Hill Crest Cemetery is one of great gems of Holly Springs and one of the finest historic cemeteries in north Mississippi, though the local government has not always treated it as such. Hill Crest Cemetery was first formed in 1845, when R. H. Byrne donated the land of the cemetery to the city of Holly Springs. However, these grounds were used as a cemetery even before the city took control of the land, as there are several early graves which date to 1838. This original cemetery plot is located along Center Street (the old Oxford Road), and many of the oldest tombstones in the cemetery can still be found there today. In 1904, the cemetery expanded north, after Dr. John Burton deeded a lot to the city which had earlier been used as a baseball field. This part of the cemetery fronts Elder Street, which is also where the beautiful iron gates, donated by the Wynne family, can be found.
For many decades the cemetery was simply known as the Town Cemetery. It received its name “Hill Crest” in 1905, by Mrs. W. A. Anderson, after attending the funeral of Hindman Doxey. Many of the greatest citizens in Holly Springs and Marshall County are buried in Hill Crest, including founding fathers, war heroes, local, state and federal politicians and other figures.
Hill Crest Cemetery contains the bodies of many unknown soldiers who died in the Civil War, along with the remains of six Confederate generals. In addition, there are two Confederate monuments in the Cemetery: the Monument to the Confederate Dead, erected in 1874-1876 (the central shaft was not erected until 1901), and a newer monument to the southeast, erected by the Sons of the Confederacy in 1890.
The cemetery also contains a mass burial ground for victims of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, though this mass grave is currently unmarked. In addition, many of the more notable victims of the Fever are buried in their family plots. There are also two large monuments dedicated to certain victims of the Fever: the Mississippi Press Association monument, dedicated to the W. J. L. Holland, Kinloch Falconer and other reporters who died in the Fever, and the monument to Father Oberti and the Catholic nuns who died administering to the sick and dying during the epidemic.
For many years, James “Bud” Holbrook was the groundskeeper of Hill Crest who earned the respect of the townspeople by perfectly maintaining the grounds and monuments. In the 21st century, the foremost authority on Hill Crest Cemetery is Bobby Mitchell, who has authored a book on the cemetery and has plotted nearly every lot and historic grave in the cemetery.
Hill Crest Cemetery was listed on our 2016 list of the Top Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties in Holly Springs. Hill Crest Cemetery has suffered greatly over the many years from vandals, negligent groundskeepers and inept city government. Today, numerous monuments and iron fences are destroyed, severely damaged, or entirely missing. it is unknown whether the damage has been caused by vandals, vehicles, or the lawnmowers used by cemetery groundskeepers. A major accident occurred in 2014, when an employee driving a city-owned vehicle caused significant damage to several monuments.
Hill Crest’s worst enemy has been the Holly Springs City Board, who over the last 10 years have squandered, misused or misplaced funds appropriated to the cemetery by the State of Mississippi. In 2003 and 2004, the Mississippi Senate approved $500,000 in total funds for repairs and renovations of Hill Crest Cemetery and the Chalmers Institute. In 2007, the City of Holly Springs received this half million dollars. Almost immediately, the City Board ignored the plain language of the Senate bills and used $35,050.00 to pay IMS Engineers for “computer software and digital kiosks” and “maintenance and assessment”, rather than beginning needed repairs. The main gate to the cemetery was finally repaired in 2010 at a cost of $7,800.00.
Over the next five years, the City Board (which has gone through many changes and new aldermen) approved a total of $48,557.39 to IMS Engineers for “project management, design engineering, cemetery management systems, data entry, site mapping, and construction inspection”. The few repairs that the City did initiate were badly botched, resulting in further damage to several monuments. As of 2014, the last time an accounting was provided by the City, $318,059.54 remained of the original half million dollars provided for the repair and renovation of Hill Crest. The City has spent $180,000 of these funds, with almost nothing to show for it, other than a repaired front gate (which has subsequently been damaged yet again). It is unfortunately very likely that the remaining funds will be given back to the State of Mississippi, due to the extreme mismanagement of the original funds.
