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Archive for Sunday, May 26, 1996

T FIT EDUCATIONAL MISSION

May 26, 1996

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Some property owned by the school district doesn't exactly fit in with an educational mission.

Lawrence school Supt. Al Azinger would like to sell a tract of land that he recently discovered the school district owns.

The heavily wooded property has some problems: It's small, only 0.448 of an acre. It's just outside the city limits, accessible only on foot. And since 1859, it's been a cemetery.

On this Memorial Day weekend, however, it's highly unlikely anyone will place flowers of remembrance in Adams Cemetery.

No one seems to know exactly who or how many people are buried in the cemetery, which is surrounded by private property. Visitors recently noted one name on a tombstone that isn't listed in either of two short histories written on the cemetery.

Adams Cemetery has been neglected for years, except for a few descendants or historians who've visited.

"It's an interesting set of circumstances," Azinger said. "There's no question about that. I don't really know what to do with it, unless a historical society wants it.

"It's one of those things I'm sort of fascinated about but don't know what to do about."

Azinger said he has heard of no other school district in the state or, for that matter, the country that owns a cemetery.

The property has been among the school district's holdings since 1967, when the Lawrence district unified with several others, including Riverside school district.

The Riverside connection traces to 1875, when Martin and Nancy Adams deeded the land to three men, serving as trustees for 18 other people, and to the residents of School District No. 53. That early-day school district was the forerunner to the Riverside district.

Azinger found out several weeks ago that the property belongs to Unified School District 497.

The pie-shaped cemetery is several hundred feet north of where Michigan Street dead-ends. Tall weeds and trees grow on the site. At some point, someone planted light purple iris and tiger lilies at several locations.

All but one of the few headstones in the cemetery have toppled, weeds grown over them.

Only one headstone still stands: Bert L. Hughes, son of Robert and Catherine Hughes, a member of the L. Regiment, Kansas Volunteers, who died Feb. 15, 1862, when he was 18. An iron fence that once surrounded Hughes' plot is mangled. And his grave is sunken.

"I think it is unfortunate that it is in that state," Azinger said. "I also think that we are not equipped, either from an economic point of view or from a general management point of view, to be taking care of cemeteries. That's why, if there is a group, a historical society or some other group that would be interested in doing that, we would certainly look at them doing that and giving it the kind of care it should have."

The school district isn't the first to neglect the plot. A book by resident Jean Snedeger refers to a 1911 newspaper story that describes Adams Cemetery as a "forgotten burying ground."

If it's determined to be legal for the school district to transfer title of the cemetery, Azinger said, he would recommend that the school board do that.

Nothing would please La Jean Murphree more than if someone -- anyone -- took an interest in preserving the cemetery where several of her ancestors are buried. Murphree is a descendant of three early-day Lawrence families: Gentry, Sweezer and Yates. The families ultimately settled near Lake View and were part of the early-day Riverside school district.

Murphree, who last week made her second trip to the cemetery, thinks it's in need of care. But at age 77, she's not able anymore to tackle such a daunting project.

"It's very important, I think, to maintain that cemetery," she said. "There is a Civil War veteran there. That's part of our historical heritage, and that young man gave his life for a cause. ... I should think that historical groups would want to maintain it or at least keep access to it."

A check of state statutes by Craig Weinaug, county administrator, showed that the county could take control of such a cemetery. But, like Azinger, he'd prefer that another group with expertise in history and preservation take on the role.

"I think, under that statute, we could take it over," Weinaug said, "but it doesn't mandate that we do so. ... I don't know that we want to get into that business."

Steve Jansen, director of Watkins Community Museum of History, strongly believes in preserving such small cemeteries. And he's concerned that as more and more land is annexed into the city for development that more and more history will go the way of the bulldozer. The city is creeping closer and closer to Adams Cemetery.

"We're kind of going into the future with blinders on," Jansen said.

Preservation of cemeteries, although not required by law, becomes a moral issue.

"To me," Jansen said, "it's sort of a slap in the face of those who came before us that we can forget and not only forget but, ultimately, destroy."

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