Story By: Ashley Selby.
The iron gates creak slowly in the wind. A fat, white water tower with the word “Auburn” stamped across the front looms in the south. Cars line the curb, forming a barrier between the cemetery and the land of the living. Every so often, a college student breaks the barrier and shuffles through the black gates onto the asphalt path with ear buds in, lost in a bass-pumping world.
Grave markers surround them as these students walk through the main path of the cemetery. Little do they know that William Samford, LeRoy Broun, Ralph Brown Draughon and Charles Thach lie feet away, their stories begging to be heard.
Pine Hill Cemetery sits two blocks from the campus of Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., yet very few of the 25,000 students even know it exists, let alone examine its history. Judge John J. Harper, the founder of the city of Auburn, established the cemetery in 1836. Since the first groundbreaking in 1838, which ironically, was for the grave of Harper’s first son, William H. Harper, the cemetery has served as the final resting place for many of the people who worked to create what Auburn is today.
Currently, the city of Auburn pays for basic maintenance, but the Auburn Heritage Association has taken on additional up-keep and repairs and raises awareness within the community through special events. Walk through the front gates and down the path a few feet, and suddenly names seen on buildings around Auburn University start appearing on headstones. To the left side of the asphalt walkway, stark white crosses and obelisks inscribed with the names of LeRoy Broun and his family point to heaven. The markers, which have stood since 1902, show their age in the cracking arms of the crosses and black tree sap dripping down the length of the obelisks.
Broun, who served as president of Auburn University from 1882-1883 and 1888-1902, is credited with revamping the vision of Auburn University and changing the school into the well-rounded institution it is today.
Mary Norman, a professional genealogist and president of the Auburn Heritage Association, said Broun was one of the most influential individuals in Auburn University’s history
“LeRoy Broun is kind of my hero for Auburn and Auburn University,” Norman said. “He did more for this University and this area than anyone else did. He came here in 1872, and he’s the one who changed the curriculum of the East Alabama Male College. He’s the one who brought the curriculums of engineering, science and math to the university. Prior to that, Auburn was ancient languages, cadets and military, that kind of a university. He was the one university president who stressed and made a change for Auburn to be what it is today.”
As the path winds its way downhill into the heart of Pine Hill, plain markers and unfamiliar names line the pathway, but stories and history can still be found in memories of the people who once knew the people now buried in the cemetery. One plain-looking grave belongs to Clyde “Red” Meagher and his wife Luckie. Lan Lipscomb, long-time Auburn resident and member of the Auburn Heritage Association, remembers the Meaghers and their influence in the Auburn community and his own life.
“Luckie Meagher was my kindergarten teacher,” Lipscomb said. “My mother was concerned when I was about 5 years old because I wrote letters backwards. My mother asked Luckie Meagher about it, and she said ‘Oh, you little mommas worry about such things, and you really shouldn’t. Give him a year or two and he’ll turn around and go the other direction and it’ll be fine.’ I love that Luckie Meagher was more than a kindergarten teacher. She was a sort of fount of wisdom for my mother.”
Both Lipscomb’s grandfather and father once owned Lipscomb’s Drug Store in Auburn, and Lipscomb said Luckie first met her husband at his grandfather’s store.
“(Red) was a skinny, red-headed, tall fellow and he used to hang out at my father’s drugstore. Luckie came in and she was a college student at API, as they called it then. Supposedly his first words to her were that he was going to sell her some cream that would clear up her complexion.”
Despite Red’s insensitivity, the couple married and opened a restaurant, the Doll House, to serve quick, home-cooked meals to University students, according to “Auburn Sweet Auburn: History, Stories and Epitaphs of Pine Hill Cemetery”.
Looking out over the tiers of Pine Hill, very few markers reach more than a few feet above the ground.
“This cemetery is very plain, and it’s very simple,” Norman said. “You don’t have any angels. That’s a reflection of the people who actually settled Auburn. They were very Puritanical, very religious, but very stoic. Everything is straight up-and-down and very symmetrical.”
Despite the overall stiff architectural style, some of the artistic touches carved into the headstones evolve from each section of the cemetery to the next. Many of the older markers don’t simply state the name and dates of a person’s life, but carry symbolic meaning through the verses, symbols and sculptures on the marker.
Dr. Emily Sparrow, a 60-year Auburn resident and retired social studies teacher, took on the monumental task of re-enumerating the cemetery in 2004 and researching the symbolism of the cemetery’s markers.
