History unearthed
Rockdale historian researches stories of the dead

When it comes to unraveling the mystery of who is buried in the Conyers Cemetery, Susan Vaughn, a member of the Rockdale County Historical Society, admits that it's not been easy. She's spent dozens of hours culling through old newspapers, court records and history books to piece together nuggets of information on the roughly 377 known people buried there from the 1850s to the mid-1900s.

"I was just surprised that there were burials there but they weren't noted," said Vaughn, who added that she is aware of no comprehensive log book or survey of the cemetery identifying the dead.

Still, Vaughn succeeded in ferreting out enough biographical tidbits to parlay it into a tour of the cemetery, which she will present as part of the Rockdale County Historical Society's monthly outings. Open to the public, the Conyers Cemetery Tour will take place at 2 p.m. April 5. The Conyers Cemetery is located on Pine Log Road near the intersection of Pine Log Road and Main Street. Those attending the tour may park in Olde Town.

Through her research, Vaughn determined that the cemetery came into existence in the 1850s, if not before. Before Conyers was incorporated as a city in 1853, the cemetery was already established and known as the Rockdale Cemetery.

As municipalities sprung up, Vaughn explained, city cemeteries became necessities because churches didn't always have room on the grounds for burials. Because people congregated in cities, that also meant that they often were a fair distance from their families' home places in the country and so could not be buried there either.

The cemetery covers over 5 acres and holds some of the more well-known Rockdale families such as the Almands and Vaughns. The Almands have the most of any family buried there - at least 17 people. The Hollingsworths and McDaniels follow the Almands in high numbers of burials at the cemetery.

In the part of the cemetery that is wooded lie members of black families, though no known records have been kept on them either, Vaughn said.

Owned and maintained by the city of Conyers, the historic cemetery has undergone its share of vandalism including desecration of the built up monuments. The built up monuments resemble above ground vaults but do not contain remains, though vandals tend to damage the monuments in attempts to view what's inside of them.

Vaughn said she became inspired to explore the history behind those buried in the cemetery after she toured the historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta.

"I did a tour of Oakland and I knew there were stories to tell," Vaughn said.

In her determination to ferret out the roles that people buried in Conyers Cemetery played in Rockdale history, Vaughn obtained a list of their names - compiled by Franklin Garrett, a well-known Atlanta historian - and cross referenced those names with sources including the books, "A History of Rockdale County" and "The Heritage of Rockdale County," along with the weekly newspaper published in the late 1800s, The Conyers Examiner. She also examined probate records.

Since no indexes existed for the newspapers, Vaughn pored over week after week of the issues searching for mention of names on her list. She generally didn't waste her time on obituaries and instead searched for news that told what the people did in life. What she found gave personality and depth to those who call Conyers Cemetery their final resting place.

"I call the people the residents," Vaughn said.

There's the dentist, Reubin Jones (1827-1882), who not only offered his dental patients a "gold plug" for $1, but also ran a liquor store out of his dental office. When he died, among the items in his will were 22 beer stands, two stills and 950 gallons of corn whiskey.

Jones rests among James Hollingsworth (1836-1896), a member of the Temperance Committee which proved successful in closing 20 bars in Conyers, and Col. W. L. Peek (1837-1922), who ran on the prohibition ticket during his election to the Georgia legislature and his bid for governor, and claimed victory in closing nine bars in Conyers.

Another person buried in the cemetery is Dr. W. H. Lee, who served as a surgeon during the Civil War and worked in a major Atlanta hospital for wounded soldiers. After the war, he returned to Conyers, where he operated a pharmacy and sold a concoction called Shiner's Indian Vermifuge purported to kill intestinal parasites in children.

The Conyers Cemetery is also the final resting place of John Hewlett, an author who wrote a work of fiction, "Cross on the Moon," containing characters that closely resembled some Conyers residents. Much of the book was not complimentary to those profiled in it and Hewlett was not very well-liked locally. Legend has it, Vaughn said, that his family had him buried in the middle of the night so that no one would bother his grave.

Vaughn said her research is just scratching the surface of who rests at the Conyers Cemetery. Eventually the historical society would like to find the funds to finance a survey of the cemetery and produce a brochure for a walking tour.

"There are people buried there that we don't know about. There's so much there that we don't know about," Vaughn said.

To register for the Conyers Cemetery tour, call 770-922-5457 to register by March 30.

E-mail Karen J. Rohr at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.