Black Caucus hopes to restore Ehren cemetery

Published March 13, 2007

The headstone is marked by moss and time:

Eddie son of R.M. and M.V. Lewis. Born March 17, 1892. Died Nov. 8, 1906.

The marker says little about his life and how he died, although we know in those days fatal childhood illnesses were common.

But more than 100 years later, Eddie's is one of the few remaining headstones at the abandoned Mount Carmel Church and Cemetery in Ehren. Time, weather and vandals have conspired to remove the stone and wooden markers and erase traces of the once thriving community of black sawmill workers and farmers.

But with new developments transforming pastures into suburban neighborhoods, a new prosperity has returned to the Ehren community in central Pasco.

With it has also come stepped- up efforts to save some of the community's largely forgotten past.

On March 22, the Black Caucus of Pasco County is inviting volunteers and history buffs to a meeting at the New River Library in Zephyrhills to discuss options to restore a little bit of the county's lost history.

One idea would be for a small park with benches, a historical marker and a small enrichment center for community events. That's ambitious, but it's a dream Blanche Benford and the Black Caucus members believe in. She's counting on community generosity and some county help to make it happen.

"We want to preserve this black burial place," said Benford. "Our young people need to grasp how important our history is."

Some hope that one of the large developers who own property adjacent to the 1 1/2-acre cemetery, located about 2 miles northeast of the U.S 41-Ehren Cutoff intersection, would donate land to expand the site.

Benford has been talking to Pasco County Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who has played a key role in the recent upkeep of the cemetery.

The site ended up in county hands by default. In 1986 it was deeded to the county by a former owner who failed to pay back taxes. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years it wasn't maintained, was overgrown and largely forgotten.

It was also hard to find. While the whites-only Ehren Cemetery on Cemetery Road is clearly visible and well maintained, you have to know where you're going in order to find the black cemetery.

After Pasco County code enforcement officer Dick Ortiz received a call sometime ago about a cemetery being threatened by development, he went looking for the Mount Carmel cemetery. He couldn't find it until he got help from one of the locals. The building complaint turned out to be a false alarm, but the fate of the cemetery has been a matter of concern ever since.

Last year, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office used jail inmates to clear the site. And an engineering firm surveyed the property and found that it contained about three dozen graves.

But most of the history has been unearthed by local amateur historian Jeff Cannon, a fifth- generation Pasco resident who has taken an interest in local black and white cemeteries. His Web site, Pascocemeteries.org, includes a detailed history about the site and the family connections of Eddie and the others remembered on those headstones.

Once, the Ehren Pine Company, with its sawmill plant, and a nearby farming community supported a thriving black presence with churches, a school and a cemetery. Now all that's left are rotted wooden planks from a long-abandoned church and headstones, including one for a forgotten boy named Eddie.

The Black Caucus of Pasco County will meet at 6:30 p.m. March 22 at the New River Library to discuss ideas for restoring the black cemetery in Ehren. For information, call Blanche Benford at 813 778-6064.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.