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Forsaken graves are hidden history

No one claims ownership of the overgrown Olive Street plot.

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published March 26, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - No one knows who owns it, but this you can tell from the stones: A mother mourned a child here; a husband buried his wife.

The history of it, like the small plot itself, is obscured - the first by time and forgetfulness, the last by leggy lantana and high grass.

Surrounded by a high chain-link fence, closed with a broken lock, 2,508 square feet, 13 stones. The earliest burial dates from 1870; the most recent, 1974.

The property appraiser lists the owner of the Olive Street graveyard as the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. But the church insists that these are not its dead.

* * *

In the northeastern corner, facing west, stands a roughened stone. "Sacred to the Memory of Thomas B. Law, Born Jan. 3, 1835, Died December 4th, 1870."

With grim certitude, the weathered carving claims: "I will ransom them from the power of the grave and I will redeem them from death."

This is what could be redeemed of Thomas Bradwell Law: He was the second of 11 children born to Peter William Law and Martha Cooper Baisden. He mustered into the 3rd Regiment of Florida's infantry on Aug. 11, 1861, eight months after Florida seceded from the Union. He was elected captain of the cavalry and transferred. He might have been county sheriff in 1862. He married Mary Howell.

A Florida death record calls him "farmer." Cause of death: "dropsy."

* * *

The first Catholic Mass in Brooksville was celebrated on Easter 1874. But there was no church. A handful of Catholic women took up a collection, and found a benefactor to help them build a chapel.

On Jan. 28, 1907, "Robert J. Mickler, widower" sold for $100 a small piece of property on Olive Street. St. Anthony's Catholic Church, the first Catholic church in Hernando County, was built there the following year.

But the graveyard behind it never belonged to the church, said the Rev. James Hoge, who served as parish priest from 1944 to 1948.

The church was deconsecrated and sold in 1972, and became a private home. The sacristy is now a small kitchen. The front window - rich cobalt blue and sunflower yellow glass - depicts the nativity. The bell still rings.

* * *

Law's short life tells a story of this place.

His parents brought him here in the 1840s, settling 100 acres of the Annuttaliga Hammock under the Armed Occupation Act, which offered property to pioneers as long as they cleared the land and fought off the last resisting Seminoles.

The St. Augustine News wrote, "These men go prepared to encounter straggling Indians and to occupy the country, as the pioneers of this nation have always done, with the plough in one hand, the rifle in the other."

More than a century later, Edith Fulton Craigie, a Brooksville Sun columnist, learned from a descendent that the family arrived too late in the year to plant a crop, "so for some months they had to live mainly on rice, milk, butter, and cottage cheese."

* * *

A century-old mistake. That's likely how the Diocese of St. Petersburg came to "own" the graveyard, Joseph DiVito speculated recently. DiVito, like his father before him, serves as the diocesan attorney.

Last year, the church reviewed its holdings and discovered that ownership had been assigned to the diocese. DiVito wants to correct the mistake and "cure" the title, and so shed the accidental obligation.

"I'm not sure if it's a surveyor error or a scrivener error," DiVito said recently, puzzling through a sheaf of documents.

The diocese sold the church and neighboring parsonage in 1972, after the Olive Street chapel proved too small for St. Anthony's growing congregation. The elder DiVito, since deceased, handled the sale. He relied on the same legal description that defined the property in 1907, when Robert .J. Mickler sold it to the church. DiVito wrote to the diocesan comptroller in 1972, "The legal description was so vague as to be unidentifiable."

The church sold the property with a quitclaim deed, basically saying, the younger DiVito explained, "We're not sure what we own, but what we do own, we give to you."

"We thought we were out of it," he said.

* * *

Thomas Bradwell Law was the first buried there. In 1870, his grave lay near the boundary of his mother-in-law's 160-acre estate. The later graves belong to his widow Mary's kin, and the descendents from her second marriage.

Mary E. Law, born Mary Howell, was brought to Brooksville from South Carolina in the early 1850s. Her father had died in 1852, when she was 7. Her widowed mother came on alone, bringing Mary, her older sister, two brothers, 11 slaves and the county's first carriage.

The Howell Plantation straddled what was then called Monroe Ferry Road, now Howell Avenue. It extended from Fort Dade Avenue "north through Black's Addition; west to the Hammock Road; and east to Bell's grove," Craigie wrote in her Brooksville Sun column in 1952.

Mary lived on the estate even after her marriage to Law, and was counted there by the 1870 census. Her husband did not appear on the household roll, but a child did: Thomas Law, age 5 months.

A census taker penned that entry on Aug. 23, 1870. It's the only time the boy appeared in the lists.

In the graveyard, scripted on a weathered stone, there's this: Sacred to the Memory of Thomas Howell Law Died on 2nd September, Brooksville, Age 6 months 20 days. But Yet I often think my boy is living, as living as my other children are. When Good Night kisses I all could are given, I keep one for him though he is so far. Can a mere grave divide me from him though he died?

There's no indication, aside from the inscription, that Mary bore her husband any other children. Three months later, she buried her husband next to her boy.

* * *

The tallest monument in the graveyard memorializes Mrs. R.J. Mickler, who died Sept. 22, 1902, at 57.

Her survivors carved this on her marker: Our precious mother from us has gone, a voice we loved stilled, a place is vacant in our home which can never be filled. God in his wisdom has recalled the boon his love had given, and though the body slumbers here, the soul is safe in heaven.

