Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Texas Tale: Cemetery Restoration Model of Community Involvement
by L. David Vogel
On January 1, 1868, the La Grange Hebrew Benevolent Society purchased four acres of land on the high bank of the Colorado River, about one mile from downtown La Grange, Texas, formally establishing the La Grange Cemetery. The earliest known burials were in 1867 and burials continued until 1934, when local Jews began using a portion of the La Grange city cemetery. A total of 32 marked graves now exist in the old cemetery, and it is believed that there may be as many as eight unmarked graves. The actual cemetery occupies an area of about 100 ft. x 150 ft., bordered on two sides by what remains of an old iron picket fence.
The four acres including the cemetery were sold in 1957 by the "sole and only surviving officer and member of the Ladies Hebrew Cemetery Association of La Grange," formerly known as the La Grange Hebrew Benevolent Society. The deed stipulated that the new (non-Jewish) owner would restore, repair, and maintain the cemetery and grant ingress and egress across adjoining land. There is no evidence that any such work was done, and the property was sold again 1981.
The new and present (non-Jewish) owners built a nice home about 100 feet from the cemetery. They periodically cleaned up the cemetery, but it was in such a neglected and overgrown state that they were unable to keep the weeds, brush, and vines under control. Scrap iron and other large trash items had been placed in the cemetery over the years and had not been removed. Monuments had fallen and many were leaning badly.
Not being a native to this area, I did not know of the cemetery until about 1991. When I saw its deplorable condition, I knew it was a project for me to take on because it was obvious that no one else was going to do it. Thinking that this would be good for Temple youth groups to help with, I contacted Rabbi Matthew Eisenberg at Temple Israel in Houston and Rabbi Steven Folberg at Temple Beth Israel in Austin. Both responded enthusiastically and scheduled a work party for a Sunday morning the following spring.
I furnished an assortment of hand tools, the property owners furnished ice water, the teens furnished youthful energy, and on the first effort they removed all the trash, cut and pulled lots of weeds, pulled huge vines from the trees, and replaced some monuments that had fallen. On the next work party they pulled vines from the remains of the old iron fence, which was only partly visible due to heavy vine growth.
On subsequent trips, they have excavated a brick border around one child's grave, spread fill sand to level rough or low areas, planted St. Augustine grass and flowering perennials, and wire brushed, primed and painted half of the old fence. Of course, they also pull weeds, rake and do general clean-up work.
My intention from the beginning was to concentrate on having teens do chores with longer-lasting value that will facilitate routine maintenance. Mowing and trimming on a regular basis is now done by the property owners and myself. We have no formal agreement, but they typically keep most of the area mowed, and I mow around the graves and use my weedeater about once a month. Work parties usually occur once a year, sometimes twice, in the spring or fall. Since almost all the vines and most of the weeds are now gone (replaced by a thick green carpet of grass) we can keep the cemetery in good condition with a minimum of effort. The next project for the teens is to finish painting the fence.
A couple of jobs required significant expenditures. A monument company was hired to level and piece together damaged monuments. A personal friend donated his time and equipment to braze horizontal steel bars to stabilize the remaining fence, and I purchased the steel and other materials needed. A small group of interested persons, some with ancestors buried here, provides a modest fund to pay for such expenses, and I send them a brief newsletter every year or so. As president of our local congregation, Temple Israel, in Schulenburg, Texas, I established the cemetery fund as a separate Temple account.
A project in need of a special volunteer is to take a pile of old iron fence pickets, corner posts, and gates and turn this stuff in a work of art honoring the early Jewish Texas pioneers, to be placed prominently in the cemetery. If you are a sculptor with the interest to do this, let us know.
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