Grave consequences: the arduous preservation of an old cemetery

Historians lament the neglect of historic, local graveyards.

click to enlarge VANDALIZED: Valeria Butzloff’s decapitated statue, one of the most notorious examples of damage at Tampa’s Oaklawn Cemetery. - Daniel Veintimilla
Daniel Veintimilla
VANDALIZED: Valeria Butzloff’s decapitated statue, one of the most notorious examples of damage at Tampa’s Oaklawn Cemetery.

I didn’t know about the significance of Oaklawn Cemetery as a child. My history teachers never taught me about the graveyard, though it was only 25 minutes away. It wasn’t until I was enrolled at USF that I happened to scurry past it while hanging out with skateboarders at the nearby Bro Bowl. During those years, the street crime in downtown Tampa was even scarier than an old cemetery. Still, Oaklawn stopped me in my tracks. I peered through the closed iron gate at its mossy, marble grandeur and wanted to learn more about who lay inside.

Decades later, a phone call from Tampa Historical Society President Maureen Patrick led to me back to Oaklawn and to Tampa’s oldest Jewish Cemetery, Rodeph Shalom. We talked about the Italian Club and the Centro Español cemeteries in the College Hill area. They all have too many fascinating stories to go untold — especially Oaklawn.

According to Patrick, Oaklawn is the resting place of “13 Tampa mayors, framers of all five constitutions, veterans of seven wars, a state governor, a mass grave of Native Americans [re-interred elsewhere by the Seminole Indians], a mass grave of yellow fever victims, soldiers who died at Fort Brooke, murderers and their victims — and in at least one case, buried side by side.”

Charlie Wall, Tampa’s first crime boss — who ran the numbers game known as bolita — lies next to his father, John. One of the city’s most historically important inhabitants, John P. Wall — Tampa’s 16th mayor and a surgeon who served in the Civil War — discovered the source for yellow fever, a disease that ravaged Tampa and other Southern port cities in the mid-19th century. He helped a victim of the disease recover but carried the virus back to his wife and infant daughter, who died soon after. Wall made it his mission to find the source of the disease. He used the scientific method to deduce that the illness was spread by the “treetop mosquito” (the Aedes Aegypti mosquito). After his death, the medical establishment confirmed Wall’s findings.

“I’ve found that a few words about Charlie go a long way,” Patrick said. But it’s Dr. Wall’s campaign against yellow fever in an atmosphere of medical/scientific blindness that’s the real story.”

Ironically, there is no mention of John Wall in the most recent Wikipedia entry on yellow fever — an ominous and questionable example of the importance of historic preservation (or a lack thereof).

As for Maureen Patrick, she’s a force among the living. A gifted gabber who speaks volumes about Tampa history, the strawberry blonde leads cemetery tours decked out in 19th century funeral garb, as part of the Tampa Underground event series.

A few feet inside the Oaklawn entrance stands a City of Tampa sign similar to ones in parks, different neighborhoods and city facilities.

“That’s a new sign. I hate it. I hate it.” Patrick said.

A historic marker letting visitors know about the cemetery is nowhere near the main entrance on Harrison Street. Sadly askew — most likely after being hit by a vehicle backing into it — it can be found on the Marion Street side of the cemetery, next to a gate that’s usually locked.

“Tampa Historical Society, my organization, installed well over a 100 historic markers since our founding in 1971; one of the earliest markers is for Oaklawn Cemetery. It defines the cemetery in terms of founding moments and what its meaning is in the history landscape of Tampa and it’s now at a gate that’s not open to the public. The one informative and genuinely historical signpost is on the wrong side of the cemetery now.”

Patrick said she complained on several occasions but nothing has been done.

Contacted by CL, city spokesperson Ali Glisson said, "We will consult with both the County and the Historical Society about potentially moving the sign inside the gate along Harrison Street so that more visitors will be able to read it."

But signage aside, there's still plenty that worries Patrick.

“The condition of Tampa’s historic cemeteries is endangered,” she said in an email. “The cemeteries that are doing their best are privately funded or foundation-managed, such as the Italian Club Cemetery. Those in the most perilous shape that have been abandoned ... like the old Centro Español Cemetery, are lumped under the same administrative umbrella as the contemporary, public cemeteries. Historic cemeteries in progressive metropolises are administered by departments devoted to their special needs. The City of Tampa has never done this.”

I shook off fire ants biting at my ankles as I traversed the weedy brick path. Patrick showed me a misplaced piece of broken marble, propped against a tree. While she refused to blame the Parks and Rec department that oversees the cemetery, she couldn’t help but express her frustration at what may have been caused by lowest-bid contractors whose maintenance workers plowed through a graveyard on rider mowers.

“That’s the Valeria Butzloff memorial — her head was knocked off by a sledgehammer in the 1970s,” Patrick said, motioning northwest. She wasn’t referring to poor Valeria, of course, who died of typhus at 21, but to the statue that bore her likeness at her mother Anna’s grave. The decapitated statue is one of Oaklawn’s most notorious cases of vandalism. It’s missing a hand, too.

The Tampa Historical Society’s educational and entertaining Tampa Underground events, such as the annual Gravediggers Ball and cemetery tours, will hopefully help Patrick and her colleagues find out more about the nameless who perished and help fund the upkeep of the cemeteries.

Looking ahead, Patrick she hopes for the society to provide more tours and ward the public away from the private touring agencies that hire people who play loose with the facts. They often litter and disrespect the grounds, she said. On a positive note, Patrick expressed hope that a growing interest in “heritage tourism” would bring more attention to the graveyards.

It’s a point that’s been discussed in St. Petersburg, too.

“The heritage tourist is more affluent than the average tourist,” said Kai Warren of St. Pete Preservation. “They spend on average 25 percent more per day and also stay on vacation at least 25 percent longer than the average tourist.”

Warren, secretary of the Historic Roser Park Neighborhood Association, has taken an interest in his neighborhood’s graveyard, the Greenwood Cemetery, established around the turn of the century. He talks about its colorful inhabitants — like Silas Dent and the inventor of the radio dial, Almon Brown Strowger. One day he hopes there will be tours at the cemetery, like the ones he conducts in downtown St. Pete.

“It is always the saddest part of our tours,” he added, “when we have to explain what was here and why it is no longer.”

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