VINTON–Members of the Vinton Breakfast Lions Club spent a cold and windy Saturday on March 28 clearing brush, trees, and debris from the historic Gladetown Cemetery to reclaim dozens of graves from Mother Nature.
Men armed with chain saws, rakes, trimmers, and clippers removed years of undergrowth from the cemetery which is located on top of steep hill on Giles Avenue in the Gladetown community. Graves in the cemetery date from the 1820’s.The Lions are dragging the brush to the street where the Town of Vinton will pick it up and haul it away.
The project was the result of a conversation between long-time Gladetown resident Joe Banks and Lion Chris McCarty at the town’s annual Arbor Day observance last spring at the nearby Craig Avenue Center.
Banks told McCarty that for many years men from the community maintained the cemetery. However, many of them are getting up in years or are not in good health and the cemetery quickly was taken over by vines, underbrush, and small trees.
There has also been some dispute over ownership of the property. Over the years everyone from town managers in Vinton to the Roanoke County Administrator and County Attorney to a state delegate and state senator, have gotten involved in the issue with ownership still in limbo in 2015.
The Breakfast Lions decided to take on the clean-up project but decided it was best to wait for winter when the underbrush would die down and wild life like snakes and skunks might be less likely to interfere.
With so much wintry weather to deal with in the early months of 2015, the work date was eventually scheduled for March 28, which turned out to be blustery and cold, but sunny.
Ten members were able to participate that day including McCarty, Doug Adams, Hal Mabe, Sam Cundiff, John Berry, Paul Gensurowsky, Keith Lafferty, Gary Myers, Joel Litton, and Steve Newcomb.
An in-depth survey completed in 1996 by the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) indicated that there are at least 126 gravesites, some over 100 years old. Sixty-six graves have markers, while there are upwards of 40 unmarked internments identified by surface depressions.
Banks recalls that a student working on her thesis at Hollins University, Darlene Richardson, completed much of the research on, and surveying of, the cemetery.
The site was measured as 195 feet by 320 feet by 395 feet, although Banks believes that it may extend farther. Gravestones vary from the oldest un-inscribed fieldstone to metal alloy to granite and cement.
McCarty said that the Lions will “chip away at the overgrowth” until the project is complete. He estimates that it will take about ten trips to get the job done, with smaller groups working “a couple hours here and there” in the evenings and on weekends. They hope to finish up before the weather gets hot.
The DHR study noted that the “Gladetown Cemetery is the only known African American cemetery in Vinton and is an important part of the region’s cultural and social history.”
Thomas Klatka from the DHR said that cemeteries are commonly considered to be one of the best sources of genealogical information, and that cemeteries need to be protected as historic resources.
He expressed his opinion that the Gladetown Cemetery has special historical significance because “a local African American craftsman, Albert Woods, designed and constructed many of the tombstones in the cemetery. Many of the tombstones were engraved by hand and are unique in style and features.”
Some of the earliest graves are those of George Crockett who was born in 1823, Martha Harvey born in 1854; and Mary Divers and Patsy Smeltzer born in 1856. Death dates on the inscribed markers range from 1891 to 1975.
Several veterans from World War I and World War II are buried in the Gladetown Cemetery as well.
Banks is considered to be a community historian in the Gladetown and Vinton areas. He says there is a lot of history buried on the hill in Gladetown which needs to be preserved before it’s too late. The community is appreciative of the efforts of the Vinton Breakfast Lions.
The Breakfast Lions meet on the first and third Wednesdays of each month at 6:30 a.m. at Teaberry’s.