The Cullman Times, 28 Feb 2006

Reading the past

A Cullman County native used his weekends and some vacation days to document the county’s cemeteries

By Carla Jean Whitley

Although he now lives in Huntsville and works for a contractor at Redstone Arsenal, Robin Sterling’s roots have grown deep in Cullman County and the surrounding area. Sterling, whose parents Billy and Evelyn still live in the Sardis community, descended from six great-great-grandfathers from Cullman, Blount, Winston and Limestone counties who fought for the Confederacy.

Those roots led Sterling on a search for family history that in turn resulted in him documenting information from cemeteries in Blount and Cullman counties. Sterling completed the Cullman County books in January, and delivered the four-volume set to the Cullman County Library last week. Sterling’s books are the first update since the late 1970s.

Those books will be useful to Cullman County residents researching their ancestry, Sterling said.

"If your parents lived here, your grandparents lived here, most certainly you’ll be able to use these books to look up their birthdays and the locations of their burials," he said in a telephone interview on Monday. He also noted that information will be particularly useful for people working on creating a family tree.

"These books will serve as a resource (for people) who have ancestors in Cullman County since they are that comprehensive and hopefully that accurate."

Max Hand, assistant county librarian at the Cullman County Library, said the books are also a resource for people searching for the obituaries of loved ones.

"We use it almost like an index to The Times, to old issues, to find when someone died so we can find the issue that has the obituary that they want," Hand said.

"A lot of times a person will come from out of town and know that somebody is buried in the county, but they don’t know where," he continued. "Or they want to know any survivors," which is another instance in which the books can help locate the obituary, Hand said.

Hand has not yet had a chance to peruse Sterling’s updated cemetery books, but he said the library also has books for Blount, Etowah and Morgan counties on hand.

Researching the family tree

Sterling compiled his first set of cemetery books for Blount County, beginning in Dec. 2001.

"My primary Sterling ancestors come from Blount County," Sterling said. "I’ve always been interested in that location genealogically even though I grew up in Cullman County."

As he conducted research on his ancestry, Sterling used the then-newest cemetery books for Blount County. These books document the tombstones of a county, marking down the names and dates that appear on those markers. The book Sterling was using was published in 1964 by the Gadsden branch of the Latter Day Saints, he said.

"It was woefully out of date and difficult to use," Sterling said.

Something had to change.

"I decided to take it upon myself to read the entire county. I didn’t start out intending to do that. ... After I did so many of them, I thought, well, I might as well do all of them."

He completed that project in 2003, then moved on to his native Cullman County.

"The reason I started it was I had bought a copy of the old Cullman County books that are on sale at the library," Sterling said. "I was looking for someone in a particular cemetery, and discovered that that cemetery had not been read.

"I said, well, I’ll go and visit that cemetery. While I was there, I just thought, well, I’ll read all of it."

That was New Home Missionary Baptist, one of several previously unread cemeteries that Sterling included in the county’s updated cemetery books. He also visited cemeteries at Simcoe Baptist, Mt. Vernon East, Flat Rock Methodist Church Cemetery, Sacred Heart Convent Cemetery, Valley View Baptist Church Cemetery and Pleasant Grove Baptist, which he said were not included in earlier cemetery books.

"But I probably missed one or two as well," Sterling said in an e-mail. "Some small ones known only to the landowners on whose property they remain."

Time off for research

Sterling has been working on cemetery books in his spare time for more than four years.

"I would go to a cemetery on the weekends, when I had time, or on vacation days, and I would systematically walk the rows of monuments and record digitally an image of each one."

Sterling said he could record a fairly good sized cemetery in 30 minutes to an hour, though his time spent varied depending on the number of stones. But larger cemeteries required multiple trips.

"For example, I made at least four or five trips to the Cullman City Cemetery because it was quite large," he said.

Sterling went through many batteries and filled several memory cards with digital images of each readable monument in the county’s cemeteries.

"My wife got a digital camera and I stole it from her and used it to record whole cemeteries," he said.

Some markers weren’t immediately readable, though. He would take multiple pictures of those, or when it was possible, Sterling rubbed the markers with chalk so that he could create a readable image.

"Sometimes I had to clean the monument off before I could even put the chalk to it," he said. Sterling carried tools on him for that purpose, and sometimes used sticks to wipe mud from the face of a marker.

"I actually had to use a machete at one place down near Hanceville to get some of the vines and stuff off some of the monuments," he said. "I’m sure I missed a few because they were covered up by stuff. I tried to be as comprehensive as possible."

And in the cases of some smaller cemeteries, Sterling chose to wait until winter, when the surrounding vegetation had died away.

The pictures became his field notes. At home, Sterling would pull up each picture, then record the information from the cemetery into a word processing file. He would alphabetize the information for each cemetery, then go on to the next. Some cemeteries were so large that Sterling broke the data up over several documents. The result was 236 files filled with information. Sterling said he recorded tens of thousands of tombstones; he would have to review his records to hazard a more specific guess.

During the years he spent on the project, Sterling came across several particularly interesting monuments. One, marked for M.W. Cannon in Old Baltimore Cemetery, listed the year of death as 1839, which Sterling said makes it the oldest marker in the county.

Another unusual monument was one marking the burial of Ben Kempson’s arm in October 1903 around Jones Chapel.

"I can’t find the rest of him anywhere in the county, but we know where the arm is," Sterling said. He included a picture of the tombstone in volume two of the cemetery books.

At present, Sterling has no plans to add other surrounding counties to his list of cemeteries read. Instead, he’s in the process of trying to identify Confederate soldiers in Cullman, Blount and Winston counties using his own resource books, service records and pension applications.

In a Jones Chapel cemetery, Robin Sterling found a tombstone marking the grave of Ben Kempson’s arm. Sterling said in his visits to other Cullman County cemeteries, he was not able to locate the rest of Kempson.

Robin Sterling worked from December 2001 to 2003 on cemetery books for Blount County, then from February 2004 to January 2006 on books for Cullman County.