“I am entranced by the beauty of the markers and of the gravestones,” Sparrow said. “Most of them carry very powerful religious messages of hope. [I love] all the symbolism, the clasped hands, the fingers pointing to heaven, the symbolism behind the flowers that the people have chosen to put on their markers.”
According to Sparrow’s contribution to “Auburn Sweet Auburn: History, Stories and Epitaphs of Pine Hill Cemetery,” while most of the newer markers are plain and unpretentious, some of the markers from the 19th Century communicate particular belief systems or life accomplishments. Confederate soldier gravestones contain a small imprint of the Southern cross of honor, a four flanged circular cross with the Confederate flag in the middle. At least 20 of the gravestones represent a member of the Masons, with the traditional compass and square symbol stamped into the headstone.
Religious imagery is also sprinkled throughout Pine Hill, but visitors often don’t realize the meaning hidden in each carving or sculpture. According to Sparrow, clasping hands represent the act of saying goodbye to a loved one. Often the hands have different sleeves to indicate a husband and wife parting.
The gravestone of a young 36-year old woman named Mattie Whatley stands at the south end of the cemetery, its marble carved with a hand reaching down to touch a bouquet of flowers. Sparrow has theorized it symbolizes the hand of God reaching down the pluck the lovely flower, Whatley, from the earth.
However, not every person buried in Pine Hill got such an elegant monument in their honor. According to “Auburn Sweet Auburn: History, Stories and Epitaphs of Pine Hill Cemetery,” in 2010, the Auburn Heritage Association teamed up with Stephen Jones of the University of Alabama to conduct a ground penetrating radar survey and discovered a mass grave in the back of the cemetery plot believed to contain the remains of 98 Confederate soldiers who were brought to Auburn for medical treatment during the Civil War. The soldiers who died were removed from Old Main, the hospital that once stood on the site of Samford Hall, and buried in an unmarked mass grave in the back of Pine Hill.
Age and environment are two of Pine Hill’s greatest enemies, but vandalism has been a new threat to the preservation of the cemetery. Norman said gravestones are vandalized regularly.
“It’s very bad because every time I walk in here, I see something else that’s been moved or been toppled over,” Norman said. “It’s a very, very sad situation.”
A new fence has been added to the back of the cemetery which Norman believes has cut down on students cutting through the cemetery to get to the street behind it, reducing the vandalism somewhat.
At the bottom of the hill, in the back of the cemetery, a small marble child kneels upon a circular base bearing the name of the child the grave belongs to, Charles Stodgill Miles. The child holds a small plate with a baby alligator upon it, but something is amiss. The child is decapitated, has no arms and the alligator is also headless. Kitt Conner, the vice-president of the Auburn Heritage Association, said Miles’ memorial, bearing the only human form found on a grave marker in Pine Hill, has been the victim of vandalism for many years.
“The head went missing, then came back,” Conner said. “The arms are missing now and the head’s missing again, as well as the head of the alligator. We’ve had some suggestions of getting him fixed. Somebody said ‘Well, why don’t you put a new statue up there?’ Well, no, you leave the old statue and repair it, not take it and throw it away. That’s the difference between real preservation and just fixing something.”
Dr. Charles Hendrix, a 33-year resident of Auburn, professor in the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine and member of the Auburn Heritage Association, said he wishes someone would come forward with the money to repair the monument, or better yet, the missing pieces.
“I think [the statue] would make a great unsolved mystery or closed-case file,” Hendrix said. “Somebody’s got that head. Somebody’s got the head on a bookcase, and it needs to be brought back. I’d love to be able to restore it.”
Despite the continuing attempts of vandalism, Pine Hill Cemetery still stands as a reminder of the reality of life and death in Auburn. Looking out over the cemetery, the tiers of marble headstones and white memorials sparkle like seashells buried in a beach of grass. The rolling hills draw the visitor from the front gates, down the meandering paths around to the north side to look back up toward the entrance from where they came. Conner said people often don’t understand the beauty and serenity, amid the history, that the cemetery offers.
“People think, ‘Well, golly, you like hanging out in the cemetery?’” Conner said. “But it’s beautiful, it really is.”
Mary Norman: Deep Roots in Auburn Create Love of History
When Mary Norman walks into Pine Hill Cemetery, she doesn’t see headstones. She sees generations gone by. She sees family she grew up with. She sees loved ones, friends of her grandparents and people she visited as a child.
As a member of one Auburn’s first families, Norman’s roots in Auburn run almost two hundred years deep. Norman’s family first settled in Auburn in 1835 and have remained a part of the community ever since. Norman was born in Auburn in 1952, and although she grew up in Ormond Beach, Fla., Auburn kept calling her back.
