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Volunteers spent a day of service to honor the victims of 9/11 by cleaning up a historic cemetery in Bramwell where many famed coal barons are buried.
Members of the National Coal Heritage Authority and New River Gorge Regional Development Authority’s AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program were on hand to help out local volunteers Monday with the cleanup of the historic Oak Hill Cemetery in the Freeman area.
Christy Bailey, executive director of the National Coal Heritage Area Authority, said the clean up of the cemetery is part of the 9/11 National Day of Service.
“VISTA is part of the 9/11 National Day of Service where people are asked to get out and remember the day by doing local service projects,” Bailey said. “We knew this cemetery needed some care and is part of our historic district in Bramwell. We will be clearing up some of the debris and cleaning the tombstones with water and soft brushes to help get the tombstones identified. There are many traditional cemetery plants from this era planted in the cemetery such as yucca and periwinkles, so we are going to clean up those plants as well.”
Bramwell Mayor Lou Stoker said the Oak Hill Cemetery is important to the local area because of some of the important people buried there.
“We have buried here some of the pioneers and founders of the Pocahontas coalfields,” Stoker said. “John D. Hewitt, one of the co-founders of the Buckeye Coal and Coke Company, is buried here as are Mr. and Mrs. Freeman for whom the community of Freeman and the Isabella Freeman Bridge are named. Jenkin Jones and his wife are buried in the stone wall enclosure. I.A. Welch for whom the city of Welch is named is also buried here, and he surveyed much of the area. We have a Confederate veteran, a Union veteran and a veteran of the Spanish-American War buried in this cemetery.”
Stoker said the cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places, but much of the area has become overgrown.
“All of the volunteers here are great,” Stoker said. “It shows this is a worthwhile effort. Having the Coal Heritage people here and VISTA shows how important this cemetery is to coal heritage. The cemetery was the property of a coal company early on, but now is in the hands of the Oak Hill Cemetery Association. The only fundraising for upkeep and restoration they get at this point is through donations, mainly from descendants of people buried here.”
Sharon Workman is a volunteer with the Oak Hill Cemetery Association and works with her husband and son to preserve the cemetery as best they can.
“The cemetery was declared abandoned in 2001 and a group of Bramwell citizens formed an association to take care of it,” Workman said. “We believe the cemetery was established around the 1880s. There are no records of the cemetery. The church originally here burned, and we think the records might have been lost then. There are many unmarked graves, and a lot of the area is overgrown. We aren’t sure how large the cemetery is because of that.”
Richard Bullins, manager of the Bramwell Train Depot and member of the Coal Heritage Authority, said the cemetery could one day be a tourist site showcasing the history of the coalfields.
“Being a local cemetery and having some historic people from the coal industry buried here, we decided to help out with the maintenance,” Bullins said. “It is important to preserve our culture and our history from this era. We are here to do upkeep, repair tombstones, and do an inventory of who is buried here. Being able to let the general public and tourists know about this cemetery is important. A lot of people’s parents and grandparents are buried here. We are hoping to erect a larger sign to show the significance of this cemetery as well.”
Joanna Swanson is originally from Minnesota but has been living in Mullens while working with the VISTA program.
“This is our day of service project as our way of honoring 9/11,” Swanson said. “It is great to get out with other VISTA volunteers and do some work. This is the furthest south in West Virginia I have ever been, and it’s a really beautiful place.”
Swanson said she has worked to clean up historic cemeteries before.
“I have done similar work in Minnesota,” Swanson said. “When people are researching their family history, they like to have places they can come and see that history. We are going to clean up the tombstones and record them so people have a map or a better idea of what is in this area.”
Anyone interested in volunteering at the cemetery or wanting to make a donation to help preserve the cemetery can contact Sharon Workman via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via mail at P.O. Box 63, Bramwell, WV 24715.
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