Chestnut Cemetery among state's finest

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Apalachicola’s Chestnut Cemetery has a collection of some of the finest hand-carved headstones in the state, worthy of preservation and presentation.

In an April talk as part of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society’s speaker series, Margo Stringfield, an expert from Pensacola’s University of West Florida on the state’s historic cemeteries, engaged the audience at the Raney House’s Carriage House on the exquisite aspects of Chestnut Cemetery.

“It has one of the most specimens in the state of Florida” of carved coquina-based sandstone and marble headstones, said Stringfield, who together with Sharon Thompson is at work on a book about Florida’s historic cemeteries.

In wonderful detail, aided by a slide presentation, Stringfield recounted how the “stylistic consistency” of the lettering can be studied to trace the likely carvers of the soft stones, whose livelihoods were succeeded by the appearance of the harder granite, and the advent of machining methods.

Elihu Purvis, from Pensacola, was among those who worked on such stones, which were shipped over from Europe, often to New Orleans, or the big cities of the Atlantic seaboard, where they were carved according to the dictates of wealthy Apalachicola families. “Many of them came down the river,” she said.

The years 1820 to 1859 marked the golden age of hand carving, in which artisans offered everything from winged cherubs to crocodiles to lilies to provide an insight into the life of the deceased, often drawing their inspiration from works of literature or the fine arts.

In one example, Stringfield outlined how the tomb of a young child featured a butterfly in the center, indicating transformation, out of which emerges a poppy, which signifies sleep, all symbolizing a child eternally asleep in the arms of the Lord.

Other stones feature lilies, symbolizing resurrection, or ferns or a flowering passion fruit. “Everything on it has a meaning,” she said.

In addition to stones, the cemetery features a rare example of a single slate marker, the only one in any Florida cemetery, as well as some with a blanket of shells and no names, and others that survive despite their being wooden. “I think you have the most wood I’ve seen anywhere in the state,” Stringfield said.

According to the AAHS website, which can be viewed at aahs.wildapricot.org, there are about 540 marked graves in the cemetery, with several more that are unmarked. Beginning in 1912, the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy marked the graves of all the Civil War veterans in the cemetery, and there is now believed to be at least 79 Confederate veterans and seven Union veterans buried in the cemetery.

The website also features details of a walking tour of the cemetery as well as an interactive online tour.

The historical society’s cemetery committee is headed by Henry Martin, who was earlier this month named to replace longtime committee head Mark Curenton. Members also include Elizabeth Zingarelli Milliken, Dennis Winterringer, John Solomon, Creighton Brown, David Adlerstein, Shan Raetzloff, Tom Fugate and Jim Miller, a retired state archaeologist for the state of Florida who in 2016 authored an exhaustive report on Chestnut Cemetery.

AAHS President Caty Greene said the historical society has accepted Miller’s recommendations, and has moved forward on several of the priorities, including spending close to $10,000 last year to repair the perimeter fence.

Much of these monies came from donations received at the twice-yearly Ghost Walks, which have drawn an increased following to its evening of portrayals of the many prominent citizens who now reside eternally at Chestnut.

The next Ghost Walk is slated for Saturday evening, Oct. 30.

Greene said the historical society is looking to forge a lasting partnership with the Panhandle Players, whose actors have been among the many local people to play roles in the Ghost Walks.

Stringfield also took time to answer several questions about cemetery preservation from the audience. She said it made sense to clean off biological material from the headstones, as it can be unsightly and in some cases harmful over the long run.

Since marble is sensitive to acids and scratches, and can be conducive to biological growth, she cautioned that some cleaners should be avoided, including the alkaline bleach, and that if water doesn’t do the trick, there are a number of biological agents that do not harm the stone.

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