“(Auburn) is where I came to my grandparents’ for Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving and everything,” Norman said. “I would come back and forth to visit my grandmother every year of my life. I spent two weeks out of the summer here. I spent every holiday here. She would bring me to Pine Hill Cemetery.”
Norman returned to her hometown for good when she enrolled in Auburn University to pursue a degree in communication in 1970. It was then that Norman began exploring her past and her ties to Auburn through genealogy.
“My grandmother basically first taught me genealogy. I lived with (her) for a short period of time and then she got me involved in genealogy,” Norman said. “She was not a professional genealogist, but she was interested in the family history. She was the one who took me to courthouse to teach me how to do that.”
Now a professional genealogist, Norman does genealogy work for organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Daughters of the American Revolution and serves as the president of the Auburn Heritage Association, the organization in charge of maintaining Pine Hill Cemetery.
Alice Perry Gibson, owner of the Pick House on North College Street, formed the AHA in 1947. Since then, the group has taken part in countless projects in Auburn. While Norman has been president, the group has had a lasting impact on restorations and improvement of important historical sites in town.
After the group was formed, the AHA bought the old Pebble Hill home from the Yarborough family and completely restored it.
They continued their restorations and bought the Ebenezer Baptist Church on E. Thach Avenue in 1970. They then rehabilitated the first African American Church built in the Auburn Area. It has been a fixture in Auburn since 1865.
The group and Norman then undertook an amazing goal: the Nunn-Winston House.
“It used to sit on Gay Street behind the Auburn Alumni Association,” Norman said. “It was built by Samuel Nunn in 1859, and we restored it and sent it out to Kiesel Park.”
Nunn was one of the first settlers of Auburn and an early trustee of future Auburn University. It took $65,000 to transport the house from its original site to the park where it sits today. The antebellum, Greek-inspired home is now a graceful white cottage nestled in the middle of Kiesel Park, surrounded by gardens. It is open for dinner parties and special occasions.
Norman helped the AHA write a book about Auburn historic stories and create epitaphs of 1,600 graves. The AHA has won the Distinguished Service Award under her leadership in 2010 and an award in 1998 by the Alabama Historic Commission.
Recently, the Auburn Train Depot, a site placed on the Alabama Places of Peril list by AHA and the Alabama Historic Commission, was sold with plans of rehabilitation.
The city now plans to restore and put the depot to good use, according to Charles Duggan, Auburn city manager.
Norman’s latest project is working on the private cemetery across from her house. She has set a new goal to get nine more historic markers for the Auburn Historic District, a goal that she will surely see achieved.
Norman has also continued the bi-annual lantern tours where members of the Auburn community can come take a late-night guided tour through Pine Hill Cemetery to visit graves and hear stories told by re-enactors about the people who are buried there. For 15 years, the tour has taught people about the local history of Auburn.
“The lantern tour is a way for students to come and experience history in the Pine Hill Cemetery,” Norman said. “It makes the learning fun.”
For Norman, her work with Pine Hill is incredibly personal.
“I have everyone from my parents, my grandparents, two sets of great-grandparents, two sets of great-great grandparents, two sets of great-great-great grandparents, all the way down to my fourth great grandfather,” Norman said. “I probably have about 100 family members who are buried here.”
Norman can point out exactly where her ancestors lie within Pine Hill, spouting off names like Pruett, Foster, Lee and Walker. She insisted her family was a major influence for her love of the preservation of Pine Hill Cemetery and other historic landmarks around Auburn. Norman’s great-great-grandfather was Reverend Francis Lafayette Cherry, the first person to write the history of Opelika in 1881. Additionally, Norman’s grandmother spurred her on to investigate where she came from.
“My grandmother instilled in me a real love for Auburn,” Norman said. “I’ve learned a lot more since I’ve moved back in talking with her. Right now, I wish I could talk with her again.”
Kitt Conner, vice-president of the Auburn Heritage Association, has worked with Norman since 1997, and credits all her historic knowledge to Norman.
“She and I are good buddies,” Conner said. “Everything I know is what she taught me. I follow her around and just listen and learn. She is Auburn.”
As president of the Auburn Heritage Association, Norman has undertaken multiple projects to keep the history of Pine Hill Cemetery and her family alive. The Auburn Heritage Association, with help from grant money from the city of Auburn, maintains and repairs grave markers that are damaged by vandals or crumble due to old age.
Norman smiled as she thought about why she does what she does with Pine Hill Cemetery.
“I love history,” Norman said. “I’ve always loved history. It’s something that has always interested me. I love local histories.”