Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 11, 2018 5:00 p.m.
Recent storms, age and benign neglect have taken their toll on Fernandina Beach’s only public cemetery. Named Bosque Bello (Beautiful Woods) and founded around 1798, the cemetery occupies about 29 acres adjacent to Old Town on the north and bordered by North 14th Street on the east and Westrock to the south. In 2015 the Fernandina Beach City Commission adopted a Master Plan outlining a series of recommendations for the future of this historic cemetery, which is managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Why does Bosque Bello need help? The photos scattered throughout this article will demonstrate that better than words could ever do.
A group of cemetery advocates has called a general public meeting for the purpose of enlisting community members and government representatives to find ways to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by Bosque Bello today. Anyone interested in joining these efforts is invited to attend that meeting at the Fernandina Beach Library on Saturday morning, February 17, 2018, starting at 9:30 a.m.
At this time representatives of the Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation and the City of Fernandina Beach are spearheading the effort to focus attention and effort on improving Bosque Bello Cemetery, but as yet there is no formal organizational structure. Members of the citizens committee that drafted the 2015 Master Plan are also involved. Tree advocates have likewise expressed interest. Former city Community Development Director Adrienne Burke has agreed to serve as temporary chair of the group until a more formal structure can be adopted. Burke, who oversaw the development of the 2015 Bosque Bello Master Plan, currently serves as Executive Director of Riverside Avondale Preservation, Inc., in Jacksonville.
Bosque Bello’s history is long and interesting. There are indications that it may have been used as a Native American burial place far back into the island’s history. But the cemetery was formally established around 1798. The oldest extant grave marker dates to 1813. By 2012 there had been more than 5,500 documented burials in the cemetery. At that time it was estimated that the cemetery would reach capacity in 10-12 years.
The Amelia Island Genealogical Society (AIGS) is currently engaged in a project to document gravesites in Bosque Bello. Their work followed a 1987 survey of the Ancient Section underwritten by the General Duncan Lamont Clinch Historical Society and led by local historian Hal Belcher. But in 1997, they expanded their work into the new section of the cemetery. Their extensive and painstaking work is available to the public via their website https://aigensoc.org. In the course of their investigations they revealed the extent of damage to grave markers that in some cases were broken or toppled by falling tree limbs and tree roots. But it has also become obvious to those who visit the Ancient Section that vandalism has also played a role.
Today there is a keen awareness of the importance of Bosque Bello to the history of the island’s people as well as its natural beauty as the largest city park. While the cemetery serves as a final resting place, it also serves as a natural preserve for flora and fauna native to the island. Walkers, birders, and cyclists are just some of the people other than mourners who appreciate Bosque Bello for its natural, serene setting. They, along with local historians and genealogists, are urging the investment of resources in maintaining and protecting this local treasure.
There are many challenges facing Bosque Bello, ranging from preservation and restoration to preventing further deterioration due natural causes and the work of miscreants. It is also becoming apparent that the growing and aging local population requires more burial space. Locally, many people have expressed interest in adding a columbarium and/or memorial wall in recognition of new burial customs regarding cremation as opposed to in-ground burials.
The 2015 Master Plan for Bosque Bello provided many suggestions for improvement. But limited city resources have not been sufficient to adequately address the cemetery’s many needs.
Other communities tackle similar problems
Many other communities have confronted similar challenges by forming friends groups to provide volunteer assistance in areas relating to maintenance, landscaping, documentation and way finding, and even security and fundraising for capital improvements such as walls/fences, irrigation systems, and information areas with restrooms.
The Florida Division of Historical Resources has offered some case studies on how some communities have tackled problems with historic cemeteries. Websites devoted to cemetery friends’ organizations also provide interesting ideas. Some of these are listed below:
- Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY: http://www.fomh.org
- Friends of Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh, NC: http://historicoakwoodcemetery.org/become-a-friend.asp
- Friends of Decatur Cemetery, Decatur, GA: http://www.decaturga.com/residents/community-groups/friends-of-decatur-cemetery
For more information about Bosque Bello, visit the city’s website to read the 2015 Master Plan 2015 Master Plan. Or email [email protected] Better yet, take a drive up North 14th Street and visit the cemetery for yourself to understand both its beauty and its challenges.
And mark your calendars to attend the February 17 meeting at the library at 9:30 a.m.
Let’s work together to preserve Bosque Bello.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.