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Restoring historic Black cemetery top focus of county commission

Stringtown Cemetery on Burnet County Road 326A

This photo of Stringtown Cemetery on County Road 326A in northeast Burnet County near Bertram was taken Oct. 1 by Nichole Ritchie. She and her husband, Michael, accompanied landowner Al Downing to assess what it would take to restore the historic graveyard, the only all-Black cemetery in the county. Photo by Nichole Ritchie

The Burnet County Historical Commission has about a month to pull together the information needed to apply for a grant to restore Stringtown Cemetery, the only all-Black cemetery in the county. The project will be a top priority for the commission, members decided at their regular meeting on Oct. 3.

Located on County Road 326A, the historic cemetery has long been in disarray with broken headstones and overgrown gravesites. The fence that surrounds the 90-foot-by-120-foot plot of land on private property south of Bertram has all but collapsed. The gate can’t be opened because of vines and brush growing in and around it. 

The oldest grave in the cemetery is dated 1870 and belongs to Edward Houston, the 7-year-old son of Rev. Samuel Houston, who was most likely born a slave. The reverend died on May 8, 1898, according to his headstone, which does not include a birthdate. He was believed to be 70 years old.

The amount of the 50/50 matching grant from the Texas Historical Commission will depend on a cost estimate required in the application process. The local commission must obtain bids for clearing brush, hiring a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) expert to locate all of the bodies, and putting in a new fence. 

Al Downing owns the land on which the cemetery is located and is also on the Burnet County Historical Commission. He recently accompanied Nichole and Michael Ritchie of Cottonwood Shores to the graveyard to take photos and assess restoration needs. 

The Ritchies spend their free time restoring headstones and relocating lost historical monuments. They cleaned the Fuchs Cemetery headstones in Cottonwood Shores for the Legends of the Falls theatrical hayride through history, which is Nov. 4 this year. They also found the lost 1936 Texas Centennial Marker, which has since been restored and moved to the Burnet County Courthouse lawn. They were featured in a 2022 issue of The Picayune Magazine

According to the Texas Historical Commission Atlas, Stringtown Cemetery has about 75 graves. An article in the March 1, 2009, River Cities Tribune (now written by BCHC Chair Rachel Bryson, has a different number. After investigating the cemetery herself, Bryson found 37 marked graves and 20 unmarked. A GPR survey might reconcile those numbers.

“This is not going to get fixed overnight,” Bryson said at the commission’s regular meeting on Oct. 3. “This project has been started several times and gotten stopped. If we get this grant, the money will come in 2024 and we will have until 2026 to finish the work.” 

Downing expressed hope that something will finally happen.

“This is probably the fourth time someone has told me they were going to get this done,” he said. “Y’all sound so professional about it, I think it might finally get done after all.” 

“I’m going to say it in public,” Bryson replied. “We are going to do something.”

Deadline for the grant application is 5 p.m. Nov. 6. Certified Local Government Chair Lela Goar was put in charge of obtaining bids and completing the application.