"Good Morning Earlington:
History is a record of man’s past, either oral or written. This includes stories told to me by my grandparents as well as elderly members of the area. Today I walked through another type of history. I took a tour of the cemetery on Oakwood with Mary Ann Thomas Poteet. Mary Ann is one the growing number who walk most every day. Many of her meanderings take her through the Catholic section of Oakwood Cemetery where her family lies in rest. Her great grandmother Annie Hancock Whalen who died May 11, 1896, was possibly the first person to be buried in the cemetery. Mary Ann has a photo of the cemetery taken after her great grandmother was buried showing a huge, concrete cross marking the Whalen’s hallowed grounds. The only grave shown at that time was that of Annie Whalen. Curiously enough her tombstone today sits several feet closer than in the 1800’s photo.
I can remember when the corner of E. Main and Robinson Streets was known as Whalen’s Corner. That was because Confederate veteran Patrick Whalen (1823-1896), who came to Earlington in the late 1800’s, built a home on that corner with his wife Annie Hancock Whalen (1835-1896). Together they had one son Patrick H. and 5 daughters, Maggie, Katie, Mollie, Ellen, and Annie. All of the children lived their lives in the large house on Whalen’s Corner. Of these six, only one chose to marry. That was Annie Whalen, Mary Ann’s grandmother who wed J.D. O'Brien, a member of another of Earlington’s first families.
J.D.’s grandfather, John O’Brien (1813-1892), also came to Earlington in the late 1800s. His son Lawrence H. O'Brien along with his wife Anna Douglas built the "O'Brien House" which still stands, although in disrepair, on the 3rd block of E. Farren. The L.H. O’Brien family was also composed of 5 daughters and one son, J.D.. Thus it was that the O’Brien and Whalen families merged and, in turn, reared their children in the Whalen house. Many Earlington residents today still remember their three children: Anna Marie (Sanders), Margaret Helen O’Brien Thomas (Mary Ann’s mother) and John Patrick (who at his death in ’65 bequeathed the historic house to Mary Ann).
In the past three years, a series of tragic events have taken the lives of Mary Ann’s father (A.C. Thomas), brother (Tommy), and husband (Bill). Although her work has often taken her away from E’ton, she always returns to her family home on Whalen’s Corner. It was also a house which during one period took in boarders, some of whom were railroaders and innkeepers. The lives of many of the O’Briens and the Whalens have long been intertwined with the railroad. These Irish Catholic men were longtime engineers and often mentioned in railroad articles of their time. A breathtaking stained glass window in the Immaculate Conception Church still bears the Whalen name. It is a heavenly piece given in honor of family matriarch Annie Whalen.
However, the more interesting point of this is the explanation of how this little trip back into time began. While in the process of updating Earlington history, I realized I was lacking information on several of the "first" homes in Earlington. I decided as the Whalen house was one of these, and I remembered some of the stories I had heard as a child and was intrigued. A few weeks ago when I noticed that Mary Ann had returned home, I asked her for information and any photos she might have. As the Southern neighbor she is, she invited me down for a "house tour." I say this because walking around the inside of her home is like a mini-tour of Earlington history—the furniture, the architecture, the antique pictures and toys, the family stories. As I was having a difficult time putting together all of the individuals of two families, she suggested a trip to the cemetery where I could "meet" all of them. It truly was like a trip back in time—walking from stone to stone with a story which connected each one. It was difficult to imagine while standing at the grave of Annie Whalen that until her death there were few or no stones in this cemetery of her adopted, infant town.
In the quiet of the cemetery’s serene beauty, we walked from family plot to family plot reading names common in those early days—John Victory (our Victory Building), the John Rule family (in whose home I now live) with their four children buried under one four-sided stone with each side bearing a child’s history. And then we visited the John Houlihan family, Margaret Clark, the Waltons, the Fegans, the Egloffs, and the child Caroline Job who lies alone in a deserted plot surrounded by an iron fence. These are faceless names I have heard since childhood which now seem more real after having walked among them.
Yet, in all this there is a current "down side" that I have heard about for several weeks but had not experienced until today. That is the seemingly random and willful vandalism--especially to the Catholic section of the cemetery. Markers are being moved. Century old stones are being toppled and broken. Wrought iron fences are being torn apart and removed. How sad that some have so little respect. I wonder what pleasure could be obtained from dishonoring these people--by destroying irreplaceable century old stones.
Not only is this obvious destruction disheartening, but another type of damage abounds. Many older graves are suffering from sinking ground. Rust and mold smothers stones making them nigh impossible to read. Numerous holes camouflaged by grass make it dangerous to walk in many areas. Dead trees have dropped splintered limbs while still others hover forebodingly awaiting the time they too fall atop delicate, ancient stones. Some of the older trees still living are beautiful. Many have grown around or through some stones and others press against long-time neighboring stones. Mary Ann said she often sits under the trees. She added how nice it would be to have a bench where walkers or mourners could rest without having to sit on the ground. Although I, at first, wondered why she would want to sit there for any length of time, I soon found that the calmness of the area is contagious. Why would anyone wish to destroy this? And why have the descendents of these pioneers not tried to preserve the stones. Although most of my family are in neighboring Grapevine Cemetery, I still must include myself in this negligent group.
If history measures us by how we honor our dead, I am afraid we will measure badly. As lines were drawn in life, so are they in death. Not only family lines, but also racial and religious. Even now some cannot allow these souls to rest without desecrating the markers of their final remains. We may well comment, "How sad!" while perhaps from somewhere above others look down on us and think the same. "How sad" that posterity cares so little as to allow the only remaining physical remnants of their resting places not only to be defiled and destroyed but to allow proud names once prominently engraved in stone to vanish as if written in a mysterious disappearing ink. Many are already unreadable. Most letters are covered with that cancerous "orange rust" which slowly but surely eats away at their names. Yes, "how very sad." Shame on us!
Ann Gipson 12-14-2001