By: Lisa Ferguson
For decades, most of the long-forgotten graves at Corinth Cemetery in Celina were shrouded from view by waist-high grass and overgrown weeds. Of the handful of headstones visible to passersby on adjacent County Road 92, most were caked with dirt and crumbling.
The situation has changed dramatically in recent months, since Tim Montgomery and a small army of dedicated and determined volunteers began tending to the once-neglected resting place of some of Collin County’s earliest residents.
In June Montgomery, formerly of Celina, put out a call on social media looking for help to restore the cemetery. For years, he had passed the site most days on his way to work as a teacher at Scott Johnson Middle School in McKinney. “I drove by and said, `Why isn’t anything being done with this place?’” he recalled.
After retiring a year ago, he decided to take matters into his own hands. “I walked (the property) … and found out that about 60 percent” of the graves, which date back more than a century, were those of children. “I thought, `This is sad,’ so I did a little bit of research.”
He learned that the cemetery, founded in 1875, had belonged to the Corinth Church which was next to the site before it folded in 1920. (A schoolhouse also once stood nearby.)
Montgomery, who now calls McKinney home, posted about the abandoned cemetery on the McKinney Cares Facebook page in search of volunteers willing to lend a hand. Nearly 100 people responded within an hour of his post. He then started a page called Friends of Corinth Cemetery of Collin County, which shares its name with the nonprofit organization he established to help cover costs associated with restoring the cemetery.
So far, the group has received some donations of funds and equipment which members have used to help locate, clean, repair and reinstall grave markers. Much more is needed to complete the work, which Montgomery hopes to do in the coming year.
Eventually, he’d like to reseed the grass or plant sod as well as pockets of wildflowers and place benches beneath the trees at the cemetery, which will eventually be surrounded by thousands of new homes. “There will be houses right up against the fence line,” he explains. “I want (future residents) to remember there was Collin County history here. … There were settlers here.”
Progress on the project has been slow but steady. Earlier this summer, Montgomery asked the Collin County Sheriff’s Office for assistance and it sent a crew of prisoners out to clear brush and trim trees. Meanwhile, firefighters from the Celina Fire Department visited and filled a donated water tank.
The volunteer Friends members work at the cemetery several nights each week and on weekend mornings. One of the first – and biggest – tasks they faced was removing tons of concrete that covered several graves. It was installed decades ago, Montgomery explained, in an attempt to keep the headstones upright. As the ground shifted, the slabs buckled.
After securing donated earth-moving equipment, a tractor and two truckloads of topsoil, the concrete was removed. Montgomery and volunteers releveled the land and restored the plots that belong to members of the O’Brien and Newman families, whose broods were related through marriage. Their grave markers are also being cleaned, repaired and straightened.
Many of the headstones at Corinth Cemetery are severely damaged or destroyed, likely from being run over on rare occasions when the cemetery grounds were mowed. Others toppled and were subsequently covered by anywhere from a few inches to upwards of a half-foot of soil.
One of those belonged to Civil War veteran Henry Balfour. His marker, which denotes that he died “near Celina” on Nov. 24, 1881, was found under nearly 10 inches of dirt, soaked by groundwater but entirely intact.
The Friends have found more than a half-dozen markers underground. “They either fell forward or backward, so if there’s a base (visible) and there’s no headstone, we look for it,” Montgomery said, usually by poking around in the soil with shovels. In the process, they’ve also discovered clumps of aged lily bulbs, which they believe were probably planted decades ago by mourners and now serve as clues as to where grave sites may be located.
Montgomery speculates that there may be dozens more headstones that have yet to be unearthed. His hope is that a generous donor will step forward and provide a ground-penetrating radar device or services, which would make searching for markers easier.
The last-known burial records for Corinth Cemetery were made in 1972. Volunteer Courtney Lewis, an amateur genealogist, has used those as well as old census, birth, death and marriage records, ancestry websites and local newspaper clippings, among others, in her search for information about the deceased.
“I think these people deserve respect because they were here (living in the area) first and they made this a home for the rest of us,” said Lewis, a longtime McKinney resident and business-management student at the University of Texas at Tyler.
Through her research, she was able to identify the graves of entire families who were laid to rest side by side, including J.E. and Elizabeth Love and their four young daughters who preceded their parents in death.
Nearby, the headstone of Ella Loury was discovered not far from that of a marker belonging to her three infant children who died within three consecutive years. “They don’t have names. It’s just `First Born, Second Born, Third Born,’” Lewis said.
She has yet to locate the plot belonging to Hardy Mills, a McKinney resident whose 1921 murder made local headlines after his body was found tied with baling wire at the bottom of a well. Ezell Stepp, who was convicted of the crime, gained notoriety for being the last person in Collin County to be put to death by hanging the following year. (Stepp is buried in a marked grave at Horn Cemetery in McKinney.)
Corinth Cemetery records indicate that a headstone for Mills “was standing in 1972,” Lewis said, adding that the man’s son, who passed away as an infant, is also believed to be buried there. Unfortunately, “I have no idea where they are.”
Lewis has contacted some of the relatives of those resting in Corinth Cemetery. “I’ve had a couple family members that were very excited that we’re doing this because they were aware of the (cemetery’s) condition.” For the most part, though, “It’s been really hit or miss,” she said. “Some people really have a heart for it and some people don’t, and that’s OK. I’m happy to have (the support of) people who do want to help … and who get to see that their family members are being taken care of.”
After all, Montgomery said, “Everyone deserves to be remembered.”
For information about how to volunteer with Friends of Corinth Cemetery of Collin County, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the group’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/471999723257188/. Monetary donations are being accepted via a GoFundMe account at https://www.gofundme.com/corinth-cemetery-restoration.