As I’ve noted before, October is my favorite month in the Tennessee Valley. The weather cools down (well, not so much this year). Autumn paints the leaves in brilliant colors (well, the drought has put a dent in that). Two of our three favorite festivals take place (the Fiddler’s Convention and the Athens Storytelling Festival), and two other fun outdoor events take place (Oktoberfest and the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll). Fiddler’s was great this year, with Maddie Denton becoming only the second female fiddling champion in the 50-year history of the competition (and well-deserved, too — she was great). We stopped by Oktoberfest in Cullman on our way back from a hike, and well, our advice is don’t go to an Oktoberfest in Cullman on a Sunday. The Storytelling Festival is this weekend, and it never disappoints.
This week’s post is about the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll. Maybe it’s a stretch to call this an outdoor adventure, but it’s a Huntsville tradition that involves walking around outdoors and looking at interesting things (in this case, costumed characters from Huntsville’s past), so it’s not all that different from a hike. The Cemetery Stroll is an annual event, usually held in mid-October, sponsored by the Huntsville Pilgrimage Association. The Association, whose object is “to advance the appreciation of the historic heritage of Huntsville and Madison County,” is a volunteer group that organizes the Cemetery Stroll and a springtime walking tour of historic Huntsville homes. The Cemetery Stroll is free, but donations are accepted (my observation is that the overwhelming majority of attendees donate a few dollars), and the funds raised are used to restore grave markers in the cemetery.
Maple Hill Cemetery was established in 1822 and contains over 80,000 graves. It is the oldest and largest cemetery in Huntsville, and is the final resting place of five governors of Alabama, five U.S. senators, ten U.S. representatives, Confederate leaders, and other notables in U.S., Alabama, and local history. During the Cemetery Stroll, dozens of its denizens are portrayed by actors in period costume, who relate the life history of their subject, along with a dose of local folklore. The cast of characters changes from year to year, though some of the deceased have been played by the same actors for many years. Some of the actors are actually descendants of the characters they portray!
Though this is a popular event, the sheer size of the cemetery dissipates the crowds so that the actors are usually performing to small groups. The 2016 edition had 76 different sites within the cemetery (some sites had more than one actor), with 17 new characters added. To add to the festivities, four musical groups performed throughout (a string band, a Celtic band, a barbershop quartet, and a gospel trio) and a number of beautifully restored antique cars were on display.
To me, the biggest appeal of the stroll is the wide variety of characters portrayed. Here are just a few of the ones I enjoyed this year. I could have written about many more!
Mary Chambers Bibb, played by Janie Clasgens. Mary Chambers Bibb has one of the more tragic stories on the tour. She married the son of an Alabama governor, but in 1835 died at 19 soon after her wedding, due to an illiterate servant accidentally poisoning her. Buried in her wedding dress, local lore holds that she was entombed sitting in a rocking chair, in the first mausoleum in the cemetery. There’s a superstition that you can hear her chair rocking, and during the tour I noticed several kids sneaking around to the back of the mausoleum and putting an ear up to the stone wall.
Elizabeth Dale Gibbons Flannigan Jeffries High Brown Routt, played by Jan Dorning. As you might guess from her name, this lady was married six times, and is known as “the Black Widow of Hazel Green.” Many of her husbands died under suspicious circumstances, though of course her version of events is more favorable. Poor Philip Flannigan, husband #2, is buried in Maple Hill. In case you were under the impression that the stroll is just a dry recitation of facts, many of the characters tell their life stories from their unique points of view. The Black Widow and another perennial stroll favorite, Madam Mollie Teal, are at their best when they invite the watching gentlemen in the crowd to pay them a visit. The actors often interact with the audience, and are glad to answer questions.
Lizzy Cruse (played by Katherine Welch) and Lily Flagg (played by Van Brown). Lily Flagg is the only non-human to appear as a character in the stroll. She’s the world-famous dairy cow owned by Samuel B. Moore who won a blue ribbon at the 1893 World’s Fair for her prodigious butter production. Usually Lily is accompanied by her owner, but this year her narrator was a young neighbor of Moore’s, who told the story of the gala held at Moore’s home to celebrate her bovine accomplishments. This one is a big crowd-pleaser for the kids.
