Thursday, November 26, 2020

Marco Island Cemetery – A view of the past

 

 

By Clayton H. Lietz

Today we can see the rolling contour of gravesites with trees and flower vases filled with color at the Marco Island Cemetery.

The conservancy volunteered to save this corner, supplied the funds, marked the trees and plants and built a nature walk. Some of the specimens are rare indeed, especially in this part of Florida. So you see history is alive in this corner of Marco!

It is now easier to find the names and markings of the settlers who had such an impact on this island. They stand out clearly against the blue sky.

When the Women’s Club first took an interest in beautifying the historic site, they set money aside in the eventual plan to improve the main road as well as the clean up program. Deltona did provide some help with teams of volunteers. A start was made to clear the jungle.

Since then others with a social conscience have gathered groups to attack the problem. All ages participated in clean up but nature grows faster than man can estimate.

A caretaker system was obvious. Concerned volunteers were also needed. Finally, the cemetery was deeded, a corporation formed to be trustees to the Church of God. Families of early settlers again took interest in the future of this corner of Marco.

The names found on the head stones are reminiscent of past history. To the casual observer they are names of Bays, a County, streets or schools, but to a student of history they denote a roadmap of events.

These names are Marco Island history, yet the events and deeds connected to them are the important facts.

Descendants still live in Goodland, Marco and Naples. Others moved to Fort Myers, Venice and northern communities. Many have called or written to give little details of their grandparents. Stories from long ago color the picture of pioneer days, some sad, others tales of joy and fun. Living on the frontier in a Florida wilderness around the turn of the century must have had hardships and limitations. To these hardy souls we owe so much. Marco today is their legacy.

Cemeteries are not usually on the tourist tour that real estate sales people promote.

 

 

So countless islanders do not know where to look when the grave site is mentioned. However, if one finds the sign, the rest is easy. From there, looking southwest are the sky-reaching high rises – man’s monuments to progress. Nestled among these statues to success and progress are monuments of a different type. Now a monument rises from the rolling ground. A garden to bring beauty to this restful spot, with our flag set high in the southern breezes.

A few acres of soil is the resting place for the early settlers. Much of the history of modern Marco may be told in the lives of several families who have played leading roles in the three centers of population.

The settler’s cemetery is a look at the life and tragedy of pioneer brides, tiny children and courageous seamen. They had to survive isolation, hurricanes, the Depression, two world wars, fires and those pesky insects. Fever and Malaria caused a high rate of infant mortality. Wording on the tombstones attests to this. Early graves had wooden markers. These weathered and faded into the sand. Eventually a crude mixture of sand, gravel and cement proved more durable. Some graves had a small identification marker of metal of plastic, replacing the original, circ 1940 – 1960.

Selection of the burial site was made because of some high ground available. The location was inland and almost half-way between Marco town site and Caxambas. W. D. Collier hauled debris from shell mounds to fortify the sandy soil – thus building the road that cuts thru the cemetery today. This also was the only road serving the mail route. Tommie Barfield drove a grader to help improve this old trail so the mail could get thru in all kinds of weather.

Wiley Dickerson was caretaker for many years, but moved to Bonita Springs. Economic conditions, the Depression, made time almost stand still for this little island community. Some families moved away. The cemetery started to show neglect. In the early 70’s, teenagers or dirt bike cowboys’ turned the grave yard into an obstacle course. Beer cans, trash, mattresses, and old car parts littered the area. Over growth of vegetation partially hid the ugly sores, allowing a secret place to

 

 

have their fun. This hideout was raided constantly by deputy sheriffs. They found broken headstones and garbage, evidence of frequent get togethers.

Two young girls met a tragic death in this historic corner of Marco Island (1972). The spirits of the pioneers must have shuddered at this violence. But this tragedy alerted the small community to the fact that youth had little recreational opportunity or place to gather except among the tall pines and grave stones.

Three Marco mothers approached Frank Mackle for help – to clean up the cemetery and give some land for a youth center. Families visited the burial site and were astonished at the condition. It was described as a jungle with a path. These women belonged to the Marco Island Women’s Club, sure that interested members would get a project in action.

A gravestone in the shape of a heart touched our hearts. It is inscribed “Here Lies Our Heart”; so we doubled our concern to bring immortality to the early settlers of Marco Island.

In 1977, the Women’s Club Community Affairs Committee started the restoration project.

Efforts to get the cemetery declared a Historical Site were rejected.

The Church of God received the deed in 1981. Their church building site was contiguous to the cemetery; most of the early settlers buried there.

A plot plan indicated 94 burials at this time. That’s when Jane Sullivan Hittler and husband put many hours in a plan for a memorial garden. Plans to move the original church to the cemetery grounds were part of the restoration. The conservancy donated time and money to create a nature park on the outside corner of the property. After ten years of work and dreams, dedication arrived, clear and bright. June 14, 1985 was selected because it was Flag Day, a day to remember.

The DAR agreed to furnish the 20 foot flag pole as well as a special flag. The State of Florida Department of Corrections permitted use of inmates of Copeland Stockade for some necessary labor. Their help blended with that of other volunteers to lay sod, complete the walkway and level the contours.

The American Legion Honor Guard from Marco Ministerial Association, Marco Island Women’s Club members, D.A.R. Regent and members, State of Florida Department of Corrections and Marco Island residents rejoiced as this effort became a reality.

 

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