

He said it was through the cleaning up of a cemetery in Nacogdoches that he found ancestors of his grandparents' slave owners and was able to participate in an archaeological dig at the slave owner's homestead.

"My calling is to do whatever I can do to help restore these old cemeteries," Rison said. "It's a must, because this part of history must be told."

Collins said anyone with information about cemeteries in Gregg County that are in disrepair should call her at 903-238-7200.

She said it is important to officially recognize the existence of older cemeteries so they will not be destroyed or damaged by development.

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