Who is buried in this Palmetto cemetery?
Cemeteries that began around or prior to the turn of the 20th century are often plagued with mystery in trying to determine who is buried where or if someone is buried there at all.
Whether due to makeshift markers lost to time or old paper records destroyed or missing, it is difficult to track a history with no trail to follow. Palmetto will give it a try as concerns are raised regarding just how many plots are left in its city cemetery located at 900 14th Ave. W.
A recent inquiry into purchasing vacant city owned land just to the west of the cemetery has put the city in a dilemma as to whether to consider a needed infill housing development project or honor a 1940s-era resolution reserving the land for cemetery expansion.
The acreage is currently used as a makeshift soccer field and contains an old T-ball baseball field. It is often referred to as the 14th Avenue Park, but is not an official city park.
The city acquired the property in 1943 from the state for $50 and the land was to be reserved for public use. But when the state deeded the property to the city, there were no restrictions listed. In 1946, city officials created a resolution declaring the land to be reserved for cemetery expansion.
“There are no restrictions per say on the deed,” said Jim Freeman, city clerk. “It was the resolution by the city in 1946 that put the restriction on it at the time. So the first step, is to repeal that existing resolution and the next step would be to come back with the specific parcels we want to surplus.”
Palmetto founder Samuel Lamb donated two parcels of land for cemetery use, including the historic Yellow Fever Cemetery at 510 14th Ave. W. That was the primary cemetery for the early settlers, many of whom succumbed to the yellow fever outbreak in the late 1880s. It remained operational until 1910.
Ironically, it was the year Lamb died and he and his wife Sarah are in the current city cemetery, which opened a few years prior to his death.
The cemetery has about 3,800 burial sites and there are currently 2,033 of those plots occupied. The city currently only owns eight plot that are for sale.
However, there are 319 people that own 1,058 plots and the whereabouts of many of those owners are unknown, although some of them are already known to be buried in the cemetery, but not in the plots originally purchased.
In 2015, the city passed an ordinance that those owners would give up their burial rights if after 50 consecutive years the owner did not provide the city with an address and the city was not able to locate those people.
The process of trying to locate those owners is currently underway.
Deputy City Clerk Amber LaRowe said part of the problem is that some of the owners are already buried, but they had purchased surrounding plots as well. There are no records as to their intention as far as perhaps wanting a family plot or just not wanting anyone else buried near them.
Either way, those plots could be taken by the city under the ordinance, but, “I’m not saying we want to do that.”
LaRowe said for owners that are able to be found, the city will offer to buy back the burial sites, but in some cases the owners simply moved away and are buried elsewhere.
LaRowe said so far about 40 certified letters have been sent out to known owners, leaving about 275 single or multiple plot owners left to find.
“It won’t be easy and will take some time,” LaRowe said. “Some of the deeds range between the early 1900s and 1970s.”
Freeman concurred, noting, “It is a challenge and we are trying to do our best. Many were purchased decades ago. it’s a pretty cumbersome process and it will not be a short process.”
Staff was hoping to get the 1946 resolution repealed on Monday, but elected officials balked at doing anything until more is known about how much space is available in the cemetery.
“There is always a lot of discussion from the community of how to get plots there,” said Commissioner Tambra Varnadore.
Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said a discussion was long overdue with what to do with the vacant property across the street. More than a year ago, the city edged close to a decision to make the property a dog park after hundreds of city residents signed a petition asking the city to build one.
However, that decision was contingent on whether Manatee County was going to proceed with a dog park at Blackstone Park about a mile away. That project is moving forward and is expected to begin construction soon.
Commissioner Brian Williams said there isn’t any reason the city should make a decision at this time.
“The fact our forefathers wanted it as the cemetery, maybe we need to stay with those guidelines,” Williams said. “We don’t have enough T-ball fields so keep them as a soccer field and T-ball field, at least while we are doing all this research. Maybe we also don’t want to be in the cemetery business. It’s very costly and other areas around Palmetto furnish cemetery sites. I don’t want any movement on this request until I get all that information.”
Allen Tusing, public works director, said there are other factors to consider. Trends across the U.S. now show that more people prefer cremation than burials, and predictions are that by 2030 more than 70 percent of Americans will choose that option.
Tusing said there is room in the center of the city cemetery to build a mausoleum for cremated remains. Currently the city allows up to six urns or one casket and two urns in each burial plot.
“But if you choose to make those other parcels a cemetery, you definitely don’t want to model it after the current cemetery,” Tusing said. “You need to modernize it. And you need to charge more money for them and for the perpetual care. You need to get somebody who can lay it out and measure it well. There is no room for error when you try to maximize your ground.”