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Van Buren loves and protects Fairview Cemetery

Van Buren loves and protects Fairview Cemetery

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Van Buren residents and business owners take very seriously any threat or harm to the city's historic Fairview Cemetery.

The 10-acre cemetery, located on a gently sloping hillside overlooking the original main street of Van Buren, has been a burial ground since at least 1816. It was donated to the city by its founder, John Drennen, in 1837.

Fairview also is the final resting place of figures as diverse as Drennen himself and a slave named Paralee Stewart, whose son Bass Reeves became legendary deputy U.S. marshal Reeves for Fort Smith's most famous U.S. District Court judge, Isaac C. Parker.

In July, when vandals knocked over 35 of the cemetery's 19th-century monuments, the cemetery’s most-dedicated volunteer, Randy Smith, said he was thankful – but not surprised – to see local residents and businesses immediately volunteer funds and services to repair and restore the damage.

Smith, who worked from 2000 to 2005 to help the cemetery meet all requirements to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, was happy to see a First Bank of Van Buren account quickly established for donations to be used for the five damaged monuments requiring professional restoration.

Michael Ocker of Ocker Monuments in Van Buren and Sam Flocks at Cotner Monuments in Fort Smith donated their services to immediately reset and repoint the other 30 monuments. Smith speculated the perpetrators were likely bored, inebriated or both. He said it looked as if the vandals had just knocked all of them down while cutting across Fairview on foot.

Smith, manager of Edwards Van-Alma Funeral Home, became a Fairview Cemetery volunteer in 2000. When he began learning about the lives and histories represented by original carvings and engravings on the cemetery's monuments and noted how time and the elements were threatening them, he became determined to try to help restore and preserve the cemetery's history.

“Now, I have my marriage, my work and Fairview,” Smith said. “My wife, Stacey, puts up with a lot, and even volunteers for our annual Tales of the Crypt programs. I've become fascinated by the monuments and history in Fairview – even the ones with spelling mistakes and backward or crudely executed letters. They did the best they could at the time ... some of these markers are now considered folk art.”

Information he gleans from tombstones, monuments and burial records also help Smith give UA-Fort Smith Historic Interpretation Program director Tom Wing a list of people to consider for portrayal by his students at the cemetery's Tales of the Crypt event each October. Proceeds from the event are used to help preserve Fairview monuments, along with private donations and the successful preservation grants Smith has pursued.

About 40 Fairview monuments have been professionally restored and the cemetery's original carriage steps have been replaced. Wallace Children's Commemorative Monument, the first to be restored, has become the “face” of Fairview's preservation efforts. It was accomplished through grants from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and matching funds from the city of Van Buren.

Smith also hosts several field trips made to the cemetery each year by Van Buren students and civic and leadership groups. He has led tours of the cemetery with visitors from at least 25 different states – with the majority of them saying they learned online about Fairview being a National Register of Historic Places destination.

While the cemetery is very obviously a burial ground, Smith said, it also can serve as a classroom for sharing the history of Van Buren and its residents. And, the way Van Buren residents and businesses immediately rallied in July to help restore the damaged monuments has made him more determined than ever to continue pursuing funding for the cemetery's preservation and protection.

How to help:
There is an account set up at First Bank in Van Buren, Ark. called "Fairview Cemetery Preservation". This same account is used for proceeds from Fairview's annual production of Tales of the Crypt, and private donations as well. Every dollar in this account will go toward preservation of historic monuments at Fairview Cemetery.

More information is available at the Facebook page "Friends of Fairview Cemetery."

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith magazine.

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Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online