The Athens Banner newspaper of early February 1919 reported the weather as rainy and cold. Under these chilly conditions 34-year-old Cleveland Cosby was buried in a graveyard in northern Greene County.
Ninety-four years later in March 2013, Cosby’s headstone has fallen into the sunken grave. The cemetery is barely discernable among the trees and thick leafy mulch of the forest floor. Protruding rocks here and there are the last telltale signs of a hallowed ground where perhaps a 100 hundred bodies were laid to rest in the dim past.
Cosby’s grave and another for Butch Watson are the only two graves in this cemetery with manufactured granite stones. No funerals have taken place here for decades in what has become a lost graveyard in the Oconee National Forest south of Athens.
While the land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, the graveyard is not marked on maps obtained by the federal government in land sale transactions leading up to the government’s purchase of the tract in the 1960s. Most of the national forest was acquired in the 1930s.
“Very little archaeology work has been done on that piece of land,” said Judy Toppins, public affairs officer for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
“In all the documents through all the land exchanges during that period (in mid-1900s) nothing refers to the cemetery. Usually it will be marked on a map or deed somewhere, but sometimes it wouldn’t because it’s not considered an improvement and adds no value to the land,” Toppins said.
Stacy Lundgren, the district archaeologist who investigated the land records, visited the cemetery in April and walked the patch of land marked by sunken graves. While abandoned family cemeteries are common in the South, she noted that there “are actually a lot of graves” at this site. The year 1880 was handcarved into two weathered stones marking gravesites.
Lundgren, who worked previously as an archaeologist in national forests in Oregon and California, took photographs of the Cosby and Watson gravestones.
The graves of these two men may provide some insight on the nature of the graveyard that dates back into the 1800s, when this land may have been part of a large plantation with slaves. Two historic sites are nearby. The extinct town of Scull Shoals, which died out in the late 1800s, is only a few miles away and the old Watson Springs Hotel, which was gone by the mid-1900s, is only about a mile away.
Cosby and Watson, who died in 1922, were both black men.
Newspapers in those days rarely published obituaries on black people. Cosby’s death was not documented in either the Athens Banner or the Greensboro Journal, the latter which did carry correspondent news from the nearby communities of Watson Springs and Wrayswood.
However, the Athens Banner did carry a revealing story on Watson because he was a well-known figure on the University of Georgia campus.
“This may not be news to the majority of the readers of this paper but to the hundreds of athletes and managers of Georgia athletic teams the past ten years it will be really sorrowing intelligence,” the unknown reporter wrote.
Watson, known as Butch, was a handy man around the gym and athletic fields and traveled with the UGA teams on away games and “victory for the Red and Black to him was just as sweet as it was to the most loyal freshman,” according to the story. Watson, who died of tuberculosis, “has listened to Georgia’s band play ‘Glory’ for the last time.”
Watson lived in Athens, once at a house on Thomas Street, while he was employed by the UGA College of Agriculture, according to a death certificate and 1918 World War I draft registration documents found by Oconee County genealogist Elaine Neal.
Much less information is available on Cosby. According to his draft card in Greene County, he was a short, stout man with no physical disqualifications. A farm laborer, his death certificate notes that he died of the flu. And yet he was the first person in this graveyard to get a manufactured stone that to this day gives his grave a name.
One day Lundgren said she may gather volunteers to sweep the leaves away, document the graves and give this cemetery a context to the land and its history.
“We need to know these things because a lot of this doesn’t get written up in history books. Cemeteries like this are not written up in books. This is where archaeology comes in by teasing out the details of the past,” she said.
The artisan who made Cosby’s stone carved the inscription “Gone But Not Forgotten.”
But a time of irony came.