Set in stone|[05/11/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 11, 2008

What started as just a job has left Jemerson’s lifelong mark

T.J. Jemerson has left his mark on Vicksburg and much of the surrounding area.

It’s engraved in stone, either marble or granite, for Jemerson was a stonecutter, an artist who shaped slabs of stone into tombstones for 51 years.

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Jemerson, 81, began work at A.J. Martin Marble and Granite Works in February 1947. He had just gotten out of the Navy and said, “I was doing nothing and my dad told me I had been loafing long enough.”

He got a job at Martin’s and began what he didn’t realize, then, was to be his lifelong calling which started as “strictly hands-on, on-the-job training.”

Legend has it that Gus Martin began the business cutting marble under the shade of a tree in 1905 after learning the trade from his father in Summit, Miss.

Jemerson remembers Martin as a character — but so was his wife.

“I thought Mr. Martin owned the business when I first went to work out there, but I found out shortly who was running it, and that was Miss Hilda, his wife. When World War II came along, and things were hard to get, he wanted to close up until after the war. She told him, ‘If we close up, we’ll probably never open back up,’ so she, and what help she could find, ran the business during the war.”

Vicksburg undertaker Charles Riles, who has been closely associated with the tombstone company for years, said one of his favorite memories was when he would go to the office “and there sat Miss Hilda on one side of the desk, her hair all fixed just so, everything just perfect, looking so authoritative. I would go through the routine greetings and then ask her a question. Jemerson sat on the other side of the desk, and she would turn and defer to him: ‘T.J., what do you think of that?'”

“T.J. Jemerson was the ultimate authority,” Riles said.

Martin died in 1964 and, after Mrs. Martin’s death, Jemerson bought the business in 1983. He sold it 10 years ago to David Pace of Brookhaven. Soon the location will be moved from near Cedar Hill Cemetery to Clay Street and the name changed. It will be the end of an era, for Jemerson said the standing ad in The Vicksburg Post is thought to be the longest-running one in the newspaper. He has a personal connection to the paper, he said — as a boy he delivered the Post.

Jemerson’s parents moved here from east Texas in 1939. He graduated from Carr Central and then went into the Navy where “I got my best schooling.”

Stonecutting has changed considerably over the years, and Jemerson stated, “Before my time, a piece of marble was shaped with a hand chisel and hammer. Tempered tools were used for the work, then they came out with air hammers. It took carbide tip tools to work granite, but you really don’t need them for marble, as it’s softer. Used to, to have flowers in relief, you would cut away the background. Later, they were shaped with sandblasting. This day and age, everything is machine-cut.”

His work doesn’t just appear in Vicksburg’s Cedar Hill Cemetery. You can find tombstones he has made in just about every rural graveyard in Warren and adjoining counties, in Louisiana parishes and as far away as the Gulf Coast, the Delta and the Tupelo area. He bought his material from Alabama, Georgia, Vermont and Italy. Today, so many colors are available “because you can get it from any corner of the world.”

Riles said one of his vivid memories is of a small shed behind the marble works, “filled with dust and sand and the sounds of hammers and saws and drills, of Mr. Jemerson taking a piece of rock and making something out of it. I believe he is one of the last artists of that era. He’s a humble genius.”

One object of a tombstone, Jemerson said, “is to reflect one’s life. Most stones now just have the basics — name and dates. I like some history on a stone.”

He said the most challenging stone he has made was for Dr. Lamar McMillin. It’s a very large Celtic cross with intricate design and includes symbols of family history from the British Isles to Early America to Mississippi. Jemerson worked from a sketch made by McMillin.

Though Jemerson took his profession seriously because he was “doing a service” and “often met with people at the very worst time,” he has stories about many whose graves are marked by his handiwork and talent. Some, he laughed, shouldn’t be told, and some stones he made have a bit of humor, such as the Popeye quote, “I yam what I yam,” or the one that states, “See, I told you I was sick.” A legendary epitaph, used for generations, is, “As you pass by so once was I, As I am now you soon will be. Prepare for death and follow me.” But he remembers an answer Mr. Martin had: “To follow you I will not consent, until I find which way you went.”

One of the most unusual requests Jemerson had was from a man who wanted a large monument with a cross on it, “but he wanted it to look like it had been there a hundred years and had started to deteriorate where you could just barely see the outline of the cross. I got a scrap piece and went to playing with it and finally got it the way he wanted it. It didn’t stand out, but that’s what he wanted.” The marker is in the Rolling Fork cemetery.

Jemerson has no idea how many tombstones he has made but, walking through Cedar Hill Cemetery with him and listening to his stories, you realize it probably is in the thousands. Among them are many of the crosses for the graves of the Sisters of Mercy, the large star over the grave of nightclub owner Tom Wince, and the vault for the William McCulloch Childs family, the front similar to the castle on the Corps of Engineers flag, reflective of Childs’ life work. Another of Jemerson’s works is a relief of a shepherd and three sheep, made for the Maggio family. He transferred the drawing from a page in a child’s coloring book to stone.

Nelma Crutcher of Dixon, Tenn., remembers the day she called T.J. Jemerson, a man she had never met. It was in 1993 and Crutcher was in town to start the ball rolling to place a Confederate monument for her native state in the Vicksburg National Military Park. Someone told Crutcher, who was an officer in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that Jemerson could help.

The UDC ladies wanted a marker in the shape of their state. It would be 14 feet long and 3 feet tall. Crutcher gave Jemerson the particulars and necessary info, and later she received a mockup of the marker. The only cost to the ladies was for the block of granite. The marker was dedicated June 29, 1996, and Crutcher said, “Mr. Jemerson did it all,” adding there is no way he can ever be thanked enough.

Tombstone artists of the past put their names on their work, but Jemerson never has because once he sold a stone, “It’s not mine anymore. They might send me a bill!”

What can you do about an old stone? One that is broken, if it is a clean break, can be put together with a strong epoxy, he said. To clean marble, Jemerson uses a mixture of half water and half Clorox, sprays it on, and lets time and sunshine do the work.

Riles, speaking for the legions of families Jemerson has touched over the years, said, “I have always appreciated his accommodating nature. I always depended on him, his knowledge, his willingness to share information. And he always made things better with his sense of humor.”

Jemerson and his wife, Mary Louise, have two daughters. Toni is married to Danny Koestler, and Brenda to Bill Jones. They also have several grandchildren.

Like the proverbial shoemaker whose child goes barefoot, Jemerson did not make his own tombstone.

“Watching the grass grow is a good occupation,” he said.


Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.