Next to her grave is the flattened stump of a wide oak. Locals remember it fell years ago, cracking some stones, scattering others.

Local memory included the falling oak, but not her first name. Craigie ran into the same problem in her 1952 "Hernando History" column. Two weeks later, the columnist filled in the blank: Mrs. R.J. Mickler was born Mary Howell.

Mary had remarried four years after Law left her a widow.

Her second husband, like the first, was a Confederate veteran, having enlisted at 18. The Biographical Rosters of Florida's Confederate and Union Soldiers details his service. "Mickler, Robert James ... enlisted 3/1/63 at Alum Bluff." In April 1865, the 10th Florida Infantry became "the largest regiment of the Florida Brigade to lay down its arms at Appomattox, surrendering 18 officers and 154 men."

Mickler wasn't among them. "He deserted to the US in March 1865, took the oath and was sent to Jacksonville."

He returned to Brooksville, married Mary, and had three children. With her death in 1902, he inherited a piece of the Howell Plantation. After she died, he sold the property near her grave that became St. Anthony's Catholic Church. The neighborhood, about two blocks northeast of Brooksville City Hall, is still referred to in property records as Mickler's addition to Brooksville.

Mickler died in 1929.

* * *

Responsibility for the cemetery has been unclear for decades.

Pat Brewer, owner of Brewer & Sons Funeral Home, buried Robert Duren Sr. there in 1970. Duren was one of two sons born to Marie "Mamie" Mickler Duren, the youngest daughter of Mary and her second husband.

Brewer keeps his funeral records neatly catalogued in manila folders. Robert Duren Sr.'s contains two 5-cent postcards from his brother, John Duren, dated 1970.

Mamie Duren was still alive but in declining health, her surviving son wrote. He had been alarmed to find the graveyard - all that was left of his mother's home place - overgrown with weeds.

"I sincerely hope Mother's place has been cleaned by now," he wrote. "If it hasn't try to get someone to do it for me. ... I think one clearing now will take it through winter."

A few days later, John Duren wrote again: "Since talking to you several days ago I have found out the name of the color man who keeps up Mrs. W.A. Thompson's place ... The negro man I understand is a good honest worker and his name is James Hall. ... Feel if you would contact him our problem would be solved."

The family plot is too old and too small to fall under state regulations, explained Diana Evans, director of the Florida Division of Funerals, Cemeteries and Consumer Services. Cities can use public funds to maintain it if it has been abandoned for more than six months.

Brewer sits on the Brooksville Cemetery Advisory Committee. The committee, like the diocese, wants to see the ownership resolved.

"That's our history," Brewer said. "It's a shame it's gone to pot."

If the family didn't sell it to the church, then it's still Mickler land. There are at least two surviving descendents in Florida. Neither could be reached.

* * *

She answered to many names in her 57 years: Mary Howell, Mary E. Law, Mrs. R.J. Mickler. After her second marriage, a census taker counted her again in 1880: M.E. Mickler, wife of R.J. Mickler, farmer.

They had three children: H.T. Mickler, a 5-year-old boy; A.B. Mickler, a 3-year-old girl; and 4-month-old Mary Mickler - also called "Marie" and "Mamie."

They're not counted again for 20 years. The 1890 census was lost to a fire in the U.S. National Archives. "Mamie" made the 1900 census, as did her brother, "H.T.," listed in 1900 as Howell Mickler.

But the census taker didn't count A.B. Mickler.

The entry for her mother, Mary, explains why. Number of children: four. Number of children living: two.

Mary had lost, of course, the 6-month-old son of her first marriage. Father and son rest side by side. A few steps away, there's a broken stone. It gives a birthday, but it's cracked through the year of her death.

Sacred to the memory of Anna Bell Mickler, was born July 19, 1877 and died July 20... O Smite us Gently, Gently God! Teach us to Bend and Kiss the Rod and Perfect grow through Grief. Ah, how we loved Thee, God can tell, her little heart was cased in ours, our hearts are broken Anna Bell.

* * *

Records paint a partial picture of a life. Census lists, military rolls, rosters of the buried dead. But history contains misspellings, mistakes and devastating blanks, like the county's missing 1860 census, or the burned 1890 lists.

Local genealogists once copied down the names on the stones: Law, Howell, Keathley, Mickler, Duren.

Five on that list don't have stones there now. They've been covered over, destroyed or moved.

Brewer buried the last in 1974.

Marie "Mamie" Electra Mickler Duren, last surviving child of Mary Howell and Robert J. Mickler, died Christmas Eve 1974, in Plant City. She was 94.

She was a Daughter of the Confederacy, a Methodist, county supervisor of registration for nearly 15 years, widow of Thomas Drew Duren, mother of two sons.

Her pallbearers included a county judge, a county sheriff and the sons of other venerated Brooksville families, including Weeks, Laws, and McKethans.

She was buried in a Falcon Concrete Vault. Her funeral cost $1,244.

Thirty-two years later, no one clears the weeds from her grave.

Times researchers Mary Mellstrom, John Martin and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352754-6127.

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Source material

This story was reported using genealogy records on ancestry.com, and records and information from local historian Roger Landers. Two books, Hernando County, Our Story by Alfred A. McKethan and A History of Hernando County, 1840-1976 by Richard J. Stanaback, provided information about life in Hernando County in the 1800s.

[Last modified March 25, 2007, 23:17:34]


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