MCDADE HISTORICAL MUSEUM
MCDADE HISTORICAL MUSEUM, Old 20 South at Waco Street, McDade,Texas
McDade's Museum Curator Delves Deep into Bastrop County History By Cindye Ginsel
The term to “know where the bodies are buried” takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to Audrey Rother, curator of the historical museum in McDade since 1985. Rother, along with Argent Court resident Evelyn Wolf and Clyde Reynolds (deceased), once tax collector/assessor for Bastrop County, began a labor of love that continues to benefit residents to this day.
Documenting Unmarked Graves
It all started with Rother's interest in locating an ancestor's grave in Falls County. Realizing finding the gravesite wasn't as simple as she thought, she began to look into the situation in her home county of Bastrop. She learned Bastrop County did not begin to keep records of death until 1902. Even so, records were incomplete prior to 1940. Until that time, county residents were often born at home, died at home and were buried without any governmental record.
In 1983, she teamed up with Wolf, the wife of Rother's first cousin, who was a genealogist. Together they consulted with Reynolds who knew every piece of land in the county including previous owners and early residents.
Audrey Rother, McDade Museum Curator
1980's Cemetery Survey Committee: Marji Gross (in tree), Nan Olson, Clyde Reynolds and Audrey Rother. Photographer: Evelyn Wolf.
Irises grow at an unmarked grave at Camp Swift in Bastrop County.
Nan Olson (deceased), who chaired the Bastrop County Historical Commission at that time, formed a cemetery survey committee, placing Rother at the helm. Margi Gross (deceased) soon joined the team. Together the five set a goal to map every unrecorded grave in Bastrop County with Rother, Wolf and Reynolds performing the hands-on task of locating, photographing and documenting them.
This was no easy feat considering there are roughly 250 cemeteries with some on private property and others so isolated one could only reach them by foot. Reynolds negotiated access to private properties and led the way, carrying a stick to ward off snakes. Wolf took
photographs of headstones and Rother recorded the location of graves with hand-drawn images.
Beyond the graves with headstones, they also surveyed unmarked gravesites. While it was customary to place a large field stone at the head of a grave and a smaller one at the foot, over time the stones would tend to shift during wind and rainstorms, leaving only the irises remaining to reveal the presence of a grave.
Said Wolf, “We looked for irises, field stones and grave-shaped sunken spots. Irises are so hardy they can last for 100 years, spreading out to form a ring surrounding the grave.” To help with their search, Rother mastered the art of grave dowsing whereby metal rods are
used to determine not only the placement of a body in a grave, but also whether the body is male or female, adult or child.
It took the team the better part of ten years to methodically plot the graves. In the end, Rother published the information in the form of four hardbound books which can be found at the Bastrop Public Library and in Bastrop County Clerk Rose Pietsch's office at the courthouse.
In Search of Family Graves
Today Rother is still the “go-to” person for those in search of a family member's grave. To illustrate this service, she tells the story of Charles Warren West of Missouri who came to McDade to place a marker at the grave of his grandfather, Will Black, in the local cemetery.
While there, Mr. West visited the McDade Museum, relaying the story to Rother about a duel between his grandfather and his grandfather's brother-in-law, Hugh Rutherford. As the story goes, an argument between the two escalated to a duel. Each fired a shot and both fell dead on December 31, 1894. They were buried in the McDade Cemetery.
Mr. West paid a second visit to the McDade Museum to inquire about the grave location of his great grandfather, John William Black, who died March 15, 1884. Having heard the story years prior, Rother drew upon her memory regarding the nature of his death. She told Mr. West his great grandfather had been plowing. The plow lines broke, so he traveled to Bastrop to buy rope. While in the store, a storm caused the roof to collapse, killing him. (Editor's note: The store involved may have been in the Nelson Burch Building at 930-932 Main Street, now the Abri Gallery, which appears in late 19th century photographs with a high pitched roof. Records indicate the roof was destroyed in a storm.)
Mr. West knew the family had moved from McDade to farm in the Piney community near Bastrop. Assuming he was buried in the area, Mr. West searched but could not locate the grave. Rother referred to her index and found a copy of the Claiborne Cemetery (aka Black Rector) survey which noted a John W. Black with the birth and death dates matching those Mr. West had for his great grandfather. Thanking Rother for her help, Mr. West left with a copy of the survey in hand.
Not long afterward, Rother received a letter of gratitude from the family of Mr. West letting her know he had passed away, but, thanks to Rother's efforts, not before fulfilling his quest of locating his great grandfather's grave.
This story is but one of hundreds captured painstakingly in Rother's files.
The Reason Behind Rother's Interest in Locating Gravesites
One might ask why Rother would invest ten years of her life to draw every previously unrecorded grave in Bastrop County by hand or to serve more than 30 years as curator of the museum.
She explains that in 1833 her great, great, great grandfather, George Morgan, traveled with his family from Wilcox County, Alabama to Texas near what is now the City of Marlin. Indians brandishing tomahawks attacked and killed Morgan, his wife and three others in the household. Members of the community sadly gathered the bodies, removed the wheels from a wagon, placed all five bodies in its bed and buried the makeshift coffin. Unfortunately, no one recorded exactly where.
Rother states, “Historians in the area told me the mass grave is across the road from where the cabin once stood, halfway between the fence corner and a well. A large marker in the area tells the story of the Morgan Massacre, but I wanted to place a stone at the grave itself. Despite my exhaustive efforts – and I did try over the course of many years – I was never able to locate the grave.”
Then, with a reflective look, she added, “I would like to give to others what I could not achieve for myself.”