“Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have.” Benjamin Franklin.
There’s an estimated 50,000 cemeteries in Texas, ranging from the 419 acre Houston National Cemetery to those located on family farms and measured in square footage. While large cemeteries are governed by paid directors who monitor all levels of operation, the smaller ones must rely on volunteers, bound by a sense of familial duty. Some of these smaller cemeteries are well maintained, with frequent visitors coming to visit the graves of their loved ones. Others lie in disrepair, with the mourners having been pulled away by personal responsibilities or having joined the mourned themselves. Without dedicated volunteers to preserve both the physical space and the history, these places of honor fall into ruin and the stories of the decedents are lost forever.
My family’s cemetery, the Jaeger-Witte Cemetery, in Washington County, has been maintained by us Jaegers for over five generations. The cemetery was originally called the Hagedorn-Witte Cemetery, having been established in approximately 1865 on Carl and Marie Louise Hagedorn’s homestead following the death of their son Ferdinand Hagedorn and granddaughter Marie Lissette Witte. The land was later sold to their daughter Adele and her husband Herman von Bieberstein and then to their son Paul. The deed, dated February 19, 1895, is the first recording of a cemetreservation, and states “…an area of 100 acres of land, reserving however 1/8 of one acre as family burial ground.”
When the land was sold to my great-grandparents Henry and Alvine Jaeger in 1899, there were 11 members of the Hagedorn and Witte families buried in the cemetery. The cemetery reservation in this deed, dated October 23, 1899, expanded the size of the cemetery and specified the responsibilities of the new landowners. It says, “…an area of 100 acres of land, reserving however ¼ of one acre as the family burial ground, obligating us to keep said ¼ acre under a good substantial fence.” And so a barbed-wire fence and entry gate was built around the Hagedorn-Witte graves, with a separate space sectioned off for the Jaeger graves. The Jaegers sold the land to their son Henry and his wife Lillie in 1931, with the same cemetery deed reservation in place. In 1936, after Alvine’s burial, the cemetery was renamed the Jaeger-Witte Cemetery, because all of the Hagedorns had long since moved.
Clockwise from top left if viewed on a computer, or top to bottom if viewed on a phone: Henrietta Witte’s burial 1917, Rudolph Witte Jr.’s burial 1918, Rudolph Witte Sr.’s burial 1934, Alvine Jaeger’s burial 1936
My grandparents moved several times over the next few decades and leased out their land on various occasions; however, they oversaw cemetery maintenance from afar, either through hiring neighbors or obligating their renters to keep the space neat and in order. In 1979, my grandfather retired from his job as a maintenance supervisor in Houston and he and my grandmother moved back to the farm where they remained for the rest of their lives. In 1983, they realized that they and their aging neighbors could no longer handle the task of maintaining the 40 graves now present in the family cemetery. The weeds were overgrown and the nearly century old barbed-wire fence had caved in. But my grandparents were honorable people, for whom cemetery preservation was of utmost importance.
In his records, Grandpa writes, “In the middle part of October 1983, the cemetery was grown up in grass and weeds so bad that one was unable to mow the tall grass and weeds with a lawn mower. When Johnny and Myrtle Mueller came to clean it, it was impossible, so they came to ask me to use a tractor and shredder to mow the tall weeds. That’s when we decided to ask for help, as we are all getting older. We decided on a fund drive and asked for donations from all family relatives. Around November 1, 1983, a letter was mailed out to every member asking for a donation for the cemetery fund.”
Once the funds were secured, a major cleanup and restoration effort begun. The work, which took almost ten years to complete, was carefully documented in Grandpa’s records.
Clockwise from top left if viewed on a computer, or top to bottom if viewed on a phone: retaining wall, chain-link fence, construction of parking space and easement, installation of archway
Clockwise from top left if viewed on a computer, or top to bottom if viewed on a phone: Construction of concrete frames around existing graves, completed frames, statuary, installation of cattle guard and road sign
Grandpa’s carefully documented records
After the projects were completed, Grandpa created what was called the Jaeger-Witte Cemetery Association, which was a loosely organized group consisting of him and several of his children. Under his leadership, the group oversaw several more projects such as building a storage shed and installing flower beds. Below are two pictures of my grandfather, taken shortly before his death in 2004.
After Grandpa’s death, the Jaeger-Witte Cemetery Association continued to operate, though on a much smaller scale, with the focus being on routine maintenance. When seven of my aunts and uncles died in under a span of five years, many of us wondered what would happen once everyone of that generation had passed away or was otherwise unable to take care of the cemetery. The land on which the cemetery stood had since been sold and the owners had their own personal obligations that prohibited them from functioning as caretakers.
There was always an informal spoken agreement that the family would take care of things, but the reality is that operating an active cemetery according to state guidelines is complicated and requires an intentional, organized effort. There are burial records, finances, operating guidelines, and so many other matters that require attention. After my Aunt Delores passed away in 2012, I became very concerned about the future of the cemetery. She was a strong, healthy person who had outlived many others and was a sort of permanent fixture on the Jaeger farm. She always knew what was going on with the cemetery and made sure it was taken care of. Her unexpected death prompted us to take the steps needed to restructure the Jaeger Witte Cemetery Association in a way that clearly stated who was responsible, what they were responsible for, and in what manner these responsibilities were to be carried out. In 2014, four of my cousins and I formed the Jaeger Witte Heritage Cemetery Association, a family operated 501 (c) 13 cemetery organization whose mission is to oversee care and preservation of the Jaeger-Witte Cemetery. We have an elected board of directors that meets twice a year for business matters and an operating manual that provides clear direction for performing our duties. A newsletter and website (the one you’re reading now!) keep family and friends informed of our work. We meet regularly for routine maintenance, plus work on special projects such as restoring headstones and painting. We’ve attracted several benefactors such as the Sanford Schmid Trust, which has helped cover our costs. A few years ago, we acquired an additional acre of land to provide parking and room for expansion. In 2017, the cemetery was specifically named and recorded in Washington County records and two years later, we received recognition as a historic Texas cemetery.
In addition to physical preservation of the cemetery, the JWHCA places emphasis on preserving the stories and histories of the individuals buried within. This task of preserving histories was something Grandpa had undertaken before his death and something we have continued. When I am at the cemetery on one of our many work days, I sometimes pause and reflect on his words,
“That’s when we decided to ask for help, as we are all getting older.”
My hope is that one day when I have grown old and joined the mourned, a future generation will continue the work that began so long ago.