Uncovering the Past
December 16, 2007 – BECKLEY, W.V.— Jimmy Jay Furr has always felt a strong sense of respect for American military veterans.
Furr’s father and brother were veterans, and he finds himself overcome with emotion on Veterans Day when disabled veterans pass down Main Street.
That is why Furr, 46, of Hinton, responded when he saw a newspaper advertisement asking for assistance in cleaning up an old veterans cemetery. The cemetery had been designated for black veterans over a century ago, and had since fallen into disrepair.
Furr went looking for the cemetery. Following the directions he had been given, he drove down a dirt road along a narrow ridge line near Stanaford. At the end of the road, he stopped in the woods among waist-high brush.
About that time, a man rode by on an ATV. Furr asked the man if he knew where the black veterans cemetery was.
“You are in it,” the man responded.
Furr began searching through the brush until he found a white headstone with a cross carved on it. It was the grave of a World War I veteran who had been buried there decades ago. He kept looking and found another headstone, then another.
Over the next several months, Furr chopped back the brush and hauled away the trees that had grown amid the graves.
Despite the backbreaking work, he felt compelled to continue.
“I couldn’t stand the thought of veterans laying there being disrespected,” he said. “They fought for this country. We shouldn’t forget anybody.”
He eventually uncovered nearly 100 graves of veterans from the Civil War, World War I and World War II.
“It was just my way of saying (to the veterans) that I thought about you, and remember you,” he said.
Some of the individual graves left an impression on Furr. He recalls the day he found the grave of a veteran named John Smith who had served as a preacher in World War I.
“When I saw his marker, I thought — well, it’s nice to meet you, sir,” he said. “I cleaned that grave up real nice.”
Furr estimated he spent hundreds or even thousands of hours working in the large cemetery.
His goal was to trim the brush until he could push a mower over the ground, but his first attempts at mowing the terrain met with rocks, roots and stumps.
“I broke the (mower) blades and then had them fixed. Then I broke the chassis and had it fixed. I just kept going back,” he said.
Furr was eventually successful at returning the cemetery to decent condition.
“When I got done, I stood back and looked at it, and started to cry,” he said. “I wasn’t able to serve in the military, and this was my way of thanking these men.”
Now, Furr’s challenge is to maintain the cemetery. Most of the friends and immediate family of the veterans interred there have died or moved away long ago.
He has asked other individuals and organizations to help him with the work, but has not received any assistance.
Going it alone has not been easy. He admits he has not had time to return to the cemetery in recent months. The weeds and litter are starting to overtake the graves once again.
“I’ve had some health issues, and the money has been short, too,” he said.
“If people really knew the cemetery was there, and the shape it is in, some people would come to help out. It could be a beautiful cemetery.”
Bill Billeter writes for The Register-Herald in Beckley, W,Va.