Elmwood's Anniversary

August 20th, 2015

Elmwood is turning 163 this month, and though it might seem as though a cemetery that looks like Elmwood would have always been a reality, it was not. Elmwood’s forebear, Pere Lachaise cemetery, opened in Paris in 1804, and it was the first landscaped cemetery. It started what would become the Rural Cemetery Movement. Graveyards were at one time dismal, dreary places, but the “rural” or “garden” cemetery was meant to be a beautiful place filled with trees and flowers. We point to the lifetime of grieving by Queen Victoria (1819-1901) for her husband, Albert, as the birth of the Rural Cemetery Movement. She ushered in this new attitude towards death, and cemeteries, and because of that we now enjoy the beauty of 80 bucolic acres at Elmwood.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery inspired Americans to create similar places outside their cities. Garden cemeteries were meant to be like parks, where people could go for picnics or family outings. Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston was the first garden cemetery in the United States, founded in 1831. In the following decades, dozens of rural landscaped cemeteries were founded throughout the New England states.

On August 28th, 1852, 50 prominent Memphis citizens each paid $500 to establish a new cemetery outside the city, making Elmwood one of the oldest landscaped cemeteries in the South. At a meeting of the committee on September 25th, 1852 the purchase of the first forty acres was confirmed. The stockholders had to pick a name for the new cemetery so the 50 men each wrote down a suggestion and one was drawn from a hat. The stockholders were pleased with the selection of “Elmwood,” a suggestion made by Captain Charles Church. There were no Elm trees on the property so the Trustees ordered some from New York to plant. Today Elmwood is well known for its landscape of trees and is recognized as a Level 2 Arboretum by the Tennessee Department of Urban Forestry. That means there are over 60 species of trees on the property.

After the Civil War the cemetery was expanded to a total of 80 acres. The Phillips Cottage was constructed in 1866 and operates as the cemetery office today. It is the only example of Carpenter Gothic architecture in the city and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also on the National Register is the cemetery itself and the Morgan Bridge at the entrance.

At 163 years old, Elmwood is the oldest active cemetery in the city with approximately 5 acres that haven’t even been developed yet. The beauty of Elmwood stands as a testament to the foresight of those 50 founders, as well as the love of the people who continue to help us maintain this special place. 

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Graham tablets

July 2nd, 2015

Most Memphians are familiar with Graham Street, but probably don’t know anything about the Graham family for which the street was named. George C. Graham was one of the earliest settlers in this area. He bought his land directly from the Native Americans before Shelby County was officially established. His farm, which consisted of several hundred acres, was east of where the Highland Heights neighborhood is today and South of Macon Road. Graham helped state commissioners locate and lay off the county seat in an area known as Sanderlin’s Bluff. His son, Joseph Graham chose the name for this new town. The family came from North Carolina to settle in this area, so Joseph Graham decided to call the new county seat Raleigh after his hometown.

When the land on what was the Graham farm was being developed, it became apparent that the family cemetery needed to be addressed. On January 24, 1951, the 6 bodies in the Graham family cemetery were reinterred at Elmwood. What gravestones existed were moved along with their remains. There are three tablet style markers in the South Grove section of the cemetery. One of which belongs to Dr. George Graham, who died in 1827, twenty five years before Elmwood was established. His is one of the oldest existing gravestones in Memphis. The only gravestone that might be older is for Sally Carr Bettis who died in 1826 and is interred in the Bettis family cemetery next to what is now Cash Saver grocery store. To the right of George Graham’s  stone is one for Col. Joseph Graham who died in 1837. To his right is his wife, Sarah, who died in 1842. All three tablets are broken but Sarah’s is the most damaged. It cracked in several places and broke into a dozen pieces. Grass was growing through the cracks and some pieces were sinking into the ground.

Elmwood’s superintendent began the project of repairing Sarah Graham’s gravestone earlier in the year. He dug up the pieces of stone then placed them on a large board. The board provided a flat surface to repair the gravestone. The pieces were cleaned and some were adhered together with epoxy and left to cure. During a Stone College class in June, we attempted to finish piecing together the tablet style stone. Due to rain and the weight of the stone, the board had warped over the months. We were able to adhere all but one of the remaining pieces due to the warping. The corner piece would not fit. We will have to revisit this project but I am very satisfied with the progress. Sarah K. Graham’s gravestone is clean and much easier to read now.  The D/2 solution we used to clean it should continue to brighten the stone over time. Eventually the other two Graham gravestones will be repaired in the same manner. Though not an uncommon style of grave marker, there are only a few others like them in Elmwood Cemetery so they should be preserved.

Click on the photograph to see more. 

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Spring Stone College Class

April 21st, 2015

By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian 

This Saturday, April 25th Elmwood will be offering another Stone College class. We will focus on leveling, repairing and cleaning dirt and biological growth from monuments. Graduates of the class will be invited to join in on scheduled volunteer days. On past volunteer days, we have leveled enclosures and cleaned a number of monuments. In December, we dug up and leveled a marble Victorian bath-tub enclosure belonging to Benjamin Avent. A few days after we leveled this enclosure, a family member came to the Cottage asking where to find Benjamin Avent. I was happy to tell him I knew exactly where he was and that we had recently leveled his monument which had almost completely sunken. He shared Benjamin’s story with me, which you can read about here on the blog.