Annie Bradshaw Clopton, played by Melissa Pollick. One of the charms of the stroll is that these are not just the stories of the rich and famous. Annie Bradshaw Clopton made appearances on TV shows like What’s My Line to stump audiences and panelists on her particular specialty: creating paintings on spider webs. How do you do that, you ask? Very carefully, of course. She collected spider webs, then carefully painted portraits and landscapes using a pointillist method with a tiny brush. And if that wasn’t enough, she also formed the first Girl Scout troop in Alabama and became a champion breeder of persian cats. Her gossamer painting are still on display at the Burritt Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.
Pvt. Turner Mayes, played by David Hitt. Maple Hill contains the graves of soldiers and sailors from the Revolutionary War to the present day. Though some of the interred were well-known leaders, the stroll also tells the stories of the rank and file soldier. Turner Mayes was a private killed with only three weeks left to run in World War I, slain in a foxhole by a mortar shell in France. A highlight of his story is Hitt’s wry recollection of the number of times Mayes was “honored” by being disinterred and moved to another graveyard.
David Todd, played by Steve Johnson. David Todd was a Confederate officer with an unfortunate family connection — his brother-in-law was Abraham Lincoln. Todd was the half-brother of Mary Todd Lincoln, though there was a 14-year difference between them. David Todd ran away from home at the age of 14 and became a soldier in the Mexican-American War. He gained a taste for battle, and as an eager Confederate soldier rose to the rank of Captain. He commanded the Libby POW Prison in Virginia (infamous for its inhumane treatment of prisoners) during the “War of Northern Aggression” before getting a minor command in Vicksburg, where he was injured and sent to Selma to recuperate. He met the lady he was to marry there, and settled in Huntsville after the war, eventually succumbing to illness and his wounds in 1871.
John Hunt, played by Guy Collins. Collins gives one of the more spirited (ha!) portrayals on the tour, as he recounts the history of Huntsville’s founder and his feud with “that polecat” Leroy Pope. Hunt built a cabin by the Big Spring in 1805, having heard about the location and “running faster than an eight-legged dog” to squat on the land in hopes of claiming a large tract by just paying a registration fee. Congress decided to hold a land sale, and since Hunt had not registered his claims he didn’t get a preemptive right to his property. Wealthy planter Leroy Pope outbid Hunt to gain title to most of today’s downtown Huntsville, leaving Hunt to resettle in the area now known as John Hunt Park. Hunt isn’t actually buried in Maple Hill; in fact, his actual gravesite isn’t marked, but is somewhere in the vicinity of John Hunt Park, near the garbage dump or maybe even around Joe Davis Stadium. But his spirit is there in Maple Hill, shaking his fist in fury at Leroy Pope (portrayed by another actor about 50 yards to the southeast).
Dr. Sonnie W. Hereford III, played by Jim Donaldson. This one was a personal favorite for me, as I had the great honor of slightly knowing Dr. Hereford. Dr. Hereford is not only a new addition to the stroll — he’s a new addition to the cemetery, as he passed away earlier this year. He’s best known as a civil rights activist who made history by enrolling his son, Sonnie IV, at Huntsville’s Fifth Avenue School in 1963, thus integrating the first all-white public school in Alabama. He was a pioneering African American physician in Huntsville, and persevered through many hardships in his life and the pernicious indignities of racism to become a highly-respected, beloved, community leader. Donaldson’s portrayal was spot on, no doubt informed by having had Dr. Hereford as his family physician, and his task was particularly challenging since the character he was representing is within the living memory of many stroll attendees. I enjoyed all of the stories I heard on the stroll, but Dr. Hereford’s story is the one that everyone needs to hear.
Some wag, perhaps in anticipation of the event, wrote, “I see dead people” in chalk on a sidewalk in the cemetery. Yes — that’s actually the idea!