Friday, August 12, 2011

The Stones Cry Out: The Grisso Cemetery


The story behind the Grisso Cemetery is something that has held my fascination in the Ozarks' History for years. It happened last week that I was in a general region of this spot, but I didn’t have a map to guide my path. Looking for a small plot of land nestled in the rugged Ozark hills could be the proverbial “needle in the haystack.” So, I started looking for a house that looked like someone lived in the area for a long time or was native to the Ozarks. The first big clue…start looking for a farm that has a mule. Most likely, the people living there are natives. Therefore, they know the area well.

It was within the first county road I went down I found a mule in a farmer's front yard.  It so happened that this mule got out of its’ corral, was roaming near the road, and waiting for me to arrive. This was just what I needed! When stepping out of my van, the mule brayed the welcomed sound of, “You’ve found the right person!” After knocking on the farmhouse door and talking to the farmer & his wife for a few minutes, I had the detailed directions I needed…Go to Gepp, Arkansas, and turn north on Hwy 87.

After traveling north about two miles on Highway 87, I came down a typical Ozark winding hill, crossed a bridge over a small bayou, and turned down the first county road. This brought me to the area of Vidette, Arkansas.  On my right, I spotted a unmarked dirt road called, Mount Calm Road. Hoping this was the right passage, I traveled over this rocky trail for about two and a half miles. Finally, I passed by a sign entitled, “Grisso Cemetery.” The cemetery itself wasn’t quickly distinguishable; so, I drove up the next hill and asked a neighbor for a bit of clarification. After their cordial hospitality, I was quickly back on track.

Unfortunately, there are not huge volumes of history published about this particular area and its’ inhabitants. But what information is known will leave the reader wanting more. According to the Baxter County cemetery book, Of Grave Importance, this is one of the oldest cemeteries in the area. The land was donated by the Grisso family in1893, although people have been buried here for a much longer time.  Many of these stone markers have no inscriptions or have been eroded over time by the acidic rain. The Grisso Cemetery, shaded by the cedar trees along the Mount Calm Branch, is one of the few cemeteries where slaves are buried along side of their owners.


As I stepped out of my van, I was greeted by dragonflies that seemed to swarm rhythmically to the heat and humidity of the day; the temperature had dropped to 103 degrees at 6:15 in the evening. I jumped the cattle gate and walked down the pasture road few hundred yards to find the cemetery.   As I walked through the gate of the cemetery, somehow I knew I would discover more than what I was looking for. Yet, in these next few moments of discovery, I left with even more questions.


In the past, I had read Donald Hubbelle, Jr.’s book, Bennett’s Bayou, Bennett's River 1830-1900, which has most of the written narrative concerning this area. I was rehearsing its’ pages through my mind and connecting my past conjecture with the evidence that surrounded me. Sketches of past times & lives can sometimes be gleaned while walking along olden ground such as this, listening to the lay of the land, and looking at the placement of the stones of those who have traversed our soil.  With anticipation, I slowly opened the gate that was fashioned in 1975 by Earl Harber, who took on the task of renovating the Grisso Cemetery entrance gate.




First…The Stones Speak Out.
In first observing the cemetery, it seemed a small sea of at least 100 worn field stones were strewn across the grass; some were tightly woven together, while others seemed to blast with a resounding crescendo from their imposing monuments. It seems at cemetery field stones, these unmarked remainders, tug at my heart many times to the now nameless inhabitants that adorn these sacred spots. The stories once held and fading memories of the markers of these former residents of life remind me that my life too is a vapor. These nameless stones draw me closer to my Creator. Some of these stones are only a few feet from each other in size which speaks that death knows no age boundary, especially in this time period. In its’ telling and scrutiny, there are three stories that seemed to beckon the sojourner. 

These are the stories of two soldiers, two brothers, and a husband and wife.

Soldiers in War & Peace

Once I passed through the stone gate, my eyes were quickly drawn to a small tombstone, lightly etched. As I ran my fingers over the worn engraving, its’ letters still faintly read, “Black…U.S. Soldier….1860. Below its’ soil rests a soldier who never knew fully the strife and division that would soon fracture the fragile union of our nation.



Though his first name, origin, and history are unspoken, his presence and death are still marked on an eroding ledger of stone at his journey’s end.  The name “Black” has puzzled various people because slaves were buried in this cemetery. In the background of history, there were no black soldiers until the Emancipation Proclamation; black troops were being mustered by March, 1863. So by virtue of the date, we know this is not an African-American soldier but a soldier with the last name “Black.” Additionally, I have searched the Fulton County, Arkansas, records and have found a marriage between the Black Family & the Grisso Family. Maybe this could be a possible link to the past.

Still, the questions are many. What was his full identity? Where did he come from? Was his family from this area? Why was he traveling this nearby road? How did he pass away? What was his mission in this remote wilderness in 1860?  Did his family have the opportunity to mourn at his grave?

