Let's bury the old joke. Let's not say folks are dying to get into Mount Holly Cemetery. But the truth is, the city's oldest cemetery, where governors and generals and the gentry of 19th century Little Rock are getting their eternal rest under ancient oaks and Italian marble, is a coveted spot, and exclusive, too. Exclusive - but not in the sense that you've got to be someone special to sleep next to these giants of Arkansas history. All are welcome, if you've got $1,500. But only 10 plots remain in the cemetery, an oasis of green on four city blocks between Interstate 630, Thirteenth Street, Broadway and Gaines. The cemetery's ability to fill its coffers by filling its graves is, therefore, finite. It takes $85,000 a year to keep the headstones high and the grass low, the walls from crumbling and the trees from falling, and to pay the full-time sexton. Some of that money comes from interest on the general maintenance fund to provide perpetual care (now included with the price of the plot), and some from the $25 per lot annual city fees (yes, the taxman reaches you beyond the grave by taxing it). To maintain this spot of quiet beauty, where forsythia, old roses, Star of Bethlehem, grape hyacinth and iris bloom amid graceful statuary and wreathed columns requires a little digging in our own pockets. This year, the Mount Holly Cemetery Board will host a lively event to help in that respect. "Hurray for Mount Holly(wood)," set April 15 at the Historic Arkansas Museum, will feature a red carpet entrance for special Mount Holly supporters, a documentary premiere, an awards ceremony presided over by former Sen. David Pryor and, finally, a picnic on the lawn. Chris Cranford's film, "A Guided Tour of Mount Holly," follows Peg Smith, who died last year after devoting a long life to preserving and passing on Little Rock's history, and her friend and fellow Mount Holly board member Mary Fletcher Worthen as they give an informative tour of the cemetery. The fund-raiser begins at 5:30 p.m.; tickets are $75. A picnic was the opening event at Mount Holly, in May 1843. Chester Ashley and Roswell Beebe donated the land just outside the city limits, then ending at 10th Street, close enough for buggy-less families to visit their loved ones. The first lots (as opposed to plots) were sold at the picnic: All were 14 feet by 14 feet and on the Thirteenth Street end of the cemetery, at prices a good bit better than today's - $2.50, $3.50 and $5.50. No records exist to explain the choice of lot dimension or what an extra dollar or two would get the buyer. Was it location, location, location? Worthen, giving a reporter a tour, shook her head - the real estate along Thirteenth Street doesn't vary much. But in her own sales experience, location has meant something. She smiled as she recalled a visitor who rejected a plot along Broadway as "too noisy" and another who chose one on the cemetery's northwest corner because "it had a good view of the Capitol." Because of all the luminaries buried there, Mount Holly has been called the "Westminster Abbey of Little Rock." You could even say it has a big Ben, the grave of territorial (1821) Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Johnson, right there on Grand Avenue. Mount Holly is the oldest cemetery, but it wasn't the first, a block bordered by Gaines, State, Fourth and Fifth streets. When that one was closed, many of its headstones were moved to Mount Holly. Among the stones moved was the slender sandstone marker for Quatie Ross, the Cherokee wife of the eastern tribe's chief, John Ross. Today, a granite marker at Mount Holly remembers Quatie, who died on the Trail of Tears near Little Rock in 1839, as legend has it, after giving up her cloak to warm a shivering child. The slender marker was legend, too, until sexton Steve Adams spied it and others in a trench dug in 1996 when the receiving house (where caskets were stored when it was too wet or cold to dig) was being restored. Broken, it had been cast aside long ago. It is now housed at the Historic Arkansas Museum. Visitors to Quatie's memorial often leave tokens - a piece of crystal the size of a fist, a red glass heart, a bracelet, petrified wood and coins adorned the memorial last week. "The feathers blow away," Worthen said. In death as in life, people were once segregated by faith, color and income at Mount Holly. Catholics, Jews, blacks and the indigent were buried in areas along the cemetery's north boundary (the wall and fencing there now are not original; they're only about 100 years old or so). When Calvary Cemetery opened in the 1870s, the Catholic coffins were moved and reinterred there, Worthen said. Then Oakland Cemetery opened in 1863 to accommodate the Civil War dead, and according to an 1884 Arkansas Gazette, 640 soldiers buried in a mass grave at Mount Holly were moved to another mass grave there. It's been news to some people that black families