There is a lot to be learned from visiting a cemetery. On October 29th, a valuable lesson in history was provided to participants of the Historical Cemetery Walking Tour at Columbiana City Cemetery.
The cemetery tour, which was a fundraiser for the Shelby County Museum & Archives, attracted over 220 visitors. The evening began with a trolley ride from the Columbiana Senior Center. As groups arrived at their destination, they were greeted by tour guides who provided background on the history of the cemetery, then led each group along a path that featured nine graves highlighted on this year’s tour.
Actors at each grave interpreted the story of the deceased, and brought to life history that might otherwise be forgotten. Among those featured on the tour were Napoleon Bonaparte Mardis, who was a prominent citizen of Columbiana. Mardis, who died in 1892 at the age of 69, was one of the early petitioners to incorporate Columbiana. He served as county treasurer from 1846 to 1861. Mardis served as a probate judge for the county and was delegate to the 1865 state constitutional convention.
The role of Mardis was played by local attorney Bill Justice. The Justice family has a deep connection with the cemetery. In 2005, two of Justice’s sons, Robert and Andrew, mapped the graves of the cemetery as part of their Eagle Scout project. It is through their efforts, and the efforts of other groups such as the Columbiana Ward of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, that much of the history contained within the cemetery has been so carefully preserved.
Justice was just one of the local actors participating in the event. His wife Beverly and their son Denisen also spent months preparing for their roles as Missouria Cromwell Huyett and J. W. Johnston respectively.
Bonnie Atchison, well know in the Columbiana community for her love of acting, took part by portraying Jeanette Niven, who was a friend of hers for many years.
Students at Calera High School, under the direction of drama teacher Alice LaGrone, took on seven of the roles.
Since the beginning of the school year, these students worked hard to develop their characters. For many of the students, the cemetery tour allowed them the opportunity to act in an outside environment, as well as a chance to interact with their audience.
“I’m so proud to be a part of something so great for Columbiana,” LaGrone said of her experience.
Featured on the tour were Amos Elliott (1829-1890), J.W. Johnston (1844-1925), Missouria Cromwell Huyett (1844-1902), Alphonzo Sterrett (1810-1876), Sarah Dandy (1875-1924), Jeanette Niven (1917-1999), John Decker (1919-1990). Decker was the father of Margaret and Julia Decker, who died in 1949 during a car fire.
The Columbiana City Cemetery is a source of pride for local residents, and the city of Columbiana works hard to maintain and care for the cemetery’s 11 1/2 acres.
For people who grew up in and around Columbiana, many of the names of the people featured on the tour were names they had heard before, but the history behind the names may not have been so easy to recollect due to the passage of time.
Slowing down for just a little while to learn about a community’s history offers a glimpse into a world that might otherwise be lost. For over 200 people, time slowed down at the Columbiana City Cemetery on October 29th, and people walked away with a greater appreciation of the sacrifices and accomplishments of those that built Shelby County.