Preserving historic Riverview graveyard a lifelong mission
Nature is slowly erasing the monuments to some of the founding fathers and mothers of South County
At the end of a dusty, dead-end street choked with gnarled trees and brush, nature is slowly erasing the monuments to some of the founding fathers and mothers of South County.
One the county’s oldest graveyards, Riverview’s Samford Cemetery marks the resting place for members of the Ransome, Manning and Buzbee families, with even a Russian princess among the bodies thought to be buried there.
More than 100 headstones dot the old graveyard but at least six times that many souls rest there, according to Wimauma’s Sue Bunting who has devoted her life to preserving the cemetery on Cone Grove Road just off U.S. Highway 301 in Riverview.
“There could be 650 people buried there,” said Bunting, president of the Samford Cemetery Association Inc., a nonprofit corporation which has overseen the property since 1995.
A partial survey of the one-acre plot in 2011 using ground-penetrating radar found evidence of at least 600 bodies on the property, said Bunting, who worked with researchers from the University of South Florida’s anthropology department on the survey.
“They found graves we never knew were there,” said Bunting whose great-great-grandmother is buried at Samford.
Vienna Henry was the first person buried in the graveyard — then called Peru Cemetery — in the early 1800s, according to Bunting’s research.
Peru was founded in the 1830s on the south side of the Alafia River, decades before Riverview which was settled in 1885 on the north side of the river, according to the Tampa Historical Society. Peru, a name that today only appears on the earliest maps of the area, was absorbed into Riverview in the 1940s.
The cemetery was renamed to honor Alexander Samford, a Methodist minister who died in an American Indian raid in 1891. Despite its age, his grave marker, a striking five-foot sandstone obelisk, is one of the best preserved in the cemetery today.
A Russian princess, Natalia Polisky, was also buried there in the early years of the last century said Bunting, who spent two years doing nothing but researching the cemetery, digging out court documents, death certificates and talking to elderly residents. She found the story of the princess, who was married to her great-uncle, in an old edition of the Tampa Tribune from the 1970s.
The last burial cemetery at Samford — also known as the Dusenberry Cemetery to many during the last century — took place in the early 1990s. There will be no new ones. Florida law prohibits new burials at any cemetery without a plot plan, a map of where all the bodies are buried.
The law has left some families holding deeds to worthless burial plots.
“Plots were sold [in the past] that people did not have the right to sell,” Bunting said. “People are still coming out of the woodwork today [asking about their plots] but there’s nothing we can do for them. My heart just breaks over it.”
The cemetery fell into disrepair in the 1980s and despite calls for volunteers to help out over the years, one the last major cleanups was in 2009. The job of maintaining the cemetery on Cone Grove Road has fallen on Bunting and her ailing husband. But while her spirit is willing, the physical toll of pulling up weeds and clearing undergrowth has become a grueling one for the couple, now in their 60s.
“You see families come by sometimes and clean it up a little, but as a rule it gets overgrown,” said William Hart, who has lived across the street from Samford since 1985.
One visitor with a relative in the graveyard told Hart he wanted to move the body because of the condition of the cemetery “but he was told it would cost $50,000,” Hart said.
“The cemetery is such a mess now,” said Bunting, who plans a major cleanup of the lot once her husband recovers from his near-fatal fall from a horse last year. “I’ve asked for help with the cleanup but people don’t come forward. It’s a sad situation.”
Families dying off or moving is a common problem when it comes to maintenance of the area’s older cemeteries, said Shelby Bender, co-author with Elizabeth Laramie Dunham of Tampa’s Historic Cemeteries, a 128-page soft-cover book released earlier this year.
“Many of the descendants of those who are buried in the older cemeteries have either passed away or may have moved out of the area so it’s not convenient for them to come back and maintain the properties,” said Bender, president of the East Hillsborough Historical Society who has written three books about Plant City.
“You do have some older graveyards that hold regular picnics and cleanups but it’s all about building that community awareness,” Bender said.
Maintenance of old cemeteries is an issue throughout the Bay area, according to David Parsons, a librarian at the Florida History and Genealogy Library in Tampa.
“Sometimes it’s the age of the cemetery and over the years those responsible for maintenance change. Of the 83 cemeteries in Tampa, only four are maintained by the city.”
Losing historic cemeteries is losing a piece of our collective soul, Bender said.
“The history of our communities is there. The stories of the people who made the area what it is today are there. I would like to think people would care about that and come out and help [maintain the graveyards] although I think our current society doesn’t care as much about history today.”
Interested in volunteering to help clean up the Samford Cemetery? Contact Sue Bunting by email, email@example.com.
Email Shelby Bender, firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information on her book about Tampa’s old cemeteries.
Historic area cemeteries
• Alderman-Pelote Cemetery, Lithia, established in 1851
• Antioch Cemetery, Thonotosassa, established in 1884
• Bethlehem Cemetery, Dover, established in 1857
• Bethlehem Memorial Cemetery, Ft. Lonesome, established in 1876
• Brandon Family Cemetery, Brandon, established in 1857
• Cedar Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, Keysville, established in 1859
• Centro Español Memorial Park Cemetery, Tampa, established in 1891
• Fellowship Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, Wimauma, established in 1875
• Hackney Riverview Cemetery, aka Riverview Cemetery, Riverview, established in 1886
• Hopewell Church Cemetery, Tampa, established in 1872
• Mathews Cemetery, Mango, established in 1868
• Mount Enon Cemetery, Plant City, established in 1841
• Shiloh Cemetery, Plant City, established in 1841
Source: HillsboroughCounty Cemeteries.com