In the wooded land around Rookery Bay, a 108 year-old concrete lamb sits in mute tribute to the 8-year-old boy whose coffin lies underneath. The mossy statue hints at the many stories of hardship in the wilderness days of Southwest Florida, before Collier County was carved out the Everglades.
A century ago, burial was a difficult and costly proposition, requiring hours, if not days, of travel back and forth to the only licensed cemetery, in Fort Myers. Many of the county’s more prominent founders, both good and notorious — postmistress Tommie Barfield and outlaw Edgar Watson — are buried there.
“You’ll find most of Naples’ early officials in the Fort Myers Cemetery because that was the official one when we were part of Lee County,” explained Lisa Marciano, director of the Naples Depot Museum, who organized its first exhibit, “Rest in Peace: Cemeteries of Collier County.” The concept was based on a poll of museum visitors.
“Cemeteries were by far the first choice,” said Jon Nickerson, museum associate.
It was a good one, Marciano added. The early dead of Collier’s founding families were quite often interred right at home, creating pocket burial parks. Hikers investigating the woods around Rookery Bay might be surprised to find the outcropping of stones from a private family’s burial ground known as the Kirkland Cemetery. One of its most poignant is the one guarded in perpetuity by a lamb, the grave of 8-year-old Jesse James Jones. Ground penetrating radar photos indicate more burial sites outside of its small cleared area, so its current count of seven may be low.
Marciano hiked throughout the county photographing cemeteries, while museum associate Jon Nickerson researched their names and inhabitants. The pair spent four months documenting, researching and designing.
“We didn’t even get to all of them,” Marciano said. “Most people think there are only two cemeteries here —Naples Memorial Gardens (525 111th Ave. N.) and Palm Royale (96780 Vanderbilt Beach Road). But we have at least 14 cemeteries represented, and there are two more we know of. But we only had so much wall space.”
Some of them, she acknowledged, aren’t even accessible by land, so she relied on photographs from Marco history buff Craig Woodward, who boated out to the defunct fishing community of Fakahatchee Island to snap photos of its graves. Even on the island, reverence, and art,went into its stones: What appears to be an embedded yellow porcelain duck swims across a hand-sculpted marsh on the headstone of little James P. Daniels Jr., who died at age 2 in 1913.
Even today, the headstones at Lake Trafford go well beyond the manufactured etchings of praying hands and laurel wreaths. Found and purchased artifacts turn burial plots in the predominantly Hispanic community into life-size story boxes. The favorite toys of the deceased — little plastic replicas of soccer balls, airplanes and race cars or dolls, stuffed and jewelry — bedeck the plot, often in patterns interspersed with religious statues and silk or plastic flowers.
Small bushes have been planted; some headstones have been outlined with solar lights to give them a celestial nighttime glow. A number of them have benches or lawn chairs where the bereaved can spend time with their memories.
Finding the cemetery, hidden from Lake Trafford Road off Little League Drive, takes effort. But most people drive within feet of final resting places they don’t realize are there, Marciano said. Beside Pine Ridge Road between Goodlette-Frank Road and U.S.41 North in Naples, lies the city’s first cemetery with a name — Rosemary — of undetermined origin. Its community of dead, including one of Naple’s first year-round residents, Madison Weeks, was transplanted from near the location of St. Ann Catholic Church in Old Naples, around 1931.
Even then, Naples was having growing pains. That cemetery location had been deemed too small for future interments. But the city fathers were sure Pine Ridge would be suitably far from a growing community. Today, cars whiz past the cemetery, reduced to a gated rectangle of plots flanked by the busy street and retail businesses.
On Goodlette-Frank Road, on the west side south of its intersection with Pine Ridge Road, four concrete posts memorialize eight bodies buried below them, unknown local residents or visitors in unmarked graves. The theories run from suppositions these were workers killed building the nearby Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) to the theory they were early African-American residents, who were generally buried outside the cemetery before the 1950s.
No one knows for certain, Marciano said.Their unadorned obelisks can only remind the happy crowd flocking out of South Street City Oven and Grill or Sushi One after an evening of celebration to send up a quiet memorial moment for the predecessors who sleep among them.
If you go
What: “Rest in Peace: Collier County’s Cemeteries”
Where: Naples Depot Museum, 1051 5th Ave. S., Naples
When: Through Sept. 30; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; closed on national and county holidays
To contact: (239) 262-6525
Something else: The museum has many exhibits of local history. The Naples Train Museum, also on that site, offers an interactive model layout and train rides 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays May-August.