In memoriam

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The history of Harrisonburg lies beneath the graves in Woodbine Cemetery.


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At the Valley Heritage Museum in the heart of Rockingham County, there’s a two-by-five foot panorama looking down on Harrisonburg, Virginia, as nurse and resident Emma Lyons knew it in 1867. With intricate detail and rustic realism, it captures the somber peace of a Southern town still draining its wartime woes. In the very center just near the horizon, one square of green hill is speckled with distant white dabs. This is the early visage of Woodbine Cemetery, only a fraction of what it is today. The miniature graves Lyons painted into her scene are a bright white, new and proliferated by the local losses suffered in the Civil War.

JMU students now make up half the city’s population at any given time and pass through in a matter of four years, give or take. The town’s rich history rests dormant beneath their feet, softly begging to be known. Students move into old-fashioned houses and see right past the floors that may be relics, the trees in their yards that are practically fossils. They don’t spend their free time researching the origins of the town, and they certainly don’t spend Sunday afternoons strolling through the rows of the local graveyard — yet the name of almost any academic building or residence hall on their campus could be found on a slab of stone in Woodbine.

Downtown Harrisonburg stretches along Main Street, branching off into hundred-year old neighborhoods that house students, professors and locals alike. At the heart of one of these neighborhoods, Woodbine Cemetery sprawls up an imposing hill. It’s surrounded by two busy roads, Market and Reservoir, and two sleepier residential avenues, Ott and Bruce. David Ehrenpreis is a professor of art history at JMU who lives a block away from Woodbine on Franklin Street. He walks his dog through Woodbine regularly, a use he knows the cemetery was inherently stylized for.

Ehrenpreis points this out in an image of Emma Lyons painting — in 1867, Woodbine grew on what used to be the outskirts of town, about a mile from Main Street heading east on Route 33. In the following century and a half, civilization flourished around it and inched closer to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rural cemeteries were meant to provide space for more than their original function. The thought behind it is, as Ehrenpreis explains, beauty.

“This is where we will have these beautiful spaces to walk around and picnic in on Sundays,” Ehrenpreis says.

Picturesque landscapes were planned with aesthetic appeal in mind, utilizing the same sorts of architecture inspired by classical antiquity popular in building design at the time. It’s no coincidence that the several mausoleums in Woodbine look like scaled-down models of the Parthenon.

Old cemeteries evoke the idea that this is where history came to die. But if you let them, the stones speak more than that. Everett Dulaney Ott, deceased 1976, will forever remind people that “The greatest use for life is to use it for something that will outlast it.” Robert Moffitt Newman, who lived from just 1918 to 1919, was reluctantly laid to rest with the words, “A fairer bud of promise never bloomed.” Joseph White Latimer was injured at Gettysburg and died in Harrisonburg a short time later. He was only 19 but had eagerly and deservedly climbed ranks in his short career, hence his status as a small local legend nicknamed “The Boy Major.” His notable obelisk was “Erected by grateful hearts to the memory of one of the South’s most heroic young soldiers.” 

The ladies of the Hardesty-Higgins House will light up when visitors appear. They love to push brochures and point out features on maps, sharing the bits of knowledge they’ve compiled about their hometown. One of the women, Carole Downey, says there was a man named Bobby Sullivan who was a dedicated local historian and a fountain of knowledge on sites like Woodbine.

“We lost a lot of information when that man passed,” she says with a slight shake of the head. His death in 2013 left Downey bereft of a default source for the history of Woodbine. But she can tell you about one of the house’s namesakes – Isaac Hardesty.

There are two jmu presidents that are buried there, and we hope to get the others but we don’t know how that’s going to go.

