Holly Lissner stood on the vacant Carnes Avenue lot strewn with trash and grown over with poison ivy and imagined what the abandoned family cemetery could become.
“I have an obsession with cemeteries,” admitted Lissner, former co-president of the Normal Station Neighborhood Association. “Wherever I go, whether its Jamaica, New Orleans, Florida or Israel, I seek them out.”
Lissner said she first became interested in this particular cemetery, located in the 3700 block of Carnes, while studying anthropology at the University of Memphis and focusing on grassroots movements. The faculty encouraged her involvement in the neighborhood association. As a seven-year resident of the area, the cemetery has become something of a personal crusade.
“I’d like to see it registered as an historic site,” Lissner said. “Our only barrier has been establishing ownership.”
Shortly after the land was annexed by Memphis in 1909 and became known as the Echles Tract (the reason for the spelling change remains a mystery), the family of Harry Madison began subdividing property. According to Memphis Heritage Inc., the Madison's had acquired their land around 1901 from a relative, Julia Eckles, who sold them the properties for “$1, Love and Affection.”
Members of both the Eckles and Madison families are buried in the cemetery, leading to clues that may finally resolve the issue of ownership that has plagued the project since its inception.
At a recent Normal Station Neighborhood Association meeting, Tk Buchanan, Community Safety Liaison with the Division of Business and Finance at the U of M, described the problems created when no one would admit to owning the property.
“The initial title search revealed David Madison to be the last know heir,” she said, “but he wouldn’t take our phone calls. When we finally contacted him he told us he didn’t own it at all.”
Additional research and legal work, however, appears to have helped in bringing all parties together to allow transfer of ownership.
Buchanan explained that an attorney would file an affidavit of heirship so that a quitclaim deed could be signed by Madison, granting the neighborhood association legal ownership of the property.
But many questions remain about the fate of the cemetery as evidenced by the concerns of those attending. Some members expressed worries about funding, security, liability and acceptance of the project by Carnes Avenue neighbors.
“I don’t know if we’ll meet any resistance from neighbors because we will need more lighting,” Buchanan said. “We will definitely need to talk with them.”
She mentioned that the group might solicit donations of landscape timbers and other materials from businesses such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, but estimated that $5,000 to $10,000 would need to be raised to fund cemetery improvements.
Buchanan told members she had been working with U of M Master of Arts candidate Kenny Latta, who had mentioned crowdsourcing as a possible source of funding, and described to them how the process of soliciting support via social media worked.
Latta has been an active proponent of the Echles-Madison Cemetery project. He first learned of it while scouting locations for community gardens.
“I was doing work for the Tigers Urban Garden Program,” Latta said. “I was looking for available green space, and thought we might use tools and resources to plant and clean up the cemetery.”
His own quest to find the property owner led him to Leah Dawkins, Community Redevelopment Liaison with the University’s Department of Business and Finance.
“I met with Leah and learned that people had been working on this for years,” he said.
His fascination with the cemetery persisted, and he wrote a proposal to the University explaining why they should take ownership. He believes that the property could be a fertile field of study in areas such as archeology, history, urban studies, landscape architecture and other disciplines.
Although he was disappointed by the U of M’s weaker than expected response, some academic interest in the project was created. He pointed to involvement by Michael Chisamore, Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture, who has used the cemetery as a project for his class, resulting in sketches of proposed structures and landscaping schemes. Latta said he was pleased that the neighborhood association appears to be on the verge of owning the property.
“This could be an amazing cultural asset for the Normal Station neighborhood,” Latta remarked.
But citing more immediate concerns related to neighborhood safety, Tk Buchanan said, “We just want to get it cleaned up and reused by the neighborhood.”
Others attending the meeting were pleased at the progress reported, and spoke of how many years the project has been discussed.
“I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 30 years,” said Willease Lack, a Carnes Avenue resident who has also served as association co-president. “Boy Scouts and others have talked about clean up, but nothing was done.”
A few days after the meeting, another Carnes Avenue homeowner took a Saturday stroll through the cemetery looking at the four remaining headstones and making observations about the work to be done.
“We’ll definitely need some tree trimming,” Margaret Vandiver said. “We shouldn’t build anything too elaborate because we must maintain it.”
Vandiver, who has done extensive historical research on the Normal Station area, chuckled that she had found an article dated in 1978 describing how the property would soon be cleaned up. She was appreciative that so many had finally come together to work toward the goal.
Nine graves have been found in the Madison-Echles cemetery. Six have been identified; three contain the remains of unknown individuals. The headstones from all but a few are missing – presumed to have been taken by thieves and vandals.
“I’ve heard that people used to come here for Halloween and tell stories,” Vandiver said.
Perhaps in the not to distant future neighborhood children will have a safe, but somewhat eerie place to share their own Halloween adventures.