Can't Find That Tombstone?

by Marylee W. Knight

You've done a tremendous amount of research, you've interviewed countless people, you're sure you know exactly where your ancestor is buried - so why can't you locate the tombstone?

In East Texas, and Rusk County in particular, this is an ordinary dilemma with an easy explanation. You cannot find a tombstone because one does not exist, never did exist. It does not; however, indicate any lack of respect for the deceased. It is a combination of several factors, some unique to the immediate area.

First of all, there is no rock native to this immediate area that is hard enough and smooth enough to be engraved and withstand the elements. Before the arrival of the railroads in the late 1880's, only the more affluent families could afford tombstones. According to the late Dr. V. M. Holland, Carthage physician and prominent local historian, tombstones prior to the railroads had to be ordered from New Orleans, brought up the Red River on boats or barges, then hauled by dray wagons from Logansport or Shreveport.

After the railroads made such things more affordable, some "upper class" and "middle class" families bought tombstones for family members who had died earlier. However, life was hard for a large majority of early Rusk County families. Their focus was more on the immediate care of their families than it was on buying tombstones, even at bargain prices.

Therefore, "pens" or "sheds" or a combination of both more commonly marked the earlier burials in Rusk County. Both were crafted from native wood and were exactly what their name implied.

A grave marked by a pen would have posts set at the four corners of the grave mound. Then a picket-type fence would be built and attached to the corner posts. The fence would commonly be about waist high and built around the grave mound, without a gateway. However, fancier versions featured carved pickets, detailed gate.

A shed utilized four taller posts on which a two-sided roof was placed. Wooden, hand-hewn shingles were placed on the roof. (A more ornate form of the pen is found in the two graves in this cemetery that are enclosed in a metal fence.)

As families died out or moved away, many of the early pens and shed fell prey to the humid weather conditions. According to the late Dr. Virgil M. Holland, a noted Panola County historian, in the early 1930's there was a movement in local cemeteries to clean them up by piling and burning the pens and sheds and replacing them with simple flat rocks. At that time, the people involved knew whose grave was where, but with the passing of time, that information became forever lost.

The picture below is of a combination pen and shed that, at one time, existed at Waldrop Cemetery in Panola County. The picture, courtesy of Mary Frank Dunn, was taken many years ago and the structure no longer exists.
grave pen