Few communities revere history the way Pensacola does.
That’s due in part because, as one of America’s oldest settlements, we have more of history to go around than most communities.
Last month a team of local experts put the finishing touches on a plan to help protect and preserve some of Pensacola’s oldest historic assets — the city’s 14 cemeteries.
“In Pensacola, we can tell our story beginning with our colonial era cemetery – St. Michael’s,” said Stringfield, an archaeologist with the University of West Florida Archaeology Institute. “Each of the cemeteries in Pensacola has a different but equally valuable story to tell.”
Those stories are important not only to the quality and character of life in Pensacola, but also as an asset to our community’s cultural heritage tourism industry.
Heritage tourists are people who visit an area to see historical attractions rather than typical tourism draws such as the beach or amusement parks.
Tourism – as measured by bed tax collection – is one of the 16 metrics measured by the Studer Community Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard. Those 16 metrics were developed with UWF to measure the economic, educational, social well-being and quality of life in the Pensacola metro area.
“Our cemeteries are a (tourist) draw,” Stringfield said. “St. Michael’s (Cemetery), for example, is a draw for local residents as well as visitors from across Florida and the nation, as well as international tourists.”
Stringfield headed the Pensacola Area Cemetery Team – or PACT – which was formed in 2013 after Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward III asked the UWF Division of Anthropology and Archaeology to help identify and address issues associated with historic cemeteries located in the city limits.
The team included 20 other members representing UWF, the city, the cemeteries, various preservation organization and others. In September 2015, their work paid off in the form of the publication of “PACT Cemetery Stewardship Manual: Organizing, Best Practices, and Resources.”
“With the rise in heritage tourism, preserving and promoting our local cemeteries is just a common sense approach to how best to use these wonderful community assets,” Stringfield said. “St. Michael’s Cemetery is the oldest and most significant historic site that survives above ground in Pensacola. It is one of the two oldest extant cemeteries in Florida. The other is in St. Augustine. It is on the Florida Spanish Colonial Heritage Trail.”
Resource for preserving the past
The issues around how to best maintain these assets so that they don’t become public hazards is not confined to Pensacola.
“Across the country, municipalities are struggling with how best to address issues associated with the historic cemetery resources dotting the contemporary landscapes of their communities,” the PACT report reads. “In Pensacola, our historic cemeteries are open-air museums that reflect a rich cultural heritage. Whether well-maintained, neglected, or abandoned, they will be a constant presence on the landscape into the foreseeable future.”
Wesley Owens, president of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery Foundation, said the manual would be a great resource, especially for groups just beginning cemetery preservation efforts.
The Friends of St. John began in 2000, with the cemetery having been under perpetual care since it opened in 1876.
“I’m sure a very thorough job was done (with the manual),” Odom said. “Undoubtedly, that manual can be very useful to someone who wants to learn and has absolutely no experience whatsoever. Those resources are needed.”
The manual includes an inventory of the cemeteries inside the city limits, code enforcement issues around abandoned cemeteries, advice on organizing a cemetery stewardship group, maintaining cemetery landscaping, dealing with disasters and vandalism and more.
Stringfield said the Pensacola Area Cemetery Team hopes the manual will be a resource for local stewards of historic cemeteries and government officials alike.
“I hope people will read it and realize cemetery stewardship is something that small groups can manage,” Stringfield said.
Cemeteries face issues that any facility that is intended to be in use for decades – or longer – encounter.
“The markers, tombs and monuments in cemeteries are subject to repair needs just like your house is,” Stringfield said. “In historic cemeteries, you are dealing with historic building materials and that requires having someone who is trained to work with the materials to be doing repairs.
“If we do not address the needs of our historic cemeteries, they will continue to fall into disrepair, become public hazards, and certainly will not be seen as public assets.”
Maintaining these spaces also could be considered an investment in a cultural asset yet to be developed.
“A historic Pensacola cemetery trail could be easily developed,” Stringfield said.