AVON PARK - Somewhere among the weeds snaking out from between gravestone border joints, randomly strewn soda and beer cans peeking from clumps of clutter, broken headstones chiseled with faded memories and outstretched tree branches reaching over the realm of the deceased rests Shirley Johnson's uncles and twin brother.
Forever at peace in the Lakeside Historical Cemetery, Johnson said she has isn't sure where her uncles or infant brother were interred because the nearly 130-year-old, six-and-a-half-acre cemetery at 1581 Cummings Ave. off Gator Lake has become so unkempt and neglected. Johnson said the historically black grave site, formerly known as the Lincoln Garden Cemetery, is in dire need of upkeep and is seeking anyone interested in the area's history to help make a nicer, cleaner, more beautiful final home for the approximately 760 people buried there.
Beginning at 7 a.m. Saturday, the historical committee is inviting the public to a "Community Cleanup" at the cemetery. She said volunteers just need to show up and bring gardening tools, gloves, rakes, safety glasses and other cleanup items, and water and drinks would be provided.
Johnson is president of The Lakeside Historical Cemetery Committee, made up of about 10 people from religious, city and business groups intent on keeping the neglected resting place kept up. An Avon Park native whose family stretches back generations in the area, she said over the years vandalism, pranksters and disregard has left parts of the cemetery in shambles. She said the deceased are still being buried there, even though the burial rate has increased from $50 to $100 to $300 about year ago to help offset maintenance costs.
"It's got to be quite a job to have someone come out. The grass started growing out of control. We had to do something," said Johnson, an Avon Park Correctional Institution officer.
That "something" turned into the formation of the cemetery committee and a renewed interest in maintaining the property with the remains of pioneering residents dating back to births of the 1850s.
One of the first tasks was the installation of a 415-foot lineal steel fence to replace the recently-vandalized, cut chain link fence along the entrance. Johnson inquired with Sebring's Brooker Fence Company about costs for fencing and told owners Ray and Denise Brooker about the situation. Denise Brooker said she wanted to help out.
Wednesday, Brooker sent four workers out to spend two days installing the new fence, sold to the committee at a considerable discount through her vendor, Poly Vinyl Creations, Hudson.
"Her enthusiasm and passion were just contagious. She didn't come in asking for donations, just ideas. I decided then I wanted to be on board with the project," she said. Around Lakeside, the vestiges of roads meander among the rows of graves, some nothing more than a poignant reminder like that of a young, nameless child: a buried tricycle jutting from the soil. Others are adorned with fresh-cut or plastic flowers left by family, like Anna McRae who died at 101 in 1965, and others surrounded by weeds, like Jessie Witherspoon, who died at 61 in 1999.
The cemetery's history is vital to the area, said Julian DeLeon, Avon Park city manager. He said the graveyard offers residents an economical option for burial and is vital in the city's history. He said the city isn't involved in funding upkeep of Lakeside or Bougainvillea cemeteries, the other burial area in the city limits. He did say the Community Redevelopment Agency gave the Committee about $6,000 to help install the perimeter fencing. He said he's the upkeep of the plot of land and is glad to see Johnson so involved in keeping a piece of not only Avon Park's history but the history of Florida alive so future generations don't end up losing sight of family members like she has.
"It's very important, It's important because of the historical significance and it's an economical option to family members that lost a significant other," he said.
After the cleanup and immediate structural and road concerns are addressed, Johnson said plans are to install a flagpole and build a freestanding pavilion for graveside services. She said she plans are for that to be finished by in early 2014.
A similar cleanup at the then-Lincoln Garden Cemetery was held Oct. 8, 2010,