July 30, 2008 Edition

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Austin Cemetery and park
revitalize Old Walnut Ridge

Cathy Jones, granddaughter of Miles and Catherine Ponder of Old Walnut Ridge, has been instrumental in landscaping and enhancing the park and cemetery at Old Walnut Ridge with the planting and care of flower bulbs, annual and perennial flowers and shrubs.

This cypress gate marks the entrance to the Austin Cemetery and states that the cemetery was established in 1887. A tree-shaded lane beyond the gate connects the cemetery to a new park in Old Walnut Ridge.
John Bland

Something new has been taking place in Old Walnut Ridge. With the cleanup and improvements to Old Walnut Ridge's Austin Cemetery and with the addition of a new mini-park at the cemetery's entrance, a new sense of pride has been evidenced in the area, according to Cathy Jones, granddaughter of Miles and Catherine Ponder of Old Walnut Ridge.

Jones, who resided in Memphis until recently, has returned to Walnut Ridge. She has devoted recent months to landscaping, watering and caring for the cemetery and park, with assistance from other family and community members. "The residents have just really come through," she added.

"A sense of roots and history has been lost in our transient culture," Jones said. "That is part of what drew me back to Walnut Ridge."

Clearing and cleaning of the cemetery and the development of the park have been underway for about six years. "Lois Companiotte (who died earlier this year) and Bob Cox started the cemetery movement, taking on the project with tireless dedication, which has been an inspiration for me," Jones said.

"All of this could not be possible without the help of Lawrence County Judge Alex Latham and each person who has contributed their time, thoughts and money to help out," said Bob Cox, a brother to Catherine Ponder and Archie Cox, who resides in North Little Rock.

Austin Cemetery gets its name from the Austin family, a pioneer Lawrence County family who bought land in the area and whose son, Francis Elliott Austin, married Nancy Catherine Thorn, who was left a widow at age 33 and with six children. "Grandma Austin," as she was known in the community, was the grandmother of Bob, Archie and Catherine.

Both the cemetery and the park have been placed in the Austin Cemetery Trust. A Federal tax number has been secured to allow for tax-deductible donations. These can be sent to: Austin Cemetery Trust, c/o Archie Cox, 405 Eastwood Circle, Walnut Ridge, AR 72476. Cemetery plots are also available to the public for sale.

Austin Cemetery Trust board members are: Bob Cox, chairman, Archie Cox, treasurer, Debbie Bookout, Spencer Ponder, Charles Howard, Max Jones and Frank Benson.

What was possibly part of the ridge in Old Walnut Ridge, the land containing the Austin Cemetery is on a gently sloping section of land. A granite sign designating Austin Cemetery and a cross are focal points.

"The park is a work in progress. It's been a labor of love for me," Jones said. Over 100 bulbs, donated by Wal-Mart, were planted at the cemetery and park for spring blooming. At present, zinnias and crepe myrtles are among the flowering plants.

While some might think a cemetery and a park is an odd combination, Jones said that people often used cemeteries as public parks and for such events as picnics during the 1800s.

The new park has a covered cypress pavilion, with picnic tables soon to be added, a basketball goal, swing set, flag pole, concrete slabs, fence, historical marker and a flower garden and other plantings.

The historical marker tells the history of Old Walnut Ridge, which is also the history of the founding of Walnut Ridge. As most residents know, the town shifted a couple of miles south when the trains came through the area.

Pam Horne of Franklin, Tenn., has been writing a history of the people who settled in Old Walnut Ridge.

Annual reunion set

The annual Old Walnut Ridge reunion will be held Saturday, Sept. 6, at the Old Walnut Ridge Baptist Church beginning at 2 p.m. for visitation and entertainment, with a potluck at 5:30 p.m. and live auction to help support the cemetery and park.

Any and all past students, residents, church members and other interested people are welcome to attend.

A neighborhood fall fest and picnic is planned at the park and cemetery on Oct. 18, Jones added.

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