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The Duluth Church Cemetery

Duluth Cemetery
Duluth Cemetery

Cemeteries are where people’s lives are remembered and honored. Certainly, that’s true for the Duluth Church Cemetery on the south end of Main Street in downtown Duluth. It contains the graves of almost every person who played a significant role in the founding and development of the city.

But the Cemetery has become more than just a historic graveyard. It’s a place for contemplation and solitude and the appreciation of nature, right in the heart of downtown Duluth. It’s a place for quiet walks and sitting down to reflect. It has become so important to the Duluth community that the community itself plays a big role in maintaining it.

Origins in the 1800s

Kathryn Parsons Willis and her daughter Kay Montgomery have lived in Duluth all their lives. The Parsons family has been in Duluth since 1821. Willis, 91 years old, was born in the house next door to where she currently lives. Montgomery was born in Joan Glancy Hospital. Their family started the Parsons Stores in 1925, one located in what is now Parsons Alley.

Annette and Charles Summerour are lifelong residents of Duluth. They have a long family history in the city, going back to the very beginning. Annette’s great-great-grandfather, John Knox, was mayor of Duluth in the mid-1800s and is buried in the Cemetery. 

Originally, the Cemetery consisted of separate Methodist and Baptist church cemeteries. The Methodist Church was started in 1871 and the Baptist church started in 1886. Both churches were originally located near where the current City Hall, Town Green and Cemetery are located. 

[The church buildings are still in use today. The Baptist Church is now Maple Street Biscuit restaurant. The Methodist Church is being used as a Community Center in the South on Main residential community.]

The two cemeteries were next to each other, but the gravel road that runs between them is symbolic of the fact that they were run as individual entities.

Willis, who has been a member of the Duluth Methodist church her entire life, led the cemetery maintenance on the Methodist side. The Summerours, lifelong members of the Baptist Church, led cemetery maintenance on that side.

About 25 years ago they decided to operate it as one cemetery and handle expenses out of a combined fund. Both churches donated to this and with fundraising they managed to cover costs.

Willis had long handled a separate fund for the Methodist cemetery which had begun when $500 was left to the cemetery about 60 years ago. This was kept in a separate account and grew to $50,000. 

Willis took over management of the fund and moved it into the Community Foundation for Northeast Georgia. This fund, which had grown to $150,000, was recently combined with the joint cemetery maintenance fund with the full approval of the Methodist Church.

A place to see Duluth history

“I have people say over and over that it’s like a park with a deep meaning to it and a history,” Montgomery said. “People enjoy walking through with their families and their dogs, or just by themselves. You can see a lot of history right there.”

The grave of Evan Howell, who founded Duluth, is just the beginning of the history that can be found at the Duluth Church Cemetery. Many other members of the Howell family are there, as are multiple generations of the Parsons and Summerour families.

Graves date back to the mid-1800s. Adults and children who died during the 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic are there, and about 70 veterans.

The long history has made it difficult to document it all. Charles Summerour has spent years trying to categorize every grave — the exact number is unknown, but it is over 300. Many of them are so old that the gravestones can no longer be read, making them impossible to trace.

Community involvement

While still respecting the lives being honored at the Cemetery, it has also become a place where many Duluth residents like to visit. The beauty, the peacefulness and the history make it a place people love to walk in.

The value that the community places on the Cemetery is reflected by the extent that the community helps to take care of it.

Donations to support the Cemetery are vital. Some are in memory of people who died, but others are given directly to the organization, especially during the fall fundraiser which includes a barbeque and a live auction.

Perhaps the most visible support comes during the volunteer work days held at the Cemetery two times per year. Dozens of volunteers show up and work in teams to spruce up the grounds.

“Except for the large, old trees, every bush and tree there today was planted on one of those work days,” Willis said.

Duluth businesses help out, too. Georgia Paving always donates the gravel for the road. For many years, Woody’s Nursery has provided, at very low cost, the shrubs and trees planted on work days. Annette Summerour puts together the lunch for the volunteers with help from businesses such as Suzanna’s Kitchen.

The City of Duluth has provided invaluable support as well. The city allocated SPLOST funds to build a retaining wall, as well as the beautiful fence, wall and landscaping that now surrounds the Cemetery.

The number of veterans buried at the Cemetery has led to great support from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) organization.

The William Day Chapter of DAR, led by Debbie Bush, has helped during volunteer work days. This past fall, the group laid 70 live wreaths on veterans’ graves as part of the Wreaths Across America program. “They have really adopted the Cemetery,” Montgomery said.

Maintenance, renovation and improvements

The largest cost for maintaining the Cemetery is the routine landscaping maintenance. This involves cutting the grass, planting and trimming shrubs and trees, and keeping everything clean.

Some problems are not so routine, as with the large, diseased tree that had to be carefully cut down before it fell. 

Fixing the coping that outlines a gravesite is another expense. As the land settles, sometimes the coping falls and needs to be repaired.

Gravestones, many over 100 years old, need care as well. Many get broken, are leaning or laying on the ground and have to be fixed. And being out in the elements, they can get dirty as well. The Cemetery has people who know the proper way to clean them without damage.

But the Friends of the Cemetery are not just trying to maintain the status quo. The Cemetery is still in operation, though is starting to run out of space. A new columbarium is being installed at the southeast corner of the Cemetery which will have space for 76 cremation urns.

The Duluth Church Cemetery is an important part of the city. While that would be reason enough for Willis, Montgomery and the Summerours to care so deeply about it, there is even more to it.

It’s also about family.

“I’m big into tracing my roots,” Montgomery said. “I’ve gone back 800 years on one of my lines. I’ve always been interested.”

The Summerours and Parsons have generations of family members buried there. They have all been involved with the Cemetery throughout their lives, as well as their families before them. They all clearly love it. 

To find out more about the Cemetery, visit its website at duluthchurchcemetery.org or call 770-476-2902. 

Written By

Glenn is a freelance writer living in Gwinnett County. He writes about a broad range of subjects, including business, music, sports, and nonprofits. His work has been published in magazines and websites nationwide.

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