Old Lorimier's legacy: Historic Cape Girardeau cemetery marks 200th anniversary

Monday, October 13, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com Dr. Frank Nickell presents an overview of Old Lorimier Cemetery on Sunday at the 200th anniversary remembrance of its founding.

In Old Lorimier Cemetery, weather and vandals are eroding links to the early history of Cape Girardeau.

Established in 1808, before the city officially came into existence, Old Lorimier is, in the words of Dr. Frank Nickell, "the front line of defense in the preservation of a city's history."

But at Sunday's celebration of the cemetery's 200th anniversary, words of caution that the history could be lost joined with the telling of individual stories of the lives of the people buried there.

Cemetery sexton Terrell Weaver said he finds the cemetery to be a restful place, when he can get a moment to reflect. He asked the audience of about 100 gathered for the event to notice "how quiet, how peaceful, but yet it is tucked in the middle of the city."

He dispelled some myths about the cemetery: There are no tunnels hidden under the graveyard, Weaver said, no bodies in above-ground crypts. And he said he has been there at all hours of the day and night but there have been no ghosts.

As they took part in the tour of significant graves, Weaver asked the audience to notice how badly scarred many of the headstones have become over time. "There are very few that haven't been turned over at some point," he said.

The cemetery has, by Weaver's estimate, 6,500 graves. Of those, 1,220 have markers but only 1,000 names of those buried in the cemetery are known. Concrete used for repairs in the past obscured names, but as yet cemeteries have had trouble finding a material that is acceptable to repair broken headstones. "That is a problem for caretakers at all older cemeteries," he said.

Chuck Martin talks about Col. George C. Thilenius (1829-1910) Sunday at Old Lorimier Cemetery. Descendants of Thilenius were present, including from left, great-great-granddaughter Trisha Kell, great-granddaughter Marjorie Thompson and great-great-great-granddaughter Audrey Stanfield.

So far this year, he said, city crews have spent 800 hours cleaning up the damage from fallen tree limbs. Before that, heavy damage from vandalism prompted the placement of more security lights and sensors to keep people out during the night. But it is not enough, he said, noting that he continues to receive calls late at night from neighbors reporting attempts to get over the cemetery fence.

"This is not a picture that needs to be painted on a day of celebration, but this is the picture that I see," Weaver said.

Old Lorimier Cemetery was set aside as the city's first graveyard by city founder Louis Lorimier. His wife, Charlotte, was taken upstream in a canoe after her death in 1808 then brought up the hill from the Mississippi River to a final resting place. Lorimier joined his wife four years later.

Over the years, the prominent and the poor of Cape Girardeau were buried in the graveyard. The current fence line doesn't really encompass the full area once used for burials, said Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University. When Fountain Street was built, graves had to be moved, and bones were uncovered when nearby apartments were constructed. The gate on Fountain Street was once the back of the cemetery; there are broken headstones among trees on the hillside sloping down to the Mississippi River, he said.

"The names of the people interred here are the names of Cape Girardeau," Nickell said. "You can go right down the list alphabetically, and they are the names of the people who built Cape Girardeau."

Along with talks about the need to preserve and promote the cemetery as a historic resource and tourist draw, audience members were treated to stories about the lives of significant early residents. Boots Jessup, a docent for the Red House Interpretive Center, attired in a gingham dress and bonnet, presented the story of Julia Gill, mother of five and a Civil War nurse who died in 1918 at age 73.

Delilah Tayloe of the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri, clad in black, stood at the Scripps' family plot, where there are three headstones carved from a single slab of rock. Grace Scripps and daughter Ann died within days of each other in 1811, an indication of a possible epidemic.

The headstones note that the Scrippses emigrated from London to Southeast Missouri. "It must have been, to her, something of a howling wilderness."

And in front of the grave of Antoinette Hunze, founder of the First Methodist German Church -- now the Grace United Methodist Church -- Grace Hoover gave details of the religious life of early Cape Girardeau, complete with the church's history book with pictures of Hunze.

"The sermons, the service, everything was in German," Hoover said.

Part of Sunday's program was an effort to raise funds for upkeep and upgrades at the cemetery, including repairs to the sidewalks and benches for people to take a moment to rest while visiting the graveyard, among other projects.

"Like us, cemeteries get old. Sometimes they need intensive care," Nickell said. "This cemetery needs intensive care."

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

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