Vandals strike historical cemetery with Civil War ties along Wilson’s Creek Greenway in southwest Springfield

Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 8:01 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - An historic cemetery in southwest Springfield was hit by vandals sometime Tuesday night as several headstones were knocked over at the site that dates back to the Civil War.

The small country cemetery is located along a walking trail that’s part of the South Creek/Wilson’s Creek Greenway located near West Bypass and Republic Road.

The public works department owns the land around the grave site but a couple who has served as caretakers for the cemetery for over two decades says that they’ve not been able to track down who owns the land with some 32 plots, most of them dating back to the late 1800′s.

“I checked the Greene County tax rolls and the last time I could find it in the archives was 1913,” said Gene Davison, who along with his wife Linda Halford decided to clean up the cemetery after discovering it during a walk along the trail in 1998. “I’ve talked to other county offices and nobody knows who owns it.”

Upkeep of the cemetery is not the only volunteer work for Gene and Linda, who help out for free at many other organizations from animal shelters to COVID-19 vaccination sites.

“We’ve asked for a raise and they just won’t give us one,” Linda said with a laugh.

“It pays better than any paying job I’ve ever had,” Gene added of their volunteer work. “Because of the personal satisfaction of giving back to the community.”

And even though they had no previous connection to the cemetery and knew nothing about its history, they have spent the last 23 years devoted to taking care of it from clearing brush to mowing and general upkeep.

“It was sad to see it overgrown and no one caring about it,” Linda said.

“It was overgrown with poison ivy and been abandoned for quite some years and we just decided we wanted to take care of it,” Gene said. “The people who were buried here deserved better than to be in a place that was overgrown.”

What they would later find out is that the small cemetery had historical significance, established in 1889 by Major E.L. McElhaney, a veteran of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek who served under General Nathaniel Lyon, the first union general to be killed in the Civil War.

McElhaney, his wife, his in-laws, and several grandchildren are all buried at the cemetery as are others with no known connections to the family. The newest plot on the cemetery land is from 1936.

And thanks to Gene, Linda, and about 50 volunteers they helped organize over the years, the once-overgrown abandoned cemetery has been given the tender love and care they say it deserves.

“We did not know the history of the McElhaney cemetery prior to making the decision that we wanted to take care of it,” Gene said. “We wanted to take care of it because it was the right thing to do. The poorest person in here deserves the same care as the McElhaneys do. We’re doing it for everybody who’s buried here, not just for the history. Everybody deserves dignity in their final resting place.”

Having put in thousands of man-hours to give the cemetery newfound respect, you can imagine how Gene and Linda felt when they found out vandals desecrated about seven of the 32 headstones Tuesday night including those of Major McElhaney and his wife.

“It was terrible,” Linda said.

“We’re heartbroken,” Gene added. “It’s really quite reprehensible. They did it on a lark. But to those of us who care for cemeteries and care for the people that are buried here, this is no lark. This is a tragedy.”

While most people may not know this cemetery even existed, every grave site here has a story to tell.

“This is a woman born in Vermont in 1798,” Gene said as he pointed to a headstone for a woman identified as A. Williams. “She died in Missouri in 1900 and it’s incredible to think about her life. She was alive for the War of 1812, the Battle of the Alamo, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War. She probably came to Missouri on a covered wagon with kerosene lamps and lived to see cars and electricity. To have lived for almost 102 years at that time was phenomenal. The life story she could have told would have been spectacular.”

Gene said he doubts the vandals will ever be caught but he does hope to fix the headstones.

“It’s not like there’s doorbell cameras out here that’s gonna catch anybody,” he said. “The stones that are overturned are too heavy for anybody to pick up. We’re going to contact a monument company and see if they have the equipment to put them back into place. Some of the pieces are broken and I’ll talk to the companies to see what the cost would be. We may have to do a GoFundMe to raise the money to pay for getting it done.”

You can follow the progress of their efforts by looking up the McElhaney Cemetery-Springfield, Mo. on Facebook.

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