Much of this information comes from Marie McClatchy, who has spearheaded the community’s efforts to restore Hill Crest and safeguard the original money provided by the State. The preservation community and the City at large owes much to Marie’s efforts. Thanks also to Bobby Mitchell for providing some great insight on the cemetery, and Robin McNeill for information concerning her late father, James “Bud” Holbrook.
Two facts that are missing in Phillip Knecht’s fine narrative, detailing the sad history of a much-needed funding of $500,000 through Senate Bill #2988 in 2003 and Senate Bill #2010 in 2004; these funds were due to start evaporating on 01 July 2006. I asked the then Mayor DeBerry if he was aware of this; he was not. I then asked the Mayor if he had ANYONE at the City of Holly Springs or speaking to ANYONE in Jackson on behalf of the City to see if anything might be done to extend it. He did not. I asked Mayor if he didn’t mind if Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc. (PMCHS) made some inquiries among our friends in Jackson, “Well…that’d be great!”
I then set out to work through the labrynthian levels of bureaucracy at the Bureau of Buildings, Department of Finance and office of the Mississippi State Treasurer. An Economic Development Act was found that the funds could be moved into which would remove their expiration but not the original intent of the appropriation. This was accomplished in November 2006. PMCHS never heard a word from the City of Holly Springs. Regardless, it is a fact that there would not have been one red cent available for restoration of the monuments at Hill Crest Cemetery without PMCHS stepping into the breach in 2006. I wished that were the end of the story.
The funds continued to languish until 2011, except for spurts of costly but utterly useless activity by IMS Engineers, extreme in the absurd, as noted in Phillip’s narrative. NOTHING was being done that might actually aid in the preservation of the much-battered stones of historic Hill Crest and this fine gift of $500,000 was slowly eroding away. A citizens group being led by Marie McClatchy, Carole Robison, Cora Tomlinson, the late and much-missed Mary Walker Gatewood and others had managed to have a presence at every meeting of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen to keep the issue from being forgotten and constantly asking for an accounting…and I might add…often treated with much disrespect at those meetings. This group had maintained the attention of the Department of Finance Administration (DFA), who were now demanding an accounting by the City of Holly Springs.
By October of 2011, DFA was prepared to recapture the funds until they could find a custodian whom they felt could execute the work in the manner intended, re-enter Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc. The Mississippi State Treasurer’s office was prepared to move these funds directly over to PMCHS after asking if we were willing, ready and able to accept responsibility for these funds and management of the project, “Absolutely we are” was the reply. I told them they needed to act quickly, as I feared the Mayor was about to act in a very negative manner, as concerns this funding. They did not; he did. A call was made from the Mayor’s office to IMS Engineers to put the Hill Crest Cemetery project…for which they had been under contract since 2007…and immediately put it out to bid. A desperate act of sabotage that was completely unethical and perhaps the worst thing that could have happened for the historic monuments’ future preservation. A group was hired to execute this project that had no idea at all of how to properly treat historic cemetery monuments; in short, irreparable damage was being done. In 2012, PMCHS again re-entered the fray and filed a lawsuit against the City of Holly Springs, using our rights as private citizens, as cited in the 1972 Mississippi Antiquities Law, in order to file a Temporary Court Injunction to stop the work until a competent craftsman could be employed for the work. Our intent was two-fold: 1) Stop the work, hence the damage and 2) Stop IMS Engineers’ and these incompetent contractors from further reducing the project funds available. PMCHS accomplished these goals and once more…without Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc. stepping into the breach, the funds would have dwindled down to nothing and untold irreparable damage would have been done to priceless historic monuments.
The remaining funds have continued to languish under the present City of Holly Springs administration and that is indeed disappointing. Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc. fought to keep these funds intact since before its founding in 2005; twice to save them from certain oblivion, but it has been a “Pyrrhic Victory” at best, with the present administration having no better idea of what to do with this fine gift for the preservation of Holly Springs’ wonderful Hill Crest Cemetery than did the last administration. Years of poorly considered maintenance practices have continued, delivering materially abusive results; accidents have happened through incompetence or worse that do not get prompt attention (Coxe Family monument), if at all and vandalism regularly occurs – the most recent egregious being the Hugh Craft monument, which was purposely toppled and shattered a couple of months ago…and the monument had stood unblemished since 1868.
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