By Lyra Bordelon
The dead speak in Dick Pointer and Old Stone Cemeteries! An Evening in the Cemetery, put on by the Greenbrier Historical Society, brought many former Greenbrier Valley residents back to life for attendees to get a better sense of local history and the various individuals who fill it.
During the Friday, November 23, performance, after the sun had set, the audience moved from ghost to ghost, hearing each person’s story as they stood before their graves. As the group proceeded, the actors joined the rear of the group to the next grave, building a crowd of ghosts following behind in the darkness, only the candlelight path showing the familiar local faces portraying the past.
Throughout both cemeteries, not all of the headstones have survived through the past century, but the records of many of those missing allow the Historical Society to place them. For example, Nancy Perkins Calender, portrayed by Beverly White, had a missing headstone but an impressive life, going from slave to business owner.
“Don’t you worry, children, my stone’s gone missing but I’m right here, next to my dear James,” Calender said from the grave. “Before the war I was owned by Mason Mathews. I was kept busy doin every bit of the cooking for that big family and raising three boys of my own. After the war, James Calender moved to town to take a job at the glove factory. We took notice of each other at Sunday service and James would sometimes pull pranks at church just to get me to smile. One Sunday he said we should get married. He knew what I’d been through with the old master’s kin, how they got three sons on me. James said that didn’t fret him none. So we married in 1871, and opened the best restaurant and bakery in town. … We served fresh Baltimore fish and oysters and roast turkey with the fixins every day. You’d be welcome to take home one of my famous jelly cakes or a George Washington pie, or eat it by the slice with a glass of Coca Cola, something else I brought to town.”
Not all of those portrayed have an only positive legacy to pass on to the modern generation. In one dramatic moment, the ghost of George Dyche, played by George Piasecki, looked at the crowd in the darkness.
“My name is George Dyche,” he said, throwing a match into a bin, flames suddenly coming to life, “and I set fires. I like to see buildings burn. That works on you strange. Afterwards, I might feel a wee bit sorry, but far stronger is the desire to see the orange and red flames leap and dance; yes sir! And I don’t need much excuse.”
Buried in a low-cost section of Old Stone, Dyche is one of the prime suspects in setting the great fire of the 1890s in downtown Lewisburg, which consumed a huge portion of the buildings.
“Because of me the bucket brigades were everywhere scrambling and slipping on the wet crossing stones in the dark!” Dyche said. “Because of me the 3-horse pumper tore up the hill from Ronceverte, bells ringing, horses in a lather. Because of me we were front page news in Chicago! I admit to being pretty nervous when they ordered me to answer to a grand jury, but strange to say the jury never did meet. The only thing I could figure was, someone high up must be looking out for me, but I don’t know who, and that’s God’s honest truth.”
Written by GHS Curator and Education Director Toni Ogden, the evocative event gave a lasting impression of many of the town’s lesser known residents, Amanda Jackson, Sarah Page, Frank Page, John Bowyer, Annie Perkins, Charles Lockhart Donnelly, Isabella North Caldwell, Mary North Hamner, Lt. Carr, and William P. Rucker.
Ogden explained the show aimed “to bring out the stories of people in our county’s history” by highlighting “little known facts, surprising tidbits” to great success. “Working especially around black history,” the show sought “to bring the community together around shared values, show the triumph of the human spirit and give more dimension to the enslaved and then freed people” of Dick Pointer Cemetery. Although “getting the history of the black cemetery” is “shocking,” she also explained that there was “nothing wrong with getting a laugh in the right place.”
With costuming help from Greenbrier Valley Theatre, each actor brought the past back to life – including White and Piasecki, the ghosts were portrayed by Kim Erskine, Haley Burns, Jalesha Newsome, Arron Seams, Brehana Scott, Sophie Kemp-Sherman, Abi Smith, Sarah Shepherd, Gordon Campbell, and Al Emch.
Executive Director of the Greenbrier Historical Society Nora Venezky, who served as a guide for the trip through the twin graveyards, thanked the actors and everyone involved for a successful night and hopes to continue keeping history alive in the future.
“The volunteer actors did an amazing job bringing our characters back to life,” Venezky said. “We look forward to doing the event again next fall so we can keep sharing the diverse history that is hiding in our cemeteries.”