Brownsville cemetery reveals much about the past

Twenty-two previously unmarked graves have been memorialized at the Zion Cemetery. ~ Clay Schuldt
Twenty-two previously unmarked graves have been memorialized at the Zion Cemetery.
~ Clay Schuldt

By Clay Schuldt

Caledonia Argus


Zion Church in Brownsville celebrated its 150th anniversary last month and with the passing of such a major milestone people began looking back to the past to consider the people that shaped the community. One of the most overlooked sources for Brownsville history is located on Cork Hollow Road: the Zion Evangelical Cemetery.

Zion Evangelical Cemetery was deeded to Trusties of the German Lutheran Church on Oct. 19, 1866.  The original three-acre parcel of land the cemetery was built on was once called Gottes Acker, a German word that translates to “God’s Acre.”

Over the years the cemetery has changed in size and name. Zion Cemetery, Formerly the German Lutheran Cemetery, is nearly as old as Brownsville and is the final resting place for hundreds of its earliest residents.

Houston County Historical Society member Richard Cordes served as caretaker for the Zion Cemetery for 10 years and continues to sell the lots and mark out headstones. For Cordes the cemetery often provides a revealing look at Brownsville’s past.

When researching an ancestor often the first place people stop is the cemetery. Cordes explained that the historical society receives daily requests from people researching family history, many trying to locate the grave of an ancestor.

“There is quite a bit of information for genealogy people, and I get inquiries from all over.”

Cordes has even received some contacts from out of country. As many of the original founders of Brownsville were German immigrants, it isn’t unusual for him to receive calls from Deutschland.   Cordes has even received requests from people as far away as Australia.

Cordes told a story of one lady who was trying to locate a long lost great uncle named Joseph Oswald.  At first Oswald was expected to be buried in the Catholic cemetery, but Cordes remembered Oswald’s headstone as his identity had become something of a mystery.

“Oswald is not a common Brownsville name,” Cordes said.  “He was also the only burial in a family plot.”

The headstone stated he was a Civil War veteran, but little else was known of Joseph Oswald until a niece called.

“I never thought I would find out who he was or anything about him, but I actually found out quite a bit.”  Oswald enlisted in the Union army at age 17, which required his father’s approval, and was in a Calvary Unit in the Tennessee area. After the war he settled in the Brownsville area and married a German-Lutheran woman, which is why he was buried in the Zion cemetery instead of the Catholic Cemetery. After Oswald’s death his widow and children left Brownsville and no further family members were buried in the plot.

Cordes said that it is stories like this that keep him working with the cemetery.  “It’s a good feeling to be able to help them, and it’s great for me because I learn so much from each of them.”

While researching the internment records it was learned that a presumed to be empty section of the cemetery was in fact the location of 22 child graves. Sadly, only 11 of the 22 graves had recorded names. During a cemetery walk last month 22 white crosses were placed in the section for each child.  The church is currently considering erecting a permanent monument for these children.

Visitors to the Zion Cemetery may notice that some of the headstones have death dates that are earlier than 1866. For Cordes this was something of a mystery until he learned that some remains had been transported to Zion from an even older Brownsville cemetery that has since vanished.

While this early cemetery was established roughly the same year as Brownsville, the original plot book does not contain any record of it. Cordes admits the exact location of that cemetery is unknown, but his research suggests it was near the present location of Bissen’s Tavern or across the creek by Lee’s Trailer Court.

“It was in rough shape so when the Lutheran’s started their cemetery, many dug up the remains of their people and took them to this cemetery,” Cordes explained.

In 1872 the conditions of this earlier cemetery went from poor to outright disturbing. The River Rail Road Company, requiring extra dirt to grade the railroad bed, began excavating a hill and desecrated several graves. According to a Feb. 6, 1872, edition of the Houston County Journal the remains of at least seven individuals were dumped into a pile by work crews after being unearthed.

A new village cemetery was created in 1872, possibly in response to this incident.

Thanks to Cordes’ diligent research, visitors to the Zion Cemetery are able to easily locate a specific grave plot. Spliced together from courthouse records, funeral record books and internment books, Cordes was able to create a map and directory of Zion’s plots, which hangs on the caretaker building. “I was able to get cause of death for most of them and where they came from,” Cordes said.

During last month’s 150th year celebration a cemetery walk was held honoring those who lived and died while shaping Brownsville history. Even a brief glance shows that Brownsville has as many stories as it has people. Brownsville’s greatest history is with its people and – like history – people should never be forgotten.


Disturbing the dead – the Brownsville Horror

Feb. 6, 1972

Houston County Journal



While in Brownsville last Wednesday we took considerable pains to gather facts concerning the manner in which the remains of human beings were disturbed. – The whole matter is an outrage on humanity and decency, and no excuse, however plausible, will conceal the disgrace from an observing public. People who view the transaction in a business light are heartless, and partake more of the nature of barbarians than of civilized, Christian citizens. In fact, under the circumstances, there is but one view to be taken, and that is the first that will appear to any man, and the only one most men would entertain. This view is a moral one, and supersedes all others – We owe the dead a certain degree of respect, and that respect should be asserted so powerfully that half-savage men would not ignore it and turn with disrespect upon the places that should above all others remain sacred. The facts are, CHARLES BROWN gave the public permission to use a certain piece of his land for a grave yard. He was one of the founders of the town and displayed this slight liberality quite naturally under the circumstances. This was twelve or fifteen years ago since which time a large number of bodies have been deposited in the spot of earth in question. The friends of many of those interred here have long since left the country, and are the LORD only knows where. The River Rail Road Company, after locating their line through Brownsville, found it necessary to obtain a sufficient quantity of earth to grade their road across a certain slough, and the hill upon which this grave yard is situated being near at hand, they negotiated with Mr. Brown for the same, and at once began the work of excavating.

The workmen began operations at the bottom of the hill, and in course of time undermined several graves, allowing the partially decayed coffins and human bones to rattle down a distance of some ten or twelve feet, after which they were picked up and thrown in a pile. This brutal work was pushed forward without fear of the law or respect for the dead. We were informed that seven graves had, at the time we were in Brownsville, been thus destroyed, and the remains all piled together. The sight was ghastly. One skull – that of a woman–still retained upon it the long glossy black hair she bore through life.– Whose daughter and sister was this? Would not her friends be stung with pain to know that her bones were kicked about like pebbles? Col. SAM MC PHAIL, the founder of this village, we are told buried a brother in this shamefully disturbed cemetery several years ago. Would it not mortify him and fire his heart to know that the remains of one who was once so dear to him were treated with shameful disregard? –to know that these remains were thrown out upon the ground to be poked over with sticks, in the hands of unfeeling spectators? What would be your feelings, were you in the condition of those who have friends in this grave yard?

This is certainly a serious matter, and if the laws of the State have not been violated, the laws of humanity and decency have, and punishment should be made to fall upon the heads of those who have violated these laws. Had we taken the course of MR. BROWN, in so grave a matter as this, we should hope and expect to be haunted and tormented buy ghosts and devils the balance of our life.