Cemetery tells history

Graveside actors reveal Denham Springs’ past

By paul braun

LSU student writer

DENHAM SPRINGS — The ghost stories may have been less than spooky Saturday, but they gave cemetery visitors a glimpse into the city’s past.

Volunteer actors portrayed deceased residents from the graves of First Baptist Church cemetery, providing a local addition to the Smithsonian Institute’s traveling Journey Stories exhibit showing at Old City Hall.

Carol Lamm gave a brief history of the cemetery, which began as a village graveyard, before it was sold to the church in the 1800s. She then led visitors on a tour of selected graves.

At each of the graves, a community volunteer dressed in period clothing told his or her character’s life story.

Bob Ingalls portrayed Henry Tucker Comish, the first pastor of First Baptist Church.

In character, he spoke of the founding of the church.

“We cut cypress from the swamp, hauled it here to the grounds and all our church members built it by hand,” he said. “The dressed lumber came from St. Helena Parish and was hauled here by ox teams over rough, rough roads. A round trip took three days.”

Other actors portrayed other former residents, including a church pianist, who said she made a getaway from a nursing home before she died at age 92, and a group of three young girls who played quietly.

Barbara Powell played her own grandmother, Mona Musselman Glover, in the last stop on the tour. Glover operated Glover Grocery Store on Range Avenue after her husband died in 1935, and lived in the home he built for her on Budley Street, just one block away from where she is buried.

Information for the stories came in large part from the personal correspondence of Denham Springs resident Henry Exner, Lamm said.

Exner was a Czechoslovakian immigrant and a jeweler in the early days of the settlement of Denham Springs. When his daughter moved, Exner wrote her countless letters on the day-to-day occurrences in the town.

Lamm also used the Livingston Parish historical records, death certificates obtained from the Secretary of State’s Office and personal stories to compile the information shared by the actors.

Lamm said the cemetery, which is now maintained by the city, has at least 191 graves.

One of them was only found because of a bolt of lightning, she said, pointing to a gravesite in the back of the cemetery.

When lightning split a tree at that spot in 1992, workers were unable to cut down the dead trunk. Their saws hit a concrete grave marker, she explained.

“It was the grave of Martha Sharp,” Lamm said. “Years ago it was the custom to plant a small cedar tree beside the grave of an infant. This tree, over the years, grew around the grave and completely enclosed the headstone. Had lightning not hit it in the right place, it may never have been discovered.”

Martha was the daughter of Simpson and Nannie Carter Sharp and died in 1912, Lamm said.

“David Driggers took on the cemetery as a school project nearly 20 years ago. He cataloged each grave with the names, dates and location.”

The exhibit and tour were made possible by a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Florence Crowder and Lamm were named the director and assistant director of the grant.

Crowder said she was pleased with the interest the cemetery tour generated, saying that initially she hoped for about 20 visitors. About 70 people took Saturday’s cemetery tour.

The Journey Stories exhibit continues daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Old City Hall. It includes local pictures, writings and memorabilia in addition to the materials supplied by the Smithsonian.

The exhibit will close in Denham Springs on Oct. 15 and move to Lake Providence, the fourth of six stops in Louisiana.