Restoring Cemetery

Locating and Restoring the Brooks  
Family Cemetery, Saluda County


BY PHILLIP BROOKS


  The Brooks’ from whom my family descends first entered South Carolina around 1774, moving from states to the north to settle in the Newberry District of South Carolina. The first ancestor to arrive was my 4th great grandfather Robert Brooks, Sr. who acquired a tract of land located on Joshua Branch of Indian Creek, which is a tributary of the Enoree River, through a Royal Land Grant. Around 1797 he relocated his household to the Edgefield District of South Carolina in an area that is present day Saluda County, SC. Over time he purchased several tracts in this area and sold all his holdings in the Newberry District. The first property he acquired was a 200 acre tract on Martins Branch of Indian Creek which is a tributary of Little Saluda River. This became known as the “Brooks Home Place”, being referred to as such on a number of area deeds and plats. This property is located approximately 10 miles northeast of the Town of Saluda where SC 194 (Denny Hwy.) crosses Indian Creek. It occupied an area on both sides of Denny Highway with Indian Creek as its southwest boundary. Descendants of Robert Brooks, Sr. owned this property from 1797 until the early 1900’s.
  When I began the search for my family roots many years ago, I immediately ran into a problem. I was unable to locate the burial place of my earliest ancestors who were residents of Saluda County. Even my father, Colie Julian Brooks, and my surviving great aunts from the Brooks side of the family had no clue as to their final resting place.  I searched through all local church cemeteries and consulted the Saluda County Cemetery registers compiled by the Saluda County Genealogical Society without success. Where were they interred? I realized that during the 18th and early 19th centuries in the piedmont of South Carolina, it was common practice for families to bury their dead on their personal property in a dedicated family plot, typically near the main family residence. Community and church burial grounds did not develop until the early to mid-19th century. I came to the conclusion that there must be a family burial plot on the property that was known as the Brooks Home Place.
  Then in the mid to late seventies my father along with my great uncle, John Allen Brooks from Fayetteville, NC, became embroiled in a dispute with a neighboring property owner concerning a cemetery which this individual had destroyed while having some of his property cleared. My great uncle knew that this was the Brooks family burial plot for which I had been searching. Unfortunately I had not discussed the cemetery with him prior to its destruction. I don’t recall how he discovered its elimination unless he had attempted to visit the site on a trip to the area. He was aware that his grandmother, Lenora Caroline McCarty Brooks (wife of Whitfield Brooks) was buried there. The other grave occupants were unidentified with their resting places being marked with crude un-inscribed head stones and lighter wood planks. This was common for graves of poorer families in the 18th and early 19th centuries, as they didn’t have the resources to purchase proper gravestones.
  The property on which this cemetery was located was none other than the “Brooks Home Place”. My father had seen the plot years ago while quail hunting in the area, but was unaware that this was the burial ground of his ancestors. For some unknown reasons the family had not passed this information down to its descendants and likewise had not taken proper care of the site. I’m certain this is one reason that led to it being destroyed. If family members had maintained the cemetery, the existing owner would not have dared disturb it.
  After threats of suits and counter suits the affair was settled by the offending property owner allowing my father and great uncle access to his property to restore the cemetery as best they could. They chose a site that was only approximate since they only had their memories to draw from. They searched through the pile of debris from the cemetery site and discovered the headstone of Lenora Caroline McCarty Brooks and a couple of un-inscribed markers. They installed this monument at the selected site and constructed a 10 foot by 10 foot fence around it. After this I ensured that the site was maintained on a regular basis with the permission of the current property owners, but always in the back of my mind was the desire to locate the actual burying ground.
  After I retired from SCDOT, I began my search to locate and permanently preserve the site of the original Brooks family cemetery. I was certain that if I did not pursue this during my lifetime the location may be forever lost to my descendants. In September of 2019 I met with Tracey Martin a staff archeologist with SCDOT to discuss options for locating the cemetery. He suggested that I examine early aerial photographs taken over South Carolina, housed at the State Library in Columbia, SC. Those taken prior to the cemetery’s demise may show a feature which would indicate its location in reference to other extant landmarks. We also discussed how to confirm the existence of the cemetery at the location determined. He suggested three options. The first would be to examine the ground at the suspected site for uniform depressions where the soil had settled. This occurred because mechanical soil compaction equipment did not exist in the 18th and 19th centuries, so the material placed over graves was poorly compacted and as a result settled over time.  Also burials were accomplished using wooden caskets which decayed, collapsed and left underground voids which over time settled. The second was to utilize a soil probe to search for areas where the soil was not as dense as the soil around it. I had observed the effectiveness of this method when utilized by staff archeologists with SCDOT when searching for unmarked, but suspected, burial sites on roadway construction projects. In situ (undisturbed) soil would be difficult to probe and the probe would only penetrate a foot or so in our local clay materials. Over a grave the probe would penetrate more easily and could extend four plus feet in depth. The third and considerable more expensive method was ground penetrating radar. This process would locate anomalies within the soil such as loosely compacted areas or voids. After receiving his recommendations, I made a trip to the State Library and with the able assistance of the Museum staff found aerial photograph flyovers of the area of interest from 1949, 1954, 1959, 1967, 1970, 1979, 1989 and 1994. The photos from 1949 through 1967 showed a circular dark spot in the middle of what was a cultivated field. I interpreted this to be a growth to vegetation that was obviously being avoided during the process of planting and harvest. Interestingly this feature was absent in the aerial photographs after 1967. I knew at once that I had found my Brooks family cemetery. The question now was how to determine its location on the ground and conclusively confirm the existence of the cemetery.
