City aims to preserve historic 30-acre site
Passersby may not immediately recognize the significance of the headstones standing at the eastern end of Seventh Street, but a closer look shows their indelibly carved historical value.
Founded in the late 1800s, the International Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery holds more than 3,000 former residents, including Georgetown's first police chief, Charley Brady, and J.J. Gordon, who served as a district clerk and Georgetown ISD's tax collector. Several well-known individuals are also buried here, including Jessie Daniels Ames, a 1920s suffragette, and Nannie Elizabeth Houston Morrow, the eldest daughter of Sam Houston.
The IOOF was founded in 17th century England, when medical technology was still primitive and expensive, and burial for the dead cost more than most families could pay. Friends and neighbors would come together and contribute what money they had to pay for medicine or burial, or to assist when individuals lost their jobs. Other help could include replanting a lost crop or rebuilding a barn that had burned down, the IOOF website said.
Those who chipped in to help became known as "odd fellows," because it was odd in those days to see people give up their money in what was considered an "impractical fashion," according to the website.
The first IOOF chapter was established on American soil in Maryland in 1819 and became a nationally recognized fraternity in 1851. Its stated mission was to "visit the sick, relieve the distress, bury the dead and educate the orphans." Today, more than 10,000 IOOF lodges exist in 26 nations, where men and women continue the IOOF's original purpose to take care of others in need, the website said.
Membership with the IOOF in Georgetown has faded with time, and now the organization's legacy could be at risk, too. The City of Georgetown's Parks and Recreation Department, which took over maintenance of the cemetery in 1968, is looking for a solution to continue caring for the site. Funding for maintenance, which can cost the department $47,000 per year, is usually raised through selling burial plots. However, as space runs out in the 30-acre cemetery, money threatens to dry up, too.
"We're looking for a way ... to make sure the revenue covers the cost," Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly Garrett said. "Right now, we have revenue coming in from the selling of the lots, but when the lots are gone, there's no revenue coming in to help offset that cost. We're looking at a way to take some of the funds we're getting now and put it in a trust."
At an Oct. 9 workshop, Georgetown City Council instructed the department to find ways to bring in more money and keep the cemetery "self-sustaining." Options could include forming a nonprofit with city oversight or putting some of the revenue from plot sales into a trust fund, so extra money would be available once all the spaces are sold, Garrett said.
The Williamson County Historical Commission has researched and chronicled the cemetery's past, and offers tours of the site. Commission member Wayne Ware said he believes the Parks and Recreation Department should maintain responsibility for taking care of the city's earliest history.
"It really belongs to the city at this point," Ware said. "The commission ... feels like they should keep it, because it's sort of like a park, and you don't earn money for parks—you mow them and take care of them. This is a very historical cemetery ... every bit as historical as some of the buildings downtown."
The Parks and Recreation Department is expected to present a proposal to the Council early next year, Garrett said.