are buried at Mount Holly - probably because its caretakers have always been white women from the city's prominent families. (They took over in 1915 because the men entrusted with its care had done such a poor job.) Worthen was once asked why there are no blacks in Mount Holly; she put the caller straight and told him "if you'd like to buy a lot, I'll show you." In fact, three black families will be featured in next fall's "Tales of the Crypt," the wildly popular Parkview Magnet School production that features Mount Holly's notable dead. "Tales" has drawn at least 1,200 people to Mount Holly each year since its 1995 premiere. Over the summer, students will research and write scripts to portray musician George Craigen and his wife, Marie; carpenter Frank Miller and his wife, Eliza, who ran a boarding house; and Ann and Nathan Warren, who worked for the Ashley family. A descendant, James Warren, husband of Circuit Judge Joyce Warren, still lives in Little Rock. Worthen, whose ancestors and ancestors-in-law also lie at Mount Holly, has been on the cemetery board since 1953. "The graves were still dug by hand then," she recalled. "It probably killed a few people, digging graves," sexton Steve Adams said later. Seven years ago, Mount Holly made 60 plots available in previously unplotted land in the northwest corner, "and they went like gangbusters," Adams said. On Thursday of last week, 17 plots remained. On Friday, Adams sold seven of them, five to one buyer alone. There were rumors last fall that Little Rock Christmas light czar Jennings Osborne was considering buying some plots in Mount Holly. Some folks blew a fuse, fearing an eternal electric light show at the venerable cemetery, and wrote the board to that effect. As it turned out, he did consider a purchase, but did not buy any plots - there were too few for a mausoleum - and Worthen, whose board never met with Osborne, was a little put off by the reaction to the rumors. Mount Holly welcomes all comers. But does the board have say-so over monument design? No, she answered - though, in some instances, she might have wished it did. Its only rules apply to the plantings: No messy mulberry, cottonwood or locust. Though you might not be rubbing elbows with the Osbornes, there's plenty of celebrity to sleep among: 10 governors, four Confederate generals, five U.S. senators, 21 Little Rock mayors, and many other big names, including Arkansas Gazette editor J.N Heiskell, Arkansas Territorial Restoration savior Louise Loughborough, "boy spy" David O. Dodd, big Whig Frederick W. Trapnall, Pulitzer Prize winner John Gould Fletcher, "Arkansas Traveler" painter Edward Payson Washburn, and so on. (Gov. Mike Huckabee and first lady Janet Huckabee own plots at Mount Holly. President Clinton jogged here, but he's expected to rest on the grounds of his library east of Mount Holly.) And of course there are the more humble folk, like Henry Brookin, who fell off a fire truck as it made a corner "responding to an alarm of fire." The figure atop his obelisk, a pot-metal fireman holding the remains of his hose, is one of Worthen's favorite markers. How can you squeeze in? One way is to let delinquent taxes be your ticket. If you don't mind intruding on families who didn't fill their 14-by-14 lots and who failed to pay taxes or fork out $500 for the grave maintenance fee, you have four single-grave to consider. One person was recently buried in this manner, and though an indirect descendent wasn't particularly happy about the unrelated neighbor, the fact remained that the plot had reverted to city ownership. Only six plots remain in land never claimed (or used) by anyone else. If you plan to be cremated - and half the 16 people buried in Mount Holly in 2003 were - you can buy a spot in the new columbarium garden on the Gaines Street side, where 200 1-by-1 foot squares of granite, separated by thyme, await inscription. At $1,500 each, they may remain uninscribed for a while. Worthen said Adams went over the cemetery and its records "with a fine tooth comb" to find the current availabilities. He's also has learned to divine where coffins lie. He can see the traces of 60 graves in an area of the cemetery that has but one headstone. They reveal themselves by sunken outlines, changes in the groundcover or color changes in the grass - areas over vaults dry out faster because the vaults are so close to the surface. Before Adams took over - and made the 18-member board leap with joy at what they say is his very fine work - there was a scarier sexton, the kind you might expect to find in a graveyard. He led a reporter to her great-grandfather's plot many years ago, and it was of the sunken variety. "Wooden boxes," he croaked. And so there's a last-resort entree to the hallowed ground of Mount Holly - you might be able to swing an urn on top of an ancestor, if there's room.
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