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Florence cemetery tells story of early settlers

(Editor’s Note: Florence is the location for this year’s Prelude to the Symphony in the Flint Hills. Activities are planned in the community June 12-13, with tens of thousands of visitors anticipated. Following is a historical site in Florence that visitors and county residents would find interesting.)

Staff writer

When Teeny Williams began researching and recording the City of Florence burial ground, known as Hillcrest Cemetery, she did not realize how many interesting facts she would learn about the people who lived and died at Florence years ago.

The cemetery was established in 1871 and was expanded twice in its history. Veterans from six wars are buried there.

The original part contains a lot of open space because of the many unmarked graves. It includes a Potters Field in which many transients are buried, who died while in the area.

In 1987, Williams, as a Florence City Council member, began the daunting task of replacing cemetery records destroyed in a fire many years ago.

Old doctors’ records, mortuary records, and the caretaker log book helped establish accurate accounts.

These records revealed fascinating facts. In the early days, people seldom lived past the age of 40, and many died in childbirth.

A complete family of children succumbed to a measles epidemic, and one young boy even died of a broken leg.

Many children are buried at Hillcrest. A baby, name unknown, fished from the river, had died of strangulation. Malaria, typhoid fever, and scarlet fever were common causes of death, along with cholera, diphtheria, and yellow jaundice.

Cancer was rarely noted, but dropsy, consumption, and lung fever were common. Bright’s disease, inflammation of bowels, liver abscess, and infection of the head were the most dreaded, with little chance of recovery.

Two lawmen were gunned down in the line of duty. There also were many suicides. A large number of farmers’ wives died of accidental gunshots.

During the oil boom in the 1920s, fractured skulls, alcoholic poisoning, and gunshot wounds were common. One man residing in the city jail died of an overdose of narcotics, indicating there may have been drug problems long ago.

Many young men were killed in railroad accidents. If lawyers would have practiced then like they do now, the Santa Fe Railroad would be nonexistent.

When a married woman died, her first name was seldom used, and one lady was buried as “Old Lady McCready.”

Afflicted children were hidden and forgotten, and there was little doubt of who was considered the low-life of the community. One young woman who died of syphilis was the only member of a family who did not have a marker.

Nationality was important in the early days — English, French, German, Russian, Canadian — but gradually everyone regarded themselves as “American.”

A cyclone killed four people during a spring storm despite the fact that Florence is located in the fork of two rivers.

“If it could talk, Hillcrest Cemetery could tell you many tales,” Williams said. “It should be a showplace. We should all look beyond the stones and see the people.”

Williams instigated a Memorial Tree Program in 1987, and many deciduous trees were added to the tall pines in the cemetery.

Other people also have contributed to the upkeep and improvement of the cemetery.

Betty Inlow was instrumental in the establishment of an Avenue of Flags in 1981. Now there are at least 110 flags on the avenue. They are maintained by the John McKay American Legion Post 308 of Florence.

Boyce “Pete” Williams restores broken concrete markers.

In 2005 and 2006, Linda Britton Heath computerized and printed out the names and locations of each grave. The information was mounted on a board, but there was no place to keep it.

The city council approved construction of an attractive gazebo in the cemetery in 2006, and Pete Williams built a central, hexagonal posting board to hold the names and history of Hillcrest Cemetery. The list is updated every year.

Thanks to community people who care, regardless of what happens to the town of Florence in days to come, those who lived and died there will be memorialized forever in Hillcrest Cemetery.

One story unique to Hillcrest tells of a group of approximately 500 Mennonite immigrants who were forced to spend a cold 1874-75 winter in an empty store building in Florence. A smallpox epidemic broke out, and more than 300 immigrants died. They are buried in numerous unmarked individual and mass graves at Hillcrest Cemetery.

That is a story for another time.

Last modified May 13, 2009

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