Breath of life|Teen’s work revives old cemetery on Fonsylvania

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 26, 2009

There have probably been more visitors to the grave of Maj. Charles Gee in the last few weeks than at any time since he was buried in a small family cemetery on Fonsylvania Road in 1845.

Only two graves are marked, that of Gee and the other of his grandson, Eugene Folkes. They died a little over a century apart — Folkes in 1948 at 90.

There are other graves, unmarked by any stones other than bricks. The road was described in 1862 by B.L.C. Wailes as a “circuitous, rough and hilly route” and, other than some new homes and blacktop, it has seen few changes. From the road, nothing of the cemetery is visible except a cedar tree on the hill, and to the passer-by there’s no hint that the small plot exists.

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It was out of sight, abandoned, forgotten except by a few — until Dana Cotton showed up with tools to clean it up. She’s a senior at Vicksburg High School and was in need of a community service project — and the cemetery was in need of a friend.

Restoring an old cemetery is perhaps just the opposite of living history, yet the lives of those buried there are fascinating.

Maj. Gee — the origin of the title is undetermined — moved to Warren County in 1820 from Lynchburg, Va., when he was 26 years old, along with his brother John P. Gee. They both settled in the same area.

Charles Gee married three times. In 1822, he wed Elizabeth M. Hamer, the widow of Charles Hamer, who had settled the land in 1806, and today a nearby bayou bears his name. When he died about 1820, he left a $10,000 estate — a vast fortune for that era. He had several children, including William H., who is buried at Rocky Springs.

Gee wed the second time to Sarah Covington, who died in 1836 and is buried in the Covington cemetery on the old Wailes plantation. His third wife was Mary Ann Johnston of Hinds County. They married in 1843, had a baby girl, then he died in 1845.

Charles Gee was a Baptist, a member of Antioch, and his wife Mary Ann joined the year of their marriage. Mrs. Sophie Goodrum visited the Major’s grave in 1894, and it jolted her memory. She wrote in her diary, “Well do I remember the last time I visited the Major’s grave. It was on the evening before the marriage of his widow to Mr. Gabrial Robb. Mrs. Mary Gee and I walked to the grave, she wept and told him she loved him — loved him as she never could love another — he had been husband and father and very soon she would bear the name of another. O, this was a sad farewell to the grave she knew so well. Mr. Robb was a jealous husband and the cloud of unrest hovered over her once happy young life.”

Mary Ann Johnston Gee married Gabrial Robb on July 2, 1846, and disappeared from Warren County records. For a time, he was guardian of Gee’s daughter, but later John P. Gee held that position, until she came of age.

Melinda Gee — usually called Mollie — was a very rich girl, for probate papers show her worth at about $16,000 and that’s not including an 1,100-acre plantation. She was well-educated, played the piano and guitar and, in 1861, married Dr. Frank Nailer.

To the Nailers were born several children, including daughter Hattie. It was she who grew up to marry Eugene Folkes. In February 1939, Eva W. Davis interviewed them for a story that appeared in the Vicksburg Evening Post.

The Folkes lived in an unpretentious house with a big porch they called a veranda. The house was filled with family antiques, china, silver and portraits, and the yard was alive with jonquils, bridal wreath and walks bordered in hyacinth. The structure was on land inherited from the Gee family and was not far from the graveyard.

The Folkes were a genteel couple who loved animals and reading. He had a gun collection and raised English setters; she loved to crochet and raised English red game chickens. At one time they sold dogs, but that was before Mrs. Folkes saw a hunter beating one — and she never sold another. She raised and sold game cocks for sporting purposes.

Both read for pleasure and for stimulating the mind and had a library of English classics. He quoted extensively from Shakespeare, the English poets and the Bible. Eugene and Hattie Folkes joined Asbury Methodist Church in October 1899, possibly the last members before the church closed and was demolished. Her parents are buried in Asbury Cemetery, their graves unmarked.

Eugene Folkes quit farming in favor of raising red pole cattle, which he found a lot more profitable and far less trouble. After his death, Mrs. Folkes moved to town and lived with a relative, Miss Edith Kline, before moving into a nursing home where she died at 91 on Dec. 11, 1953. As the family no longer owned the old home place, she was buried at Cedar Hill. The Folkes home later burned.

Dana Cotton said it took her about 12 hours to clean up and restore the cemetery. The area, about 50-by-50 feet, was covered with vines, briars, weeds, saplings and dead limbs. One of the most difficult jobs, she said, was pulling up old barbed wire where a fence had been.

Though she did most of the work, it took some help to complete the heavier tasks such as putting the marble top back on the Major’s brick vault. It had been shoved off, probably by vandals, years ago. She enlisted the assistance of her father, mother, and brother — Nolan, Lynn and Chase Cotton — and a friend, Aaron Peacock.

For Dana, there was a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment in getting the job done and in performing a service for her community.

However, she said she doesn’t provide perpetual care.

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