  The property was no longer owned by the individual who had the site cleared. It was currently owned by Mr. Ricky Bedenbaugh of Clinton, SC, owner of Ricky’s Body Shop. He was a distant relative through the Ruff family and for several years I had been obtaining permission from him to enter the property on a regular basis for maintenance of the site which my father and great uncle had established.
  My first attempt in determining the location of the site on the ground was through the use of GPS coordinates. After obtaining coordinates for a couple of landmarks on the photographs which were still in existence, I attempted to calculate the GPS coordinates for the site but found the process entirely too complicated.
  My second attempt was to determine the bearing and distance of the site from two of the previously selected landmarks. This was quite simple to accomplish with the use of a little geometry and trigonometry. First I needed to determine the compass orientation of the photo and then determine the distance scale of the same. To accomplish this I used a tangent section of SC 194 (Denny Hwy.) that was visible in the photo. Using a hand held compass I determined the bearing of the section of highway in question and in turn was able to calculate the bearing of the site from the two selected landmarks. I then calculated the photographic scale by comparing the measured ground distance between two features on the highway to the measured distance between them on one of the photos. With this information I took compass in hand, used the bearings determined and measured the distances calculated. Amazingly they intersected approximately 30 feet south of the site established from memory by my father and great uncle based.
  After the above process, I began examining the area for any visible signs of graves.  As discussed above this would consist of depressions in the landscape where the soil on top of graves had settled. I didn’t believe this was likely since the area had been cultivated for a number of years, allowing for some compaction of the soil over the graves. However as I walked the area I noticed a shallow depression. I had with me a four foot soil probe to search for poorly compacted areas as described above. I set the point of the probe on the ground surface and began pushing. The probe penetrated the soil with firm pressure for about a foot and a half. Then suddenly all resistance gave way as if it had hit a cavity and the bottom of the probe handle struck the ground. I almost fell over on top of it, not expecting the sudden release of resistance. I probed a couple of more spots along what appeared to be the long axis of the possible grave and had the same result. Outside of the area that would comprise an average size grave the probe stopped penetration at approximately one and one-half feet. I had found my family’s grave plot!
  At this juncture I knew that I needed to discuss my discovery with the property owner, Mr. Bedenbaugh. I called on him at his shop in Clinton on a rainy afternoon in February of 2020. After explaining what I had discovered and laying out my plan for locating all graves at the site, he granted me permission to proceed.
  The site was located in a stand of pines that had been planted approximately twenty years previous. They had been thinned in 2018 opening up the understory, making the area easily accessible.
  First I cleared minor underbrush and raked aside the pine needles and leaves in about a 20 by 20 foot area around the earlier located depression, revealing the underlying ground surface. I  then established a 2 by 2 foot grid over the area using wooden stakes and masonry cord with the strings aligned on north-south and east-west axis’. Then I began probing at the intersections of strings in the grid, marking each accordingly, depending on the penetration of the probe. What began to emerge on that first day was a pattern of four graves side by side separated by two to three feet each. Three were five to six feet in length and the last was only two to three feet long, possibly indicating the grave of a child. The long axis of the graves paralleled the east-west axis of the grid which is consistent with customary Christian burials. The graves faced east which is the direction in the sky where Christ is to appear upon His return according to scripture. The rising of the sun in the east is also a Christian symbol of the resurrection.
  On succeeding days I expanded the search grid and continued probing, eventually discovering a total of fifteen graves. In the area of each grave, I reduced the probe grid to 1 foot by 1 foot. It was a surprise finding this number of graves. Based on my research I expected to find at least five graves; those of my 4th great grandparents Robert Brooks Sr. and his wife Mary, my 3rd great grandparents Robert Brooks, Jr. and his wife Mary and my 2nd great grandmother Lenora Caroline McCarthy Brooks (wife of Whitfield Brooks). Hers was the headstone found in the debris pile by my father and great uncle. All of these individuals would have lived on this tract of land.
  I’m certain that five of the graves are those of my above mentioned family members. There are a couple of possibilities for the other graves. They could be occupied by other family members of whom I am unaware. Also the property was owned and perhaps occupied by the original owner, Hezekiah Gentry. Some of the graves could contain members of his family and the first burials at this site. Another possibility could be the burial of Brooks’ family slaves. Based on my research Robert, Sr. and Robert Jr. owned two each. When they died this would have been the natural place for their burial.
  In  August of 2020 I placed a granite monument on the site listing family members known to be buried there. I also installed head and foot markers on each of the fifteen graves. The site is now surrounded by a chainlink fence.
  Hopefully my descendents will be more diligent in maintaining the site than my ancestors were.