TARPON SPRINGS — Last week, the Florida Secretary of State announced that the city-owned Cycadia Cemetery had been placed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
Cycadia, a picturesque, 130-year-old resting place for generations of Tarponites, has no more above-ground plots available and is in the early stages of a multi-phased expansion. That project will add nearly 800 above-ground plots, plus a mausoleum, committal shelter and walking trails, on four vacant acres across North Jasmine Avenue. The city pays for care and maintenance and other costs associated with Cycadia Cemetery from a perpetual care fund that is estimated to have in excess of $2 million dollars.
A few hundred yards away, Rose Cemetery sits in the shadows of Cycadia.
According to records, the Rose Cemetery property, at 124 N. Jasmine Ave., was once part of Cycadia but split when Jasmine Avenue was paved. It became the final resting place for more than a thousand of the African American residents of the city and surrounding area, including sponge divers, veterans and community leaders.
Though it was placed on the National Register years before Cycadia, Rose, formerly known as Rose Hill, still doesn’t receive the same recognition as its historic sibling, for a variety of reasons.
“Cycadia became a city property early on, and thus benefited from city services and upkeep,” Tina Bucuvalas, former curator of arts and historical research for the city who initiated the National Register applications for Cycadia and Rose cemeteries, said via email. “Due to segregationist policies in the early 20th century, Rose was divided from Cycadia and turned over to the African American community for upkeep.”
Bucuvalas, a former state folklorist who now serves as director of the nonprofit Florida Cultural Re-sources, added: “There are also some important pluses to having Rose be a private cemetery, the pri-mary one being it’s far more affordable than Cycadia. But, of course, there are problems with the up-keep, given the very limited budget and limited amount of volunteer help.”
The Rose Hill Cemetery Association is a nonprofit run by a small group of board members dedicated to preserving, and improving, the cemetery. While the group lacks readily available assistance and deep financial resources, it compensates with an unlimited supply of will, faith and determination.
“Our mission is to maintain the care of the cemetery and preserve its history,” Annie Dabbs, known as Miss Dabbs, said on a sweltering Saturday morning in late June as several volunteers slapped a new coat of white paint on the cemetery’s drab gray exterior wall.
The association routinely recruits individuals and groups for cleanups and other improvement efforts and has received donations in the form of the wrought-iron gate on the south end of the property, a flag pole and monument from a local Eagle Scout, and a new granite sign for the outer wall.
“We had a nice new sign donated by Cycadia Monument about three weeks ago, and we repaired and re-plastered parts of the wall that had been damaged or rotted before we painted it,” Dabbs said on June 22, noting the paint was donated by the local Home Depot.
She explained the association is in the process of purchasing a new aluminum gate for the north end of the cemetery. It will match the look, but not the price, of the wrought-iron one that was donated by local business owners in 2003.
The association also plan to replace the perimeter fence, which is made of cedar and is rotting in some places, with a new aluminum one, she added.
“That’s a big goal for us,” another board member, Yvonne Smith, said.
“And, hopefully, we can get someone to trim the trees,” Dabbs added.
While many pleas have been made over the years to allow the city to step in and help maintain Rose, the issue of municipal employees working on private property has squelched any progress on that subject.
In the meantime, the Rose Hill Cemetery Association members continue to solicit help any way they can.
As the group stood in the street surveying the latest work, one passing motorist beeped and gave a thumbs-up signal, while another took the time to turn and stop to see if she could offer any help.
“I’m a professional volunteer. Mostly with kids, but I like helping people,” Lynne Burghardt, who lives nearby, said. “I drive by all the time and I think it’s a wonderful place. I’m glad to see them working on it and I wanted to let them know whenever they need volunteers, call me.”
After Burghardt left Dabbs said they plan to engrave a pair of roses in the empty spots on each side, similar to the iconic hand-painted roses that adorned the original sign. “It may be little by little, but every step counts,” she said.
“Our parents are buried here. We want it to look beautiful,” Smith added. “We’d like it to be very nice, with the landscaping looking better and the trees trimmed. We want it to look like Cycadia.”