Charlie Chenault, Secretary Treasurer of the Trustees of the Woodbine Cemetery Company

As Harrisonburg’s first mayor, Hardesty sold the Woodbine Cemetery Company its first two and a half acres of land to begin the site in 1850. It’s a little endearing that this is the same size as the plot that was first deeded to public good by Mr. Thomas Harrison himself in 1779 to begin the city of Harrisonburg. Like the town, Woodbine grew over decades and decades, acquiring more space as populations grew and as more patriotic southerners continued to give their lives in the wars that would plague their generations.

Rosemarie Palmer works a quiet shift from 1 to 5 on Sunday afternoons and calls her welcome to visitors when they appear at the Hardesty-Higgins House’s front door. She’s a retired JMU professor of chemistry who now devotes her time to the local history of the town she moved to in 1985.

“They’re so romantic,” she says with a chuckle, scrolling through the online index of Woodbine interments, just grasping the use of the Ctrl+F function to find particular individuals. “You can tell who the early pioneers were because they’ve got the big stones.” It’s true — obelisks and the territorial, initial-bearing pegs in the ground mark the family plots of the Pauls, the Otts, the Newmans. 

Everyone points toward Charlie Chenault when questions about Woodbine come up. Currently a paralegal for a law firm in town, he doubles as the cemetary’s secretary treasurer of the trustees. He can talk shop more than a historian can, and his love for the cemetery’s culture is just as strong.

“Four generations of my family are interred there,” he says. “I grew up with the cemetery. I’ve been to more funerals up there than I can count.” 

Soft spoken but eager to share, he easily articulates his story of Woodbine as he’s surely told it many times. The literal history of Woodbine aside from the people it holds is the crates of meeting minutes Chenault has upstairs in his office – the acquisition of land, the expansion of grounds, losing money, gaining money, dedicating the Confederate Cemetery and building a community mausoleum.

“There are two JMU presidents that are buried there, and we hope to get the others but I don’t know how that’s going to go,” he says with a smile that speaks for a genuine hope hidden in the joke.

As both a local native and an alumnus of JMU, Chenault values the deep-rooted tension spelled out in the cemetery’s history that often gets overlooked in the name of proclaiming university-promoted diversity.

“Woodbine is unquestionably a history of white Harrisonburg,” he says.

Just off of Market Street, a square plot of Woodbine radiates from a majestic obelisk designated in 1876 to be an exclusive monument and burial site for gallant Confederate soldiers who lost their lives in battle. Dale MacAllister, a historian at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Heritage Center in the adjacent town of Dayton, keeps a file about two inches thick on Woodbine. It’s mainly copies of newspaper clippings and long lists of interments and their dates, many efforts to label all of the Confederates buried in this section. A great deal of them remain nameless and without legacy, having died in or near Harrisonburg after being brought into the hospital that had sprung up inside the girls’ school in town. Ten years after the end of the Civil War, the Ladies’ Memorial Association in Harrisonburg ensured that the area’s Confederates had a grave site that would not only honor them justly, but memorialize them. Over 200 uniform marble markers fall in several rows squaring around the central monument. The obelisk bears inscriptions on all four sides of the base, one of which states the year it was erected: “1876. In memory of men who with their lives vindicated the principles of 1776.” 

One of MacAllister’s copies, a page from the “Old Commonwealth” dating from 1882, shows a short blurb about one Confederate in Woodbine. It’s been customary in the Christian tradition for centuries to bury your dead facing east to meet the rising sun. Lieutenant S. Graeme Turnbull was having none of that and requested he be buried facing the South that he fought for – at least, this desire has been presumed.

“I guess he wanted the sun rising to his left,” MacAllister says with a laugh.

There are certain people who gravestones call out to. “Read me,” they say. “Understand me.” They wonder about the strangers below – is there anyone who lives their life to the fullest simply so they won’t be one of the stones with an ignorable name but instead one that makes a macabre intellectual think? Walking over the plots of the great and the forgettable make you wonder about history or tolerance or perspective or art until you find yourself contemplating the future of your own legacy.

“There’s still room,” Palmer says of Woodbine, in good humor. “Five hundred dollars a plot!”