By Rita Cook / News Editor
FERRIS – At Bluff Springs Cemetery in Ferris all you need to do is walk among the remaining tombstones to catch a snapshot glimpse of the colorful past from the area.
Craig Pannell looked at that snapshot recently when he was searching for his ancestry and he decided to get more involved.
“Fifteen months ago, as I was doing early ancestry work, I stumbled across the name “Bluff Springs” as the final resting place of my Great-Great Grandfather Robert Theodore “Dolly” Pannell,” Pannell explained.
“On a lark I drove out to Ferris, and eventually found Bluff Springs cemetery. Much to my surprise I subsequently discovered 26 family members resting in the forest cemetery of Bluff Springs.”
The initial restoration efforts at Bluff Springs cemetery began a few years ago in 2016.
Pannell said there has been much progress made since that time finding, restoring and sometimes dragging up hills and out of creeks the headstones and footstones of many of the early Ellis county pioneers.
Names like Hatchers, Pritchetts, Pruitts, Batchelors, Fuquas and many other recognizable ancestors of current citizens had been lost to the forest for more than 100 years have now been remembered thanks to the restoration.
Part of the Bluff Springs story is heartbreaking as you walk around and count the number of infants and children who died during two waves of illnesses between 1890 and 1910.
“My understanding is that after the last wave the small community lost hope and disbanded,” Pannell said.
It was Dale Ellison, Ty Hall, and Jim Shivers leading the way to restore the old cemetery when the project began and Pannell said there have also been many helpers who spent the past 18 months cutting trees, clearing brush, and doing the heavy mowing. The overgrown path at the cemetery has also been widened and graveled to allow vehicular traffic.
Pannell became involved in the Bluff Springs project only recently and immediately began his own efforts at headstone restoration done by leveling the few headstones still intact.
“Of the 28 known family members there, only five markers were upright and intact,” he said. “Unfortunately, Bluff Springs as a whole has been neglected for many years and is extensively damaged.
“It is clear vandals came through and pushed over headstones, removed foot stones, destroyed markers with sledgehammers, and even managed to push over 1,000-pound granite headstones.”
He said what the vandals didn’t damage time, weather and soil erosion ravaged.
“So, my initial efforts were at buying the proper tools and then leveling the few headstones still standing,” he explained “I then located their matching footstones and reset those.”
From there Pannell went grave by grave and leveled bases, located as many damaged pieces of the head and foot stones as he could, and then pieced the markers back together using metal pins and masonry cement. For the graves of his own family members whose headstones were stolen or destroyed, he chose to cast replacements himself using wooden molds, cement, and press-in letter stencils.
“I’m happy to say that currently I have completed all of my family members that I can safely manage alone,” he added.
“There are three large, 800-pound plus granite markers that have been toppled that I am going to need professional help to set upright.”
The name of the community that was Bluff Springs came from the nearby bluff on Bear Creek from which the clear water of the springs flowed into a gravel bottomed pool.
It appeared the little community once had a church and arbor with a campground, a cemetery and a gin along with several widely scattered settlers’ houses.
He believes one of the first burials in the cemetery was Granville Gatton, who died about 1868, on whose land the first little block of the cemetery was located.
After about 30 years the cemetery had grown to the point where there was a Cemetery Association founded in 1897.
The last burial at Bluff Springs Cemetery was in 1968, but the clear majority occurred between 1885 and 1915 and there are even a few Civil War veterans buried there including at least once veteran from WWI and II.
Overall there are approximately 195 people buried in the rough rectangle shape of the cemetery lying with its long side on a north-south axis. Pannell said the graves generally lie on an east-west line.
“I discovered that back then it was important for the Christian deceased to be buried facing east, due to when the Second Coming of Christ occurs, and rapture takes place the dead will rise and be facing Christ at sunrise.”
Pannell concluded the old cemetery needs so much recovery because it lay nearly forgotten for near 100 years, but the progress is real.
“I happily discovered that almost all my relatives are buried in the southeast corner of the cemetery, in what turned out to be four rows of Pannells, Bryants, Jordan, Sheltons, Garrett, McGibanys, and Putman,” he concluded.
“I eventually found all but one grave of my known relatives buried there – one child, Cleophus Bryant, is still missing.”