Many ask me about how I get started finding these lost cemeteries. It’s usually someone telling me an old story they’ve heard about. A few pan out. Many do not.
Lots of times, I start out trying to find a certain place and wind up somewhere else.
That’s what happened this time. I’d heard of the Old Coffee Cemetery, where only two people are buried. There is supposedly only one marker. His name was Joel. Her name was Polly. He had the stone. She did not. Two of the reasons I want to find it — it’s old, he was born in 1793 plus he fought in the War of 1812, and served beside Gen. Andrew Jackson.
I was eating one morning, with my Band of Brothers, and started talking about it. There wasn’t a map, but I did have GPS coordinates.
My friend Darrell Marecle said “I’ll go with you.”
“Do you want to go after breakfast?,” I asked.
He had something he had to do in about an hour, but said “We can go now.”
So we left. The location was to be off the Natchez Trace, near the Lee / Pontotoc County line.
The GPS carried us to an old grocery store, roof caved in, unkept property with tall grass and fallen trees.
We decided our best option was to ask someone. There weren’t many houses in the area, and it was early so the first couple doors I tried, no one answered.
Then I spotted one, a house trailer, with a couple well-worn vehicles parked haphazardly out front.
I climbed the wooden steps. There were, at least, 20 cardboard 12-pack beer boxes scattered about, a couple empty pizza boxes, a shotgun and a variety of fishing gear.
I knocked on the door. Nothing. I knocked again. I heard movement and a young, curly headed weekend warrior came to the door in his boxer shorts — period.
I asked him about the cemetery. He was all “no sir” and “yes sir” but obviously couldn’t tell me anything about the after-life, but probably could have helped with wrestlin’ or NASCAR.
I looked at him again. I could tell he’d been asleep. He struggled to think with his remaining operational brain cells (I can say that because 40 years ago ...) — anyway. He ran his fingers through his unkept hair and said, “Yeah, I think we went there once, but it’s on the other side of the Trace, like the first dirt road on your left and you go way back. You won’t think you’ll ever get there. The gravel turns into a dirt field road and ‘em graves you’re talkin’ about will be on the left. You’ll have to look hard for them. It’s all grown up.”
“I appreciate it,” I answered.
“Cool man,” he said and lumbered back into the house trailer.
I told Darrell what I’d learned, and we decided to just head up the closest dirt road, to stay close to where the GPS said we should be.
We bounced down one. There was a government don’t enter sign at the entrance. Undeterred we followed it a couple miles to the end. Deadend. It ended at a farmer’s field.
Darrell had to get back, so we put the adventure on hold.
A couple days later, my fellow grave-whisperer Boyd Yarbrough stopped by and asked if I wanted to try again.
We ended back at the tumbled down grocery store. Boyd took off in the woods behind the store. I searched behind the two abandoned houses, which were either side of the store, finding lots of interesting relics but no graves. Boyd didn’t have any luck either.
I told Boyd about the information the modern day pirate had given me, so we started looking for other close-by gravel and or field roads.
We traveled down one about five miles. He watched the left side and I scoured the right. It was getting into middle afternoon and I had to be back at the office at 4:30 p.m.
Bouncing back, Boyd spotted a gate open which led down to a large shed where a farmer was standing by the doorway.
He was very helpful, saying he’d heard of the graves but thought they were somewhere down the road we’d just traveled.
Maybe they are, we plan to go back, but he also told us of another deserted cemetery, just off the Trace, near Hwy. 41.
So our remaining time, we began to follow this new lead. The dirt road dropped off to the left. If you didn’t know to look for it, you’d never see it. The farmer had told us he didn’t know if we’d be able to navigate it because of the recent rains and it being rutted out. The front of Boyd’s truck bounced up a gravel hill, he touched the brakes and got out. The narrow course ahead was hollowed out and full of water. He got back in.
“We can walk,” I suggested.
“Nah,” Boyd said and dropped into reverse. He looked over at me, shifted into drive and hit the gas. The truck launched into the rutted mud, water sprayed over the top of us, a little more gas and we were sitting in the gravel on the other side.
We spun forward another half mile or so, moving so fast, as to not to get stuck, and making it hard to watch.
“Whoa,” I hollered.
“Did you see something?,” he asked.
“I think so,” I climbed out of the truck, stepped up the wooded hill. The small incline was covered with leaves, fallen limbs and spider webs. I pointed. A single marker pushed out of the rubble, sunning itself in small patch of light.
We’d found the Betts Cemetery. The first marker had been placed there in 1862. The last burial had taken place in 1914. There were 45 graves in all, not all clearly marked, many broken stones and in my mind I couldn’t help but wonder, “Had some of these people said ‘bury me anywhere, it doesn’t really matter.’”
I know I’ve said it.
But is that what we really want — no one to visit our grave? Perhaps we should think out what we say.
Just a thought.
If you have good information about the Old Coffee Cemetery, call Boyd 662-397-1169