GARNER — Allie and Don Juan Ellis lost their 15-month-old son, Don, in August 1879 to some illness or injury, long since forgotten.
After 134 years, the babe and his parents may come closer to being reunited when a Wake County church digs up an abandoned cemetery on its property and moves the graves from Garner to Raleigh, where the Ellises were buried long ago.
It’s not definite that little Don Ellis’ grave is among the 10 or so that lie in the way of an expansion project planned by Highland Baptist Church on Crowder Road, about 8 miles outside Garner. But a local historian who has researched area cemeteries visited this one in 1984 and found one marker amid the brush and the briers.
According to her notes, it read: Don Hubert, infant son of D.J. Hubert and A. Ellis, 13 May 1878 to 10 August 1879.
The marker is gone now, and only a base and a foot stone remained for the administrators of Highland Baptist to find last year when they began making plans for a building addition that will require relocating part of the church parking lot onto what is now the burial ground.
The church hired John Clauser to research the plot and determine the best way to proceed. Clauser is a former state archaeologist who now runs a consulting business, Of Grave Concern, that helps landowners restore or relocate cemeteries found on their land.
“A lot of my job is developers coming to me, saying, ‘Guess what we dug up?’ ” Clauser told the Wake County Board of Commissioners at a March meeting, where they were asked to approve the cemetery move.
In this case, there had been no excavation, the surest way to identify grave sites. Clauser used a probe to locate what he believes are 10 graves in a space of about 800 square feet, in an irregular pattern except that they all lie in an east-west direction.
In that and other ways, Clauser wrote in his petition for the church, the graveyard is a good example of the “Southern folk cemetery,” where the members of one or two extended families would bury their dead on their own land, often on a ridge or hilltop. In the 19th century, church burial grounds and commercial cemeteries had not yet proliferated.
Across North Carolina, there are thought to be more than 10,000 folk cemeteries that have lain untended for decades, disappearing into the landscape.
Irene Kittinger of Cary, who has documented so many of them she’s known as “the cemetery lady,” says there are hundreds in Wake County alone.
Garner historian Kaye Buffaloe Whaley visited this cemetery in 1984, at a time when she and a friend were documenting dozens of such sites around Wake County. They’d go out, Whaley said, with a probe, a garden hoe and a bush axe, keeping an eye out for snakes, yellow jackets and poison ivy.
From family to church
Whaley said her research of census, property and other records indicate that baby Don’s mother was Allie Jewell, who married Confederate Civil War veteran Don Juan Ellis in 1873.
The Jewells lived in the area historically known as Panther Branch, and Allie Jewell and her siblings inherited land there from their father in 1879. Whaley believes Allie’s parents may also be buried in the cemetery.
They later sold the land. Allie and Don Juan Ellis moved to Raleigh, according to Whaley’s research, where Don Juan worked as a grocer. They had at least three more children.
The administrators of Highland Baptist Church apparently didn’t know about the cemetery when they bought 12 acres on Crowder Road, where they built a new church that opened in 1990. The congregation relocated from its original site on Hilltop Drive in Raleigh.
Since then, its membership has grown, fed by the housing development that spread through the area beginning in the late 1980s.
Once it knew about the cemetery, the church considered three options: preserving it, moving it to another part of the property, or relocating it off church property. The church had no known connection to those buried in the cemetery.
It needs the land for its parking lot, and moving the graves to another part of the property would just make that area unusable for future needs.
The county planning department, finding no particular historical significance in the cemetery, recommended to commissioners the move be allowed.
Commission chair Joe Bryan didn’t like it.
“Here we are, literally paving it over with a parking lot, on land where people have been laid to rest,” he said. “It just doesn’t sit very well.”
But the church met the requirements for the move, demonstrating there was no good alternative; running public notices and waiting to see if a descendant or anyone else came forward to object; and making arrangements for a funeral director to move the graves and for a cemetery to receive and care for them.
The board voted to allow the move, with only Bryan dissenting.
Whaley didn’t formally object, but she wishes the church would find a way to work around the cemetery, making an island of it if necessary, maybe planting some shrubbery or grass.
In moving those graves, she said, “You are deleting history. Cemeteries are one of the sources we have for knowing which people most likely lived in an area.”
And where will the remains be taken for their final, final resting place?
The church will pay to move them to Oakwood Cemetery.
Allie and Don Juan are there already, buried five months apart, in July and December 1905.
Whaley says if his grave has to be disturbed, it’s fitting for the baby to end up near his parents, if that’s who they are.
“But only,” she said “if it has to be.”