Greetings friends and neighbors!
It recently dawned on me how lucky we are to live in a city with such a rich and amazing past. Memphis is literally steeped in history. You can feel it when you walk the ancient cobblestones along the riverfront and imagine the riverboats heavily laden with cotton that were once tied to the massive iron rings that still stand as silent rusted witnesses to all that went on there in those bygone days. You can also feel it as you stand in Confederate Park and look out across the Mississippi and imagine the roar of Southern cannons that unleashed their fury from that very bluff upon Union ships plying the great river. Or as you view the secret tunnels and trap doors of the Burkle Estate Museum that was once a stop for freedom seeking slaves on the underground railroad. You can feel it as you stroll down Beale Street on a quiet Sunday morning. If you listen hard enough it’s not difficult to imagine hearing W.C. Handy’s trumpet wailing the blues in the wind. It’s in the stately architecture of the Mallory Neely house in Victorian Village and as you stand at the grand old Hebe fountain in court square downtown. You can feel it and touch it as you stand upon the balcony of the old Lorraine Motel in the very spot where Dr. Martin Luther King was martyred for truth and justice. In fact, from it’s beginning as John Overton’s 15 cent an acre dream in 1795, through the civil war, the Yellow Fever epidemic, World wars one and two, to the great struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s, to the tragic war in Vietnam, through the 1970s, 80s and 90s to the city we call home today, the story of Memphis is an important part of the story of America, and if you slow down and take the time to listen, Memphis will tell you that story. And there are no better story tellers than those who lived and shaped Memphis history. You can find most of them quietly waiting for you at Elmwood Cemetery.
Elmwood Cemetery was established as one of the first rural garden cemeteries in the south in 1852. It was the vision of fifty Memphis gentlemen who dreamed of a beautiful and dignified final resting place amid towering trees and and winding paths and lanes. A park not just for the deceased, but for the living as well, where families could gather to celebrate both life and death. And it was truly a dream that came true. One you should take time to visit. The 75,000 residents of Elmwood came from every walk of life and every culture imaginable. Beneath the ancient Elms, Oaks, and Magnolias of Elmwood lay our most honored and revered. Flowering Dogwoods and crepe Myrtles interspersed with Memphis history. Here lie the famous and infamous. The most loved and the most feared. There are veterans of every American war, from the Revolutionary war forward. There are Generals, senators, governors, mayors, madams, and murderers. And of course perfectly ordinary citizens that are part of our city’s rich and colorful past. This is truly one of the most beautiful and amazing places I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to believe I have lived here for so many years without once having visited Elmwood, but after a tip from some friends, I decided to call Director Kimberly Caldwell, who generously offered to give me the grand tour. What I found when I arrived is almost hard to adequately put into words. As I crossed the old Morgan bridge and entered the gates of Elmwood it was as if I had entered an alternate world where time and space had slowed to a standstill and the whispers of the ages silently invited me in for a visit with a knowing nod and a polite southern smile. Elmwood’s cottage, which was built in 1866 and houses the cemetery offices stood just inside and after a very brief moment Kimberly met me in the foyer and we began our trip into Memphis history.
We came first to the area of the cemetery called “No Man’s Land” where more than 1500 victims of the great Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878 are buried in unmarked graves close by the heroes who died while valiantly trying to save lives during that terrible time. Heroes like Dr. R.H. Tate, one of the first African American doctors to practice in Memphis, and Annie Cook, a madam who devoted herself to caring for the dying during the epidemic, and succumbed to the disease while trying to save lives. From there I visited the place where victims of the Sultana explosion, the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history which killed 1647 people, most of them Union soldiers coming home after the Civil war are buried. Then it was on to the Confederate Rest Monument and burial place, where more than 1000 Confederate soldiers and veterans lie under the stately oaks of Elmwood. We wound our way down the lane to the gravesite of Kit Dalton, a Confederate and member of the notorious James Gang who later reformed and became an ardent baptist. Wade Bolton, who was killed in Court Square in a family feud that took eight lives, his monument depicting him as he actually appeared, with one shoe untied and his vest mis-buttoned. General William J. Smith, a Mexican war veteran and Union General during the Civil War. He stayed in Memphis to help Yellow Fever victims. There was the grave of Colonel John Smith who served in the Revolutionary War and died in 1851. The stunningly ornate monument of former Mayor and grandson of Memphis founder John Overton. Truly one of the most memorable parts of my tour was the monument to more than 300 slaves who are buried here. It was a chilling reminder of the darker side of American history. Lt. Col John B Snowden and members of his family are interred near a monument called the Snowden Angel. We drove on past the grave of Grace Toof, the woman for whom Graceland was named. There was Lillie Mae Glover the Blues singer known as the “Mother of Beale Street”, and the imposing giant obelisk that stands as a monument to the man who once ruled Memphis with an iron fist, Boss Edward Hull Crump. Since I had arrived so late my tour was a brief one by Elmwood standards, since there is so much to see, and I plan to come back when I can spend the entire day. Even that won’t be long enough to take it all in, as Elmwood covers such a vast area. Kimberly said she has been here 10 years and still hasn’t seen it all, and I want to personally thank her here for showing me around this amazing Memphis treasure.
Elmwood Cemetery is located just west of I-240 and Lamar Avenue, at the end of Dudley Street. From E.H. Crump Boulevard (Lamar), turn south onto Dudley. Continue to the end and cross the Elmwood Cemetery bridge. The office is open Monday thru Friday 8am-4:30pm and Saturday. If you’d like to visit, the grounds are open every day of the year from 8am-4:30 pm. To arrange a guided tour or to reserve a church service, wedding ceremony, reception or any other type of function at Elmwood’s Gothic Chapel, call the office during business hours at (901)774-3212. Admission to Elmwood is always free.