Roots run deep

Dignity restored in old Terryville Community


It's a long way off the beaten path to get to the old Terryville Community. You go south of town several miles on Hwy. 183 then turn right onto one county road that sputters out into a private drive. A couple miles more down the dirt road brings you to a forgotten piece of Gonzales history.

This is the place that former slaves relocated to after gaining freedom at the conclusion of the Civil War. It's hard to say if they decided to live here or were banished to the site. It's remote now, and in the late 1860s must have been desolate. One can imagine the ex-Confederate Texans choosing to put their former property out of sight and out of mind in order to help ease the sting of defeat.

Now, the old cemetery to these former slaves and their descendants looks to emerge from the shadows again.

James Kirkwood walks through the old cemetery while eating a sandwich and surveying the progress that he and a small crew have accomplished in just a week's time. Where once thick underbrush consumed the grave markers and cattle trails wound through the burial sites you can see rows of headstones. Each is now marked with a stake and an orange flag to be catalogued.

Kirkwood says that these rows are family groups. They are visible here and there — some are in bunches, others in pairs, and single markers pop up here and there. But they adhere to a grid as the brush gets slowly chopped away.

You cannot call the Terryville Community a ghost town, for ghosts don't even reside there anymore. The old church, school house, and general store are all long gone. Besides the cattle, only critters remain, having dug burrows under some of the toppled headstones.

At the time of this investigation, 101 graves had been marked and recorded on GPS by Kirkwood and his crew.

“Right here is my great-aunt, my great-grandmother's sister, Sally Nobles,” he said, pointing to a concrete marker that had a hand-carved death date of March 14, 1932. “She was born in 1889 or somewhere around in there.”

Nearby was a marker for his great-grandfather Fred King. It was a more traditional headstone as opposed to the many handmade ones in the cemetery. Some had their names already rubbed off over the time they have sat.

“Mostly all of the stones you are going to see out here are slaves,” Kirkwood explained.

This is a family heritage mission for him. Born in Houston, Kirkwood joined the U.S. Army and retired as a full colonel after 29 years of service. He lives in Atlanta, Ga. and pulled a little camper to this site which he calls home for the week. The nights are quiet and the stars are bright, he says.

Slavery in Gonzales County goes back further than Texas' association with the Union. African slaves were first brought to the area with Spanish explorers. Only during the 1820s after Mexico gained its independence from Spain did that government declare slaves in Texas freed, much to the chagrin of Anglo settlers like Stephen F. Austin. When Texas gained independence from Mexico in 1836, the state's constitution made slavery legal and forbade any slave owner from freeing his chattel without the consent of congress. There were 5,000 slaves in Texas then, and by 1840 that number had ballooned to 11,323. By the time the Emancipation Proclamation came about, there were 250,000. Gonzales County held 3,168 slaves amongst 384 slaveholders.

Terryville itself took its name from Milam Terry, a free black man in the area who owned 30 acres of land.

The ranch that surrounds the Terryville Cemetery belongs to Leslie Ploeger. He has allowed Kirkwood and his organization, the Terryville Community Cemetery Association, to visit the land over the past couple of years and get a plan for the restoration. Kirkwood said that Ploeger has donated some fencing materials and members hope to construct a nice gate and archway for the cemetery.

The grand plan is to obtain a designation as a Texas Historical Cemetery and have a marker erected naming all of the known persons interred and acknowledgements to those who have contributed to the cause.

As Kirkwood makes his way to the rear of the cemetery, he pauses to look at two stones that he straightened that morning. He calls them the “loving stones” because of their inward lean and imagines that they might belong to a husband and a wife.

He stops where the new fence will eventually run. It is as far back as this expedition will go, because there are no more visible stones marking any graves. But, that doesn't mean that there aren't any, he said. There are no records of who is buried where, so much is left to old-timey sleuthing using divining rods to locate final resting places.

“That's just what we have found so far. I imagine that there are more,” he says. “And I'm thinking my family might be more buried on that [far] side since Sally [Nobles] was buried right there. But my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, all of them are out here. And my great-great-great grandparents are out here. Where, I don't know. But, the thing is that we are cleaning the cemetery off and trying to preserve it for historical sakes, legacy.”

Coming out here for the past few years has allowed him to patch members of his distant family together. He has been working on an extended family tree, and on his laptop a photo of a distant relative peers back, one who was born into slavery. This is his way of preserving their history and giving a legacy that perhaps they could not achieve in life.

“You just can't let this much history go to waste,” he said. “I knew where all my grandparents and great-grandparents were born. A lot of them were born in Africa and came over on a ship to Jamestown, Va. They had to walk to Gonzales from Jamestown. This is their history. If I didn't do it, it would just be wasted.”

Chainsaws continued to buzz as Kirkwood ambled between headstones. A few interesting ones had what appeared to be houses carved into the soft sandstone. Could these represent a teacher or a clergyman? Or perhaps it was just an artistic decoration drawn up because the family could not afford a nicer tombstone. Either way, he bends over to examine each, paying close attention. For all he knows, that might be his great-great-great-grandparent he is peering down upon.

“Elias Polk, he's kin to me through my great-aunt Rebecca Nobles,” Kirkwood said as he used his boot to wipe away dirt from the headstone of a man that died in 1943. It is one of a few headstones that are more traditional with etched information. At the bottom, it simply says “Rest In Peace.”

“Over here we have...,” he says as he bends over to try and make out some more hand carvings on a moss-covered rock. “I can't read it. I may have to do infrared on that one.”

It's a way to read letters and numbers that nature has attempted to hide into the century old stone.

So why such an interest?

“I'm kind of the historian in the family,” he said. “My daddy was born in 1901 and my mother in 1914, so I've always been around old folks. And if you go around old folks and keep your mouth shut, you'll hear a whole lot. You may have to go get a snuff can every once in a while and go empty one, but if you listen, they talk about the old times and what happened. So I learned about Terryville through the family talking. Then I started putting together a family tree.”

He joked that now he is one of those old folks.

His aunt and mother had started a family tree though a pamphlet, then he researched online to patch people together.

“I'm a military guy. When you leave here, you're gone. And I want to leave something for...,” he trailed off. “Sixteen of my relatives are buried out here, and I know where two are. So it means a lot to me to get it cleaned off and to preserve the history for my family and other families that have people buried out here. And for Gonzales County and the state. It's a little work, but I can see what we've done and how it's going to impact. And I hope we can get some people to come out here and see and get interested in it and go from there.”

Helping out were a couple of men from Lawnscaping LLC from San Antonio. They were working from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. to get as much completed as they could for the week. Business Manager Mila Polanco understood what this endeavor meant to Kirkwood.

“For us it's an opportunity to help with the history,” Polanco said. “We're showing respect to these people. They lived a hard life and they deserve to be remembered the way they are supposed to.”

The chainsaws roared back again as Kirkwood retreated to his camper for a break. He would be staying a few more nights before heading back to Georgia. But this was hopefully a beginning to a process that could reveal much history to a forgotten and hidden piece of Gonzales history.

“Hopefully we will get some interest, because it's more than just my family buried out here,” he said, naming off names like Scruggs, Bates, and Polk. “I've got all the time in the world. But what better way to spend it than this?”