Rambler Newspapers

Serving Irving, Coppell and Grand Prairie

Irving cemeteries reveal history

**Updated 3-1-18**

Candy Thompson has been fascinated by cemeteries for many years. Though Irving’s cemeteries may not have the ‘glamour’ others around the world are famous for, they have a unique past.

Thompson became interested in cemeteries 20 years ago while visiting Paris with her son, and he wanted to visit the Pere Lachaise Cemetery to see where Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, was buried.

“At that time, I thought he was crazy,” Thompson said. “There was some mystery to Morrison’s death at his young age, so my son was fascinated. When we went, my interest broadened due to the hundreds of famous people who are buried there, such as Oscar Wilde and Chopin. The sculptures of the hundreds of headstones were both mesmerizing and haunting.

“I have always been interested in art and architecture. Some cemeteries are a wealth of each,” Thompson said. “When I tell some people about that interest, they laugh at me and think I am nuts. When I send them some of my pictures, they apologize for not knowing better, and then they tell me they understand what I was talking about.

“Cemeteries are important to history as you can trace, sometimes from headstone to headstone, a line of a family or even a chain of events,” Thompson said. “Today those interested in their own genealogies spend many hours visiting where their families are buried. As to art and architecture, I think some of the world’s finest artists and architects that were unnamed and unknown have worked to design headstones.”

“If Cemeteries Could Talk-What Would They Say,” a discussion panel featuring Councilman Dennis Webb, Gerald Farris, and Gary Westerman, presented by the Friends of the Irving Museums helped answer many of Thompson’s questions about Irving cemeteries. Hosted at the Senter East Building Tuesday, on Jan. 23, the panel spoke about the 12 cemeteries located in Irving: Bear Creek, Shelton’s Bear Creek, Haley, Harrington, Kit, Minter’s Chapel, Oak Grove, Shady Grove, Sowers, Tompkins, and Wild Briar Farm.

“As our society and culture evolves and changes, cemeteries will be reflect that,” Gary Westerman, Funeral director for Brown’s Funeral Home, said. “In the very beginning of this country when we had cowboys and Indians, you came in and plotted your own land. Whenever there was a death, you really just got planted where you were plotted. You basically had family cemeteries. As communities grew and churches came into play, the cemeteries started to establish a relationship to a specific church. Things started changing when metroplexes started to occur. Cemeteries started to become bastardized. They went from being a sacred place to where communities would come together and honor, reflect and remember, to revenue makers for investors.

“Today’s world is something different as the time goes by and particularly in bigger cities, cemeteries are almost thought of as something necessary just like a car or college education,” Westerman said. “When you fast-forward to today, a tombstone or grave maker is reflected as something you have to have, and it’s more of an expensive item than something to have, cherish, and be proud of.

“Cemeteries have a hard time talking to us today,” Westerman said. “It’s interesting whenever you walk through a cemetery, and you can see the major things that happened to those communities during those time periods. You can see and find out that maybe there was a large fire that wiped out many families of homes, or maybe measles, or smallpox. That’s evident by looking at the wording and dates on the grave markers.”

There has been some confusion in a few of the local cemeteries in the past and Webb addressed the issue at the discussion.

“When people talk about Bear Creek Cemetery, they have a tendency to connect Bear Creek that is north by the airport golfcorse, and they think that’s what people are talking about when they talk about Bear Creek,” Webb said. “When people talk about Bear Creek Cemetery, that’s actually not what they are talking about. They are talking about the cemetery sometimes called Bear Creek Black. It’s actually called Shady Oaks.”

The Bear Creek Cemetery is located at Hard Rock Road and Shady Oak Cemetery is located at the corner of Compton and Conflans.

“Unfortunately when you have these two cemeteries, one that is Shady Oaks, and the Bear Creek Shelton Slave Cemetery, there is really no organization in charge of taking care of these cemeteries,” Webb said. “The Bear Creek Shelton Slave Cemetery was used to bury freed slaves. It is one of the greatest jewels the city of Irving has, but they never took the opportunity to mark it like they really should have.

“When you go down Conflans Road, and get on highway 161 going north, before you get on the exit going to Fort Worth, if you look up to the right there is a white fence, and inside the fence is the cemetery. It’s located behind the chateau.

“There’s no access to the cemetery itself. You have to park on the side of the highway, walk up a hill and go through a gate, and you’re in the cemetery,” Webb said. “There were only a couple of legible gravestones originally. We actually created a lot of white crosses and stuck them in the ground where we thought people were buried.”

The land that Bear Creek Cemetery sits on was purchased by a Minnie Shelton in 1897. He brought 80 acres for $130, and donated the land for the cemetery. The land remained in the Shelton family until 1933 when brought by Carr P. Collins. The property was then known as Wild Briar Farm.  

The Bear Creek Community was one of the first African American settlements in the state of Texas. Some of those buried in the Bear Creek Community Cemetery died more than 100 years ago.

“Several years ago, our group decided to go into the cemetery to clean it up,” Webb said. “We were finding pieces of rocks sticking up out of the ground. Those were headstones. Back then the former slaves couldn’t afford to buy them, so they would just take a rock and stick it in the ground to designate where people were buried. We began to realize there were a lot of people buried in there who didn’t have any grave markers.

“Since many of the grave records and diagrams have been lost, whenever they bury someone today, they have to take a long pole and drive it into the ground,” Webb said. “If they hit something hard then they know not to dig there.”

It is believed there are more than 200 graves on the site, but only 12 legible headstones remain. The earliest marked grave belongs to Smith King, a 23-year-old buried in 1895.

More than 260 cemeteries exist in Dallas County. According to current law, no new cemetery can be established in Texas, however, an existing cemetery can be physically enlarged.

In the state of Texas, outside of city limits and under certain conditions, people are allowed to establish a family cemetery, as long as the cemetery is reported to the state. Once it’s established, all heirs must be granted access to it.

The Kit Cemetery is a pioneer cemetery located next to the Oak Grove Cemetery.

In 1963, the Sowers Cemetery received the first historical marker dedicated in Irving. When Irving ISD annexed the Sowers school in 1955, the Sowers Cemetery Association  took over the responsibility for the cemetery.  

“Sometimes cemeteries are the only physical structures that connect us to the past with certain people,” Jerald Farris, a former City Councilman, said. “Their houses and personal objects may be gone, but we still have a gravestone to visit.

“When we were inside Sowers Cemetery, a woman had the chance to talk in the first time in 40 years, because we found part of her grave marker,” Farris said. “A piece of wood was the only marker she had, and that’s the only memory we have of her. We didn’t have names, but we could look at the dates, then look at our list and find out who she was.”

Cemeteries give families a chance to connect with past family members.

“Cemeteries remind us of our heritage,” Westerman said. “As people, we want to understand who we are, where we are going, and where we come from. They give us that foundation of something physical. A lot of time parents will take their small children to cemeteries who may not have known their grandparents or family members, and they will teach their children about them.”