On another volunteer day last Spring, several volunteers came to clean monuments near the entrance of the cemetery. One of those was a well known monument, Jasper Smith’s lion. The monument was covered in black air pollutants and mold, and there was lichen growing in his mane. The volunteers carefully sprayed and scrubbed him clean with a solution approved for use on historic stones. From the natural reaction of the cleaning solution with the biological growth and dirt, the lion actually took on a slightly golden color, making him look rather realistic. The solution seeps into the pores of the stone and continues to work, so the lion gradually whitened further from exposure to sun and rain.

When you attend Stone College, you will have the opportunity to attend volunteer workshops like these. There is still space available for the upcoming class. It will be held Saturday, April 25 from 9:00 to 11:30. The cost to attend is $25 per person. You should come dressed in comfortable clothing that you do not mind getting dirty. Once you have completed the class, you will receive emails notifying you of the scheduled volunteer days. If you are interested in helping to preserve the monuments that tell the history of Elmwood, you should definitely register for Stone College. Advance registration is required. You can register online or by calling (901)774-3212.


The Porter-Leath House

March 17th, 2015

By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! What better time than now to feature one of Elmwood’s Irish residents. Sarah Hardin Murphy Leath was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States at the age of 18. First, she lived with her brother, a veteran of the War of 1812, in Decatur, Alabama. Sarah married James Leath and the two moved to a 200-acre farm near Memphis. Together they had two sons, but James died when they were young so Sarah was left to take care of the boys on her own. In 1850, the president of the Protestant Widows and Orphans Asylum approached the widowed Mrs. Leath to ask for a contribution. Understanding the problems that widows and orphans face, she donated 9 acres of farmland along Raleigh Road for an orphanage. On June 3, 1856, fourteen children moved into a new building on the property, which is the present day site of Porter Leath Children’s Home. Upon Mrs. Leath’s death in 1857, another 20 acres was willed to the home to start an Orphan’s Education Fund. The next year the Tennessee Legislature chartered the institution as the Leath Orphan Asylum.

Though he wasn’t Irish, it’s important to include Dr. David Tinsley Porter in the story of the orphanage. He was a member of the Citizens’ Relief Committee during the 1873 yellow fever epidemic. After Memphis was devastated by the yellow fever epidemics of 1878 and 1879 and lost its city charter, Dr. Porter was elected president of the taxing district, the equivalent of mayor. He initiated sanitary reform and built sewers, essentially preventing future outbreaks of yellow fever without knowing how or why. He served as the president of the taxing district of Memphis from 1879 to 1891. He was also a trustee of the Leath Orphan Asylum. He died in 1898. Dr. Porter’s daughter, Mrs. Rebecca Porter Bartlett died in 1903 and left a bequest to the Asylum honoring her father. The name was changed to the Porter Leath House the following year.

The trustees of the Porter Leath House erected a monument to honor both Sarah Leath and Dr. Porter in 1984. It is located in the Turley section and is the only marker for Mrs. Leath. Dr. Porter’s grave in Miller Circle has a monument that is quite large and impressive with a life-sized likeness of Dr. Porter.



John Pope, son of Leroy Pope

February 6th, 2015

By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian 

Leroy Pope is considered to be the father of Huntsville, Alabama. Born in Virginia, Leroy moved to Petersburg, Georgia in 1790 and became a tobacco planter. In 1809 he purchased a large tract of land in Madison County, Mississippi Territory, which is now Alabama. This land included the highly sought after Big Spring. Pioneer John Hunt had already settled in the area and built a log cabin about 1805 but could not afford to purchase the land. Leroy planned a regular pattern of streets around the Big Spring and named his town Twickenham, after the home town of his distant relative Alexander Pope, the famous English poet. Because of anti-British sentiment during the time period, the town was renamed “Huntsville” to honor pioneer John Hunt. Leroy successfully petitioned the territorial legislature to select his city as the seat of Madison County’s government. He continued to be a successful planter, was active in the early government, and was named commissioner for Planters’ and Merchants’ Bank of Huntsville, Alabama’s first bank.

Leroy Pope’s son, John Pope, studied law at Yale University then practiced law in Georgia. In 1817 John married Louisa Rembert, the daughter of a wealthy planter. The two settled down and John became a planter as well. They were married for 20 years and had five children. Louisa died in 1837 and by 1840 he was living near Memphis with his children and his new wife, Elizabeth Hemphill Jones. John owned a 930 acre plantation 5 miles northeast of the city, along Raleigh Road, which he named “The Oaks.” According to the 1840 census, he owned 56 slaves. He primarily grew cotton and employed innovative yet practical methods to increase the quality and quantity of his crops. He was one of the most successful and reputable men in the cotton business. John’s success was internationally recognized when his fine bale of cotton was awarded a prize medal at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. There were a total of 10 medals awarded, one of which can be seen at the Brooks Museum of Art.

Confederate Congress prohibited the sale of cotton to the North in November 1861. John Pope’s plantation held approximately $20,000 worth of cotton when the city of Memphis fell to Union forces in June 1862. In an effort to keep his cotton from ending up in enemy hands John, like so many other planters, burned all of it. He didn’t live to see the end of the Civil War though. He died March 27, 1985. John Pope is buried in the Chapel Hill section of Elmwood, along with three of his children. His wives and other children are buried at Raleigh Cemetery. Leroy Pope, is buried at Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama.


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