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Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Return of Lizzie's Stone

Lizzie Houston Row, 1875

     This is the story of how a wanton act of destruction has been redeemed by the kindness of strangers. Motivated only by a sense of decency and a desire to do the right thing, they have done my family a great service. Today's post is dedicated to them.

     Long time readers of Spotsylvania Memory are already familiar with my great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth "Lizzie" Houston Row, whose eventful life's story has been the subject of many posts here. Born in Rockbridge County in 1854, Lizzie was a member of the storied Houston family, which included her grandfather's cousin, General Samuel Houston. She enjoyed a storybook upbringing in a loving and strictly Presbyterian household at her family's farm, Mount Pleasant. She was educated at the Ann Smith Academy in Lexington and by the time she was twenty one was being courted by a number of young suitors. She was also ardently pursued by George Washington Estes Row of Spotsylvania, who met her while he was in Rockbridge on business. Although eleven years her senior, and a widower with a young son, George won out over his younger rivals and married her in December 1875. He brought her home to Spotsylvania, where he built a house for them at Sunshine, his farm adjacent to Greenfield, his family's ancestral home. Lizzie lived there until her death in January 1928. She was buried in the cemetery at Greenfield.
     During the 1800s Greenfield was a sprawling plantation in western Spotsylvania. A portion of it, including the house and dependencies, was sold out of the family in 1905. Today the old burying ground is surrounded by Fawn Lake subdivision beside a man made lake. There are actually two Greenfield cemeteries - that of my ancestors and the other set aside for their slaves - at the foot of the dam which created the lake. For those of you who may be interested in reading a brief history of Greenfield and how this section of it became an upscale subdivision, click here. This photograph of the cemetery was taken in 2007 from atop the dam by fellow researcher Mary Edith Arnold:

Greenfield cemetery

     For almost seventy years after it was sold, this cemetery and the surrounding acreage remained undisturbed by encroaching civilization and was still undeveloped farm land until it was sold to a development company more than forty years ago. The explosion of growth in Spotsylvania County since that time has put pressure on the two cemeteries. Changes in air quality have obliterated the inscription on the headstone of George Washington Estes Row, and the field stones that once marked the burial sites of the slaves are strewn about. However, years ago Fawn Lake installed a handsome picket fence around my family's graveyard and the grass is kept mowed.

Lizzie Houston's headstone

     Unfortunately, unlike the other stones there, that of great grandmother Lizzie's was not set in the ground. Instead, it sat in the opening of its stone base. This arrangement made it more vulnerable to problems as its connection to the base became undone. Still, as late as fifteen years ago the headstone  was still in one piece. However, by 2007 it had broken in two. In January 2009 it looked like this:

     In April 2011 a group of Lizzie's descendants, including myself and accompanied by Spotsylvania historian John Cummings, returned to the cemetery with two goals in mind. We came prepared to straighten the three oldest stones there, those of Richard Estes and his wife and daughter, which had been leaning for decades. We also intended to attempt a repair to Lizzie's headstone and join the two fragments together.
     We were instead shocked by what we found. The top portion of the stone was gone. The bottom piece had been smashed to bits. Sadly, all we could do that day was load the shattered remains of Lizzie's stone into the truck, and also the foot stone of Catherine Estes, which seemed to me damaged by tree roots:

Photo by John Cummings

     Our intention has been to replace the stone some day.
     This state of affairs remained unchanged until I received an email earlier this week from Fawn Lake resident Sandy Fitzpatrick, who took it upon herself to track down my email address. In her long and generous letter, Sandy described how she and her fourteen year old son Liam had solved the riddle of the missing portion of Lizzie's vandalized headstone. With her kind permission I quote from Sandy's letter:

     My son and I were down at the dam yesterday - the water level is very low due to an incident last week when the valve on the dam would not shut and as a consequence the lake level is extremely low. I do not believe that the water had anything at all to do with the headstone being moved, but it may be why people, especially teenagers and strangers to our community, might have been in the area and may have been drawn to the cemetery. [Sandy and I have since decided that the stone was likely thrown down the dam embankment at the same time when the bottom half of the stone was destroyed.] My son found the top of the stone on the water-side of the dam. It looked as if it had been dropped there as it is cracked in half horizontally over Mrs. Houston's name. Additionally, it was not buried in the muck of the area where the water had receded, rather sitting directly on top without any water debris or stains anywhere that would indicate it had been in the water itself. We came home immediately and notified our security and they assured me that they were already on the way to retrieve the stone...The officer on duty at the time was Tabitha, who was very concerned about retrieving the headstone as soon as possible. 
     Indeed, with the intercession of Helen Bradley, manager of resident services for Fawn Lake, the fragments of Lizzie Houston Row's headstone were soon returned to her grave:

     We are fortunate that the stone was spotted by alert and caring persons like Sandy and Liam Fitzpatrick. Because of their energetic and selfless response, this part of our family's long history in Spotsylvania has been saved. With gratitude and appreciation I tip my hat to my new friends, the Fitzpatricks.

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