By Adam Emrick
When I first started with Horry County, South Carolina in July of 2007, I had no idea that one day I would be tromping through cemeteries on a regular basis. So much so, that people identified me as the “Cemetery Guy”. But four years later that’s me. I have a pretty great job. When the weather is nice, I can usually get away from my computer, my desk, my fluorescent lighting and go out into the warm (and sometimes hot… usually hot) Horry County sunshine. And I get to play with some very cool, cutting edge technology at the same time.
Today, as I write my first ever blog, I’m looking out of my office window onto Second Avenue in Conway and I see sunshine. I have a full agenda of things to do on this Monday morning, but I also know that I have about a hundred and fifty more graves in Princeville Cemetery to inventory, and it is sunny. So maybe…
I am the staff liaison for the Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation and on my first day of work I learned that Horry County had zero properties preserved at the local level. Horry County was made a Certified Local Government in 1987 (the first and still the only county so designated), with the privilege and duty to preserve historic properties. But in those 20 years, they had been unable to officially preserve a single historic structure, landmark, site or location.
I should point out that Horry County (pronounced O-ree) is the home to more than 40 miles of heavily developed oceanfront coastline including the resort communities of Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and Garden City Beach. Development and growth in general had reached never before seen levels. Historic Preservation was an afterthought.
In preparation for my first meeting with the BAR, I read every meeting minute I could find for as far back as I could find. I learned that my Board was passionate about history and way more knowledgeable than myself. I also learned that they had not been idly sitting by watching important pieces of history be demolished to make room for mini-golf courses and condominium high rises. I also came to realize that twenty years of unsuccessfully trying to preserve history had taken its toll on the morale of my Board.
So I looked for a way to preserve history here that would be quick and upbeat and an easy political sell. I thought, who is going to stand up in front of our County Council and their neighbors and honestly say, “I don’t want to preserve this family cemetery on my property. It’s my property, I should be able to plow it under if I want.” And so the Horry County Cemetery Project was born.
And what the project started as and what it has become are two totally different things. The first cemeteries were inventoried with small sheets of notebook paper and were mapped using graph paper. This lasted for exactly four inventories. The notebooks were replaced with a Gravesite Inventory Form, the graph paper was replaced with a digital camera with built in GPS receiver that stamped the photos with the GPS coordinates of the gravesite location. Each inventory sheet was then entered into a spreadsheet and sent to a different County department for mapping. Effective, but tedious.
And only effective, it turned out, until we inventoried the Socastee United Methodist Church Cemetery. It took my team of five six hours to inventory and we produced nearly 500 inventory sheets ( a full ream of paper). This data then took me three weeks to enter into the Spreadsheet. The maps have yet to be produced. I knew that we needed to improve our methods to continue the project. We also hit snags in several cemeteries that had obvious graves with no markers. Some property owners balked at having these coffin shaped and sized depressions in a cemetery considered gravesites without proof that they were actually graves.
After extensive research, I picked out my wish list of toys and gadgets that only needed a magic lamp and a genie to grant. Or Preserve America. As I mentioned earlier, those 20 years that the BAR had unsuccessfully attempted to preserve history here were not in vain. Their efforts allowed them to be the first County in South Carolina declared a Preserve America Community. This opened the door for grant money which I optimistically applied for in 2008 in the ballpark of $45,000. This would allow us to buy ground penetrating radar and five Trimble units. The GPR would find those unmarked graves and the Trimbles would allow us to record the data and maps in the field digitally.
To date, we have inventoried and mapped more than 200 historic cemeteries. We have inventoried and mapped more than 11,250 gravesites. We have taken more than 20,000 photographs of cemeteries and gravesites. We have located more than 1,000 previously unmarked graves. We have worked with multiple high school classes, introducing them to local history by meeting the founders of the County. We have grown the number of volunteers who have participated in the project to more than 200. We have now increased the number of preserved historic sites in Horry County to nearly 150. And most importantly our history is at the forefront of nearly every discussion, no longer just an afterthought.
The project has now morphed into a project that is unmatched by any other governmental entity. This year it was awarded the 2011 South Carolina Archaeology Stewardship Award by the South Carolina Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation. More recently Horry County was presented the J. Mitchell Graham Memorial Award for the Cemetery Project, beating out any other project by any other county in the state.
The Project is now articulated as such, it is Horry County’s attempt to locate every historic cemetery in the County and inventory every gravesite in those cemeteries. The inventory contains the names, dates of birth and death, lineage, epitaphs, symbols, conditions, digital photograph and exact mapped location for every single gravesite in the County. The results are freely available on the County’s website at www.horrycounty.org/cemetery.asp.
The Project has changed my life in many ways, from the interesting and sometimes wacky people that I’ve gotten to meet, to the fascinating stories that I’ve been privileged enough to hear, to the tales of sorrow over losing track of an ancestor. I’ve been deeply touched by them all. I can no longer drive down a road anywhere without noticing every little cemetery, some long neglected, some very well kept.
Now back to that sunshine outside… I think I’ve got just enough time to make it to that cemetery…