Caddo’s beautiful “City of the Dead” began as an open pasture where burials were permitted, but not regulated. Residents simply buried a loved one in any spot that they chose and marked it with whatever they had. Although anecdotal records state that the cemetery existed as soon as the town was formed in 1872, the Caddo, Oklahoma, Star records that the Odd Fellows planned to enclose four acres for a city cemetery in January of 1876 and invited members of the Grange and Masons to help them because “there has never been a proper place to lay off the ground into lots.”
At first care of the grounds was done by family members and was haphazard at best. The graveyard was also besieged by critters and twice was accidentally set on fire by men smoking cigars while digging graves. There is mention in 1877 of cemetery work being done, but over the years the site became more and more neglected. In 1892 Mrs. C. A. Bilbo attended a funeral and wrote, “the large crowd present found their way to the grave as best they could through sunflowers, weeds, and briars, trampling over the tumbled-in graves of the loved ones of others.”
Mrs. Bilbo and Mrs. Walters, president of the Woman’s Club, soon persuaded other members to take on the renovation of the cemetery as a club project. At first there wasn’t much enthusiasm for the task, and very little cooperation from townspeople. Money had been solicited in the past for fencing and improvements that were never done. Residents were reluctant to let go of their hard-earned money without assurances that the work would indeed be completed. Finally the determined women accumulated enough money to hire a man to clean the grounds. Unfortunately, tragedy struck again when the man set the grass on fire and damaged some of the trees in the process. The club was forced to pay him anyway and also incurred criticism from the townspeople who had made donations.
Mrs. Walters refused to give up and with the help of Mrs. W. H. Ainsworth, organized a new committee – the Mutual Civic and Cemetery Association. Mesdames Walters, Ainsworth, McCoy, Harris, Lowe, Hancock, Rathburn, McCully, Abney, Goddard, and Bilbo were members. Collectors were assigned to different parts of the town to solicit funds for maintenance and improvements. However, the work soon became too much for Mrs. Walters, who was still president of the Woman’s Club. Mrs. Bilbo agreed to continue the cemetery work and the group changed its name one more time, to the Civic and Cemetery Club, still active today.
The Civic and Cemetery Club ordered 1,000 hedges to surround the “old cemetery.” Roads were established and Bermuda grass was planted in both sections. In 1903 the town council voted to fence the cemetery, “including the new part” and Mayor McCoy donated the posts for the project. The new addition was laid off into streets and lanes, and it was decided that lots would be sold and the funds used to “pay for the fencing and other improvements” and to keep the cemetery in “good shape.”
Current visitors to the cemetery immediately notice three structures. The brick mausoleum which enshrines Mr. and Mrs. William J. Moon was constructed for Mollie Moon in 1904 after her tragic suicide. Mr. Moon’s body joined hers there when he died in 1923.
The small chapel was built in 1906 by the Civic and Cemetery Club so that funeral participants would have a place to gather in bad weather. They held a “Tom Thumb Wedding,” using local children and made $28 to get started. However, even with donations of paint, building materials, and money, it took the club two years of hosting other events and dinners to finally pay off the chapel debts.
The Veteran’s Memorial was built in 2010 by the Civic and Cemetery Club to honor those men who died in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. According to a 1910 account of Decoration Day the following veterans from the Civil War are also interred in Gethsemane: Union soldiers, W. W. Hibbard, Richard Moffattt, Hopkins, and Watkins; Confederate soldiers, Maj. Aaron Harlan, Walker, Capt. W. L. Woods, B. C. Phillips, Arch McRussell, David Blakney, Dr. Manning, J. W. Banister, I. H. Meadows and Woodward. Sterling Moad was a veteran of the Mexican-American War. Other veterans have also been interred.
In 1876 the Star concluded that Mr. Greer was the “first person (adult) in Caddo to die of sickness.” We may assume he was buried here, but his grave was not recorded and is no longer marked. Many headstones have been lost to age and decay since they were made of wood, tin, or soft stone. Others have been destroyed by vandalism. The last major “attack” on the cemetery was in 2008 and nearly sixty stones were damaged, some beyond repair.
Over the years Gethsemane has served as the final resting place for several famous and infamous citizens. Two graves were of particular interest to tourists for many years. The first was that of David Folsom. His headstone is the only one that says “murdered” instead of died. A grand jury determined that he was “purposely, willfully and wickedly” shot in 1880 by Deputy Marshals Stephenson and Ayers. The bullet that killed him was embedded in his stone. The other famous grave was Mollie Moon’s. Her husband had her placed in a glass-topped coffin and her mausoleum was open to the public for many years. (Her story will be told in detail later.) Prominent judges, doctors, businessmen, and politicians, many of them Choctaws, are interred in Gethsemane along with a few lesser known outlaws.
Space and maintenance have always been challenges for the Civic and Cemetery Club. In 1920 The Caddo Herald reported that the cemetery, consisting of the original plot, including the “potter’s field where there are mostly negroes” and the two new additions were all full and the club was contemplating expansion to the east or south. In recent years the club has added more sections to the cemetery, removed damaged trees and planted new ones, graveled the roads, built an equipment shed, and installed signs to help people locate graves. Future plans include further expansion and a new road and archway. The Civic and Cemetery Club is always striving to meet the needs of the community and stay true to the original goal of the founders: to create a beautiful city for the dead.
Mary Maurer is an avid Caddo historian and will be submitting another article on the Moon Mausoleum.