Anniston’s oldest cemeteries giving up their rolls to the computer
by Patrick McCreless
Nov 17, 2013 | 3695 views |  0 comments | 77 77 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston city archives contain this old map of Hillside Cemetery. Tenth Street runs east-west at the bottom of the map, where the burn hole is. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
Anniston city archives contain this old map of Hillside Cemetery. Tenth Street runs east-west at the bottom of the map, where the burn hole is. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
Joe McCarson opened a ledger for Edgemont Cemetery Friday and immediately apparent was the smell: that strong, musty odor that only an old book can produce.

Dated 1907, the ledger was filled with names of Anniston residents buried in Edgemont and brief descriptions of what killed them. Next to the ledger, McCarson unrolled a tattered piece of fabric — the original map of Hillside Cemetery — stained brown with age and damaged by fire.

One after the other, McCarson produced ledgers, receipt books and faded documents, many more than a century old — records of who is buried at the city's two cemeteries. In years past, many residents who wanted to find ancestors had to rely on these old records, many of which are incomplete, or just visit the cemeteries and search on foot.

If McCarson's recent efforts are successful, however, tracing Anniston ancestry could eventually be accomplished through just a few clicks of a mouse.

Over the past two years, McCarson, manager of Hillside and Edgemont, has sifted through old records and visited gravesites, cataloging them into a digital format. The plan, as originally conceived by Anniston Public Works Director Bob Dean, is to create an online catalog of all the gravesites in both cemeteries that anyone can access, McCarson said. The program will include satellite images of the cemeteries too, so anyone can zoom in and see pictures of individual plots.

"It's going to help out a lot," McCarson said of the program. "There is a history out there ... individuals will be able to easily look up their ancestors."

Both established in the late 1800s, each cemetery has its fair share of historic figures. Hillside contains many members of the oldest families in Anniston, including founder Samuel Noble. Meanwhile, Edgemont in north Anniston has Gen. George T. Anderson, a famous officer of the Confederate Army.

McCarson said were it not for some technical glitches, a limited version of the program could already be available to the public. McCarson said he did not know when the online catalog would be ready.

But even if the online program were available now, it would not be complete because, he said, McCarson has digitally cataloged about one third of all the gravesites at both cemeteries. He said the problem is many of the cemetery records are missing or incomplete, forcing him to check gravestones on foot. He estimates that Edgemont had between 30,000 and 35,000 graves while Hillside had another 7,000 graves.

"They just kept terrible records, even as early as the 1970s," McCarson said. "One of the things that really baffles me is all the graves without markers ... back in the day, they were burying them left and right."

Still, even the prospect of having some type of digital record is exciting for Kitty Bussey, president of the Anniston-based AlaBenton Genealogical Society.

"That is a fantastic idea when it comes to genealogy or even if you just want to find where your grandparents are," Bussey said. "To me that would be an asset for Anniston."

Bussey said many people visit the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County attempting to research their ancestry.

McCarson said interest in genealogy has grown in recent years, increasing the need for a digital catalog of the cemeteries.

"Every day, people are calling me wanting to know about their ancestry," McCarson said.

Benjamin Spratling, director of the Alabama district for the National Genealogical Society, agreed that interest in genealogy has grown over the years, due in part to the growth of the Internet and digital records.

"It's certainly a lot easier to research now than it once was," Spratling said. "But still there are a lot of things you're not going to find online."

Spratling said he did not know of any other city in Alabama attempting to digitally catalog its cemeteries, complete with satellite images, as Anniston is trying to do.

"It absolutely sounds like an incredible project that they're doing," Spratling said.

Yvonne Brakefield, president of the Alabama Genealogical Society, said her organization has had steady membership in recent years. Brakefield said Anniston's project is one that any genealogist would be excited about. She said in many instances, a person might know that they have an ancestor buried in a particular city, but nothing more.

"Genealogists want as many records as they can get," Brakefield said. "Having those records would be very worthwhile."

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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