Only a few feet away from this marker, stands another small marker carved to an apex to a small testimony of its’ owner. By tradition, confederate tombstones are carved in this fashion. Again, this nameless marker ironically stands by a Union soldier's grave and symbol of someone he would fight against. Yet, more questions arise in unison over another piece of ground that guards its’ silent occupant.

These two markers stand in tribute to those who sleep here. Nevertheless, it reminds us all that death is the great equalizer of us all. These two soldiers’ monuments speak of the divisions in our nation's past, while their stones lie in unity in the markers of time.

Brothers in Slavery
According to past records, there are at least 10 slaves buried in this cemetery. This is quite unique, due to the fact there was prejudice…even in death. All of the slave's first names, in this cemetery, are erased in the sands of time, except one…Allie.  In a past interview with Area Wide News, information was given that Allie was of the Martin Harber Family; she was of the sweetest disposition, and no cook in Arkansas could out do her exploits’ in the kitchen.

According to the book, Bennett’s Bayou, Bennett's River 1830-1900, Jacob Grisso had owned two slaves who were brothers. They were rock masons, and Mr. Grisso rented them out to build chimneys and to do other masonry projects in the area. One of the brothers died in 1857 of small pox and was subsequently buried at the Grisso Cemetery. The remaining brother, with the permission of Mr. Grisso, took a wagon, a team of steers with a load of native stone and built a monument which today still covers the grave.
 

These are not randomly selected field stones. When inspecting these stones, they still have minuscule evidence of etchings of chisel and traces of tool marks that wrought large slabs of limestone into a memorial that would speak of the fidelity of brotherhood.


Next to this imposing monument, lies another stone with the solitary caption “SLAVE” eroding from its’ once embedded etching. No other name or title is given. According to oral tradition, this grave is said to be of the brother who erected his brother's imposing shrine. Hence, two brothers who toiled under the yoke of slavery and separated by different moments of death are now consigned by each other and resting from life’s labor and toil.
SLAVE
Husband & Wife
There are instances where words fail to communicate joy and love, as well as strife and grief. This is another reason why I still go to cemeteries. Of all the grandeur that can be discovered while walking through revered stones, there are stories that can speak volumes by what is missing. Predominantly speaking, it is odd to see the absence of a husband’s grave along side of his wife. When I see this, I know there has got to be a rhyme or reason for this circumstance; it's out of the ordinary. I have known of the following narrative for quite some time, and this was another reason I was drawn to this tract of earth. Though the interred are not present where I am standing, it seems I can gleam some context to see a final resting place of those who have gone on before. So therefore, my Dear Reader, take to heart the axioms, morals, and principles that even the stones reverberate.
 

In perusing over the weathered stones, the progenitors' gravestones of this cemetery are hauntingly absent.
Why?
Well, here's more of the story.

Only a quarter of a mile away, there is also a small cemetery located adjacent to the Grisso Cemetery; it contains about 20 graves with only four marked headstones. This other cemetery was reportedly started when the Jacob Grisso, born the 3rd of September, 1834, passed away in 1893, was buried here. The reason for his burial at this smaller cemetery, rather than the main Grisso Cemetery, was that Jacob’s wife was a most difficult woman to live with because she was “high strung.”  As the story goes, Jacob had an affinity for drinking. Therefore, she would lock Jacob out of the house and force him to spend the night at the neighbors. When Jacob Grisso died, she refused to allow him to be buried in the established cemetery in spite of her family’s protest, even though Jacob’s wishes were to buried in the familiar spot. Instead, Jacob Grisso was buried alone on top a hill in a piece of somewhat rocky ground. Afterward, about 20 other neighbors were interred along Jacob’s side. Additionally, as the story goes, Mrs. Martha Stinnett Grisso was buried in the main Grisso Cemetery. Nevertheless, her stone has been gently eroded by the acidic rains of time. 


While standing in on this grassy bottom along the Mount Calm Branch, I could not help but chuckle and hear the scriptures from Proverbs oddly reverberate in my mind.
It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman in a wide house. Proverbs 21:9  

It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman. Proverbs 21:19 

Again...more questions. Why did Jacob drink? Could it be his drinking caused his wife to be so contentious? Or, was she so contentious, it drove Jacob to drinking?

While walking the banks of the brook near this cemetery, one’s eyes cannot help but to be drawn to the nearby forlorn hilltop where Jacob was interned, once again, among his neighbors sleeping in the wilderness. Only this time, he is resting in death’s slumber. It is in this place that glimpses of scenes of renewal, joy, and peace play upon my hopes.

It is my hope to those who have gone on before us have placed their hope in the Prince of Peace, may they be restored on that Golden Shore…in the Sweet Bye & Bye.
Rest In Peace Jacob Grisso.
May You Rest Forevermore.

