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Old North Texas cemeteries being surrounded by shopping centers, motels

Development encroaches on old cemeteries as urban sprawl takes over more open prairie

Graves surrounded by buildings and parking lots are becoming more familiar sights in cities
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Graves surrounded by buildings and parking lots are becoming more familiar sights in cities

When Mary Overton Burke died in 1867, her family chose a remote spot to bury her.

Back then, the road leading to what would become known as Burke Family Cemetery was little more than a muddy wagon path. Today it’s four-lane Bryant-Irvin Road, one of the busiest streets in southwest Fort Worth, and the cemetery with about 100 graves is becoming surrounded by a new shopping center. Visitors to the graveyard now share parking spaces with folks shopping for kayaks and camping supplies at the nearby REI Co-op and inhale the aroma of fresh baked cookies at the Zoe’s Kitchen restaurant.

It’s a classic example of urban sprawl creeping its way closer to areas once preserved for the dead, and the quiet reflection of their survivors. Across Dallas-Fort Worth, cemeteries — many of them small and family-owned — are surrounded by residential, retail and other commercial development.

“Some through the years have just been taken over by progress,” said Ervin Hauk, who as a member of the Tarrant County Historical Commission often identifies and repairs the hidden old cemeteries.

We are hoping the additional traffic and lighting the development brings will prevent some of the vandalism we have suffered in the past.

Karen Wiseman, whose family owns Burke Family Cemetery

Grassy islands

Many other once-rural North Texas burial grounds sit in the shadows of modern life.

▪  In east Fort Worth, a tiny cemetery is now a grassy island in the middle of a parking lot shared by Motel 6 and the Stay Express Hotel, near the intersection of Interstate 30 and North Beach Street. Until Hauk and a tree-trimming crew from the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department gave the graveyard — known as Ayres Cemetery — a thorough grooming, the place was so overgrown with greenery many guests spent the night at the motels without ever noticing it. The presence of the Ayres Cemetery perhaps gives an ironic new meaning to Motel 6’s advertising slogan: “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

▪  In Westworth Village, golfers at Hawks Creek Golf Club hit their drives on No. 10 just steps from an unmarked place known in genealogy files as Thompson Cemetery. The golf course staff mows the property so it does not become overgrown with grass or weeds, said Sterling Naron, Westworth Village parks and golf operations director.

“We are proud of the history of this area and our property, and it is our goal to maintain that history properly,” Naron said.

▪  In Watauga, workers were recently leveling property near Watauga Road and Plum Street (just east of U.S. 377) to make room for a small retail development when they came upon three headstones. The work stopped and the Texas Historical Commission has been notified, although there is no record of a cemetery ever being at the address, assistant police chief Robert Parker said. Several small houses were recently razed on the property. One possible theory is that the grave markers may have belonged to a stone mason who lived in the area.

Modernity not always bad

For history buffs, the arrival of development around small cemeteries is sometimes considered an intrusion — a disturbance of the dead.

But that’s not how descendants of Mary Overton Burke see it. About two years ago, when developers began planning the Waterside development that would house REI, Zoe’s Kitchen and other tenants at Bryant-Irvin Road and Arborlawn Drive, they reached out to family members who serve on the cemetery board.

Representatives of Trademark Property reached an agreement to thin out some overgrown shrubbery around the cemetery and replace a worn-out fence, said Burke’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Karen Wiseman of Fort Worth.

The cemetery was secluded from the rest of the retail area. Visitors to the graveyard are shielded from the view of shoppers by the back wall of one of the businesses.

The work was done at no cost to the family, Wiseman said, and the developer kept in touch every couple of months throughout the process.

“They asked if there was anything we needed,” she said. “They trimmed the trees and bushes to make it a little nicer. A new fence is up now, but they were careful to preserve the arch.”

Although the shopping center extends right up to the boundary of the cemetery, Wiseman believes the presence of retail activity in the area will actually help preserve the cemetery.

“We are hoping the additional traffic and lighting the development brings will prevent some of the vandalism we have suffered in the past,” said Wiseman, who is vice president of cash operations for First American Payment Systems, a Fort Worth company that provides credit card and other transaction services for businesses.

No surprises

In some instances, developers can be surprised to find graves on real estate. But that wasn’t the case with the Waterside development.

We knew it was there from day one and reached out to the Burke family immediately to introduce ourselves,” said Edward Manuel, senior vice president at Trademark Property.

Wiseman said she and her parents have requested to be buried there, too.

“My mom and I tease that we are blessed to know we will be buried so close to the shopping center,” she quipped.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

Cemetery laws

State law protects old, forgotten cemeteries from the encroachment of developers. However, it’s up to cities and counties to ensure those laws are enforced, according to the Texas Historical Commission.

The commission can designate a cemetery as historical, which helps developers become more aware of the properties and protect them.