The sounds of trucks rumbling through parking lots and MARTA roaring overhead are not enough to drown out the tranquility of the Stephen Martin Cemetery.
Tucked behind the strip mall where Best Buy is located, in the shadows of the looming State Farm headquarters under construction and next to the proposed Crown Towers high-rise development on the Gold Kist site, this small slice of land remains untouched by the rapid advancement of Perimeter Center.
The cemetery is not new to major development. Dunwoody historians say I-285 was rerouted because of the cemetery, said Jim Williams, vice president of property for the Dunwoody Preservation Trust.
At one time, a road ran alongside the cemetery and was used as a cut through to Ashford-Dunwoody Road. That road is long overgrown and a rusty chain remains that was hung from trees years ago to deter the traffic. The proposed Westside Connector roadway would also run right next to the cemetery.
“This is an isolated, unknown treasure,” said Traci Rylands, a self-described “cemetery nut” who writes the blog “Adventures in Cemetery Hopping.”
“It’s very precious. It’s a piece of Dunwoody history that can’t be replaced,” she said.
Finding the Stephen Martin Cemetery is not easy. The main access is by parking behind the strip mall and seeking out the mostly grass path that leads into the cemetery. A small sign put up by the Dunwoody Preservation Trust also signals its entrance.
Built in the 1850s, the cemetery has 44 known tombstones. The cemetery is named for Stephen Martin, an early pioneer of the city. Two of his daughters, Naomi and Sophia, married into the Spruill family, a prominent family in the history and creation of Dunwoody.
The Spruill family owned the farm land where the malls are located and sold it to developers in the early 1970s, Rylands said. But they made sure to protect the small plot of land where their ancestors were buried.
‘Should get more respect’
Glen Fuse, a volunteer with the Dunwoody Preservation Trust, began clearing the overgrown lot two years ago and the cemetery remains in the care of the trust today.
Many of the plots are unmarked or marked by unlabeled rock mounds or walls.
“The last burial was in 1992. A Confederate veteran is buried here and also a World War I veteran,” Fuse said. “Who knows how many are really buried here.”
Fuse said he had heard about the cemetery and decided to look for it. When he found it, the weeds were high and a small path leading to the cemetery overgrown. Now he takes it upon himself to mow and weed and generally care for the cemetery.
“I thought they should get more respect,” he said of those buried there.
Fuse also enlisted the help of the Dunwoody High School football team who spent hours last summer clearing out heavy brush to expose the tombstones and other unmarked field stones that mark graves. Eagle Scouts have built benches for the cemetery and a kiosk that includes a history of the cemetery.
When the proposed Crown Towers development came into the picture, members of the trust met with the property owner, Crown Holdings Group. Williams said both sides want the cemetery to remain as it is.
The developers have also said they see the land as bonus for those living in the highrises to look down and spot a spot of peacefulness along all the rapid development of the 21st century, said Williams.
“It’s a piece of the past, and that’s why the Dunwoody Preservation Trust was formed,” Williams said. “While it’s a small plot, people in tall areas [in the highrises] can look down on this. Our view is this is an amenity for them.”
Fuse said it’s not unusual to see people sitting on the benches in the cemetery reading their phones or eating lunch, most likely people walking over from the near State Farm building wanting to know was located behind the green space in the midst of parking lots.
Williams said Crown Holdings Group have been accommodating neighbors so far and the developers have even suggested funding landscaping projects to ensure the cemetery remains an amenity for those living in the condos and working in the office buildings..
Rachel Black, the cemeteries expert at the Historic Preservation Division at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said as development increases, the situation of development encroaching on cemeteries comes up more and more.
But this is not a new issue – back in the 1980s when strip malls were being built, they often abutted family cemeteries, she said.
State law mandates that if there is an abandoned cemetery, no development or use of property can change without a permit from the local government, she said.
Relocating a cemetery is not an easy process, nor a cheap one. And when a cemetery is obviously being cared for, developers often work with families and caretakers to work out a solution together to protect the integrity of the cemetery, she said.
Williams predicts there will only be more development and eventually the cemetery will be blocked in by highrises.
“This strip mall will eventually be torn to make way for towers,” he said.
“You can’t stop progress. So you might as well work with the system and I think that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “I think this cemetery will be remembered even more as the development comes along.”