Finally…The Stones Cry Out.
My Reflection 
The lessons of the past were rolling through my mind while I was surveying these fading memorials. These stones cannot only speak; they cry out a myriad of lessons. I remember writing a blog article back in June called, Glorious Flaws, Cherished Faults & Beautiful Offenses; it was during this time current post began to take hold in my mind.

I once took an Old Testament Class years ago; the rabbi taught for a solid week on offending others and being offended. These are the trespasses that will partition us into the wilderness of life. As a class, we were challenged to write down the trespasses & sins we had committed. The point being, if we never see & admit our trespasses, offenses, and sins, we will never know the release of true forgiveness. Honestly, I attempted this task twice, but I never brought it to where I knew it should be. I was too difficult to accomplish, and I took my list outside and burned it. My own sins, offenses, trespasses, and shortcomings were too difficult to admit…and to see.  It is easier to say, “That’s all in my past, I forgiven.”  But, wouldn’t it be nice to see exactly what I was forgiven of?

In the second week of July, of this year (2011), I reattempted this exercise; again, it seemed to be a crushing blow. Pride & humility are never cohesive, and pride sours the milk of humility. So, I pulled out my notebook and once again took on the role of judge, and I started writing downs my sins & faults. At first, I thought it wasn’t going to be that bad this time; it’s easy to begin with the petty things. As I listed my infractions, the sense of pain I had caused my Heavenly Father and those whom I have offended was overwhelming. I literally winced as I listed my infractions. It seemed as if something was cutting my soul and hitting the quick of my flesh.  There were times I hesitated to continue writing my accusations as my pen bled my own guilt on paper, but they were all true.

After four grueling pages, I laid my pen down in shame; it was almost more than I could endure. Though the exercise was over, more trespasses flashed through my memory. But, I had accomplished a task to the point of my brokenness. I had chronicled my sins, trespasses, and offenses. The verdict was convincingly in, and I was guilty. It seemed as if many of my words and actions were poured out like water on to parched earth and were no longer retrievable. It was a memorial on paper that seemed not to only announce my guilt but my death too. It is in this register of guilt, I also realized there were people I have hurt because I put myself before them. Ugh…another trespass to add to the list. I see the circumstances that mirror Jacob's wife in castigating people into the wilderness of my heart. Yet, while all along, it is I who have traveled in a parched wilderness. Therefore, I cannot throw stones at Mrs. Grisso’s action; I am guilty too.

In finding my own guilt, there are two things I could cast my eyes upon and do. First, I could justify my actions and the hurt within myself. Or secondly, I could admit my frail & fallen human state and cast my eyes upon the cross of the One who paid for and covered my sin. If I have truly been forgiven, I can also release those who have offended me. Pain and hurt are not easy to part with when they have assumed to be my friends for years. 

I still have my list, and I haven’t set a match to it yet. Even though the exercise is over, it is constantly in the back of my mind. Yet, all the while, I still make mistakes and remember more infractions to add to the list. Nevertheless, this list is no longer the harbinger of my guilt. It is a chronicle of my forgiveness I have received. Additionally, it is a list of fences that I have the opportunity to mend with those who will receive it.

These are some of the lessons I am learning while walking through old cemeteries. It is a lesson in my own frailty & mortality. These stone consistently remind me I am only here briefly; I am not promised tomorrow.

Stones can speak volumes; it really depends on their location. A stone in our hands can offer judgment & condemnation of others.  On the other hand, stones can announce our work on earth is completed. When I pass away someday, my indentation in the soil may be minor; my memorial erected will fade away. Nevertheless, how I treat others can have an everlasting impact.  I hope that you too, Dear Reader, can find peace while walking in this life and not only hope for what it is found beyond the grave.

For years I have seen the epitaph “Rest in Peace.” I firmly believe these stones do not speak only for those who are interred below the soil. I believe it is a blessing that is attainable for us in this life through forgiveness.

I pray…
    to those who have labored…rest.
    to those who have been separated…reunited.
    to those who have fought for freedom…liberty.
    to those who have reaped toil & strife…harmony.
    to those who have offended...compassion.
    to those who have been rejected...restoration.
    to those who have sinned...forgiveness.
    to those who are at odds...reunion. 

May You Rest In Peace Dear Reader.
Rest Forevermore.

Work Cited:
  • Hubbelle, Donald, Jr., 1981. Bennett’s Bayou, Bennett's River 1830-1900. The Enterprise Printing, Bull Shoals, Arkansas. 
  • McIntosh, Emily. “Grisso Cemetery: Where History Runs Deep.” Area Wide News (19 Feb., 2009). 
  • Messick, Mary Ann, (1973). History of Baxter County: Centennial Edition 1873-1973. Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce. International Graphics, Little Rock, AR.    
  • Wakefield, Claudette Carter. Fulton County, Arkansas, Marriages 1887-1925.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Vince.

Esther Joy said...

Old grave yards have a lot of untold stories. Thanks for making some of these stories known to us!