WENTWORTH — Small concrete headstones mark some of the graves. A few have engravings — although some are so faded they cannot be read.
Still other graves are indicated only with large field stones. Most have no markers at all.
The County Home Cemetery contains several hundred graves of former residents of what was known as “the Poor House.” It is located on the northwest corner of the intersection of N.C. 65 and County Home Road. Years of overgrowth covered it and few Rockingham County citizens were aware it even existed.
That is until early 2018 when the Wentworth Historic Preservation Committee, under the leadership of lifelong resident Barbara Cooke, decided to tackle a variety of projects. On their list: Improve the cemetery and enhance its appearance and the historic relevance of the site.
On Sept. 18, members of the committee were joined by local residents and county officials to dedicate the latest addition, which is an information kiosk with a history of the cemetery and a partial list of people buried there.
“What has been most impressive about this focus is the variety of projects and the level of collaboration that has been embraced by multiple individuals and agencies over a number of years,” Wentworth Town Administrator George Murphy said in his opening remarks. He noted the county owns the cemetery, and former county officials approved earlier projects. An Eagle Scout project added fencing and in 2011, Eagle Scout Geoffrey Haigler of Troop 797, added a brick marker to identify the location.
During the past two years, county employees cleared the property of fallen trees and removed downed branches and unwanted undergrowth, revealing the many graves and making the few markers more readable, Murphy said.
With money from the Wentworth Town Council, a vinyl-coated fence was built and the kiosk was constructed. Pine straw covers the ground around the kiosk and a graveled parking area allows visitors a safe place to park. County employees continue to maintain the property.
Although the committee’s work is done, a local Scout is building a patio and benches behind the kiosk. Each brick will be engraved with the name of someone buried in the cemetery.
“This is a happy day for the Wentworth Historic Preservation Committee,” Cooke said. “It was a group effort to see this project completed and the kiosk dedicated.”
She expressed appreciation to County Manager Lance Metzler for giving his permission to erect the kiosk and to the county’s maintenance personnel for clearing the “badly overgrown cemetery and continuing to keep the cemetery maintained.”
“Now you can see the grave markers,” Cooke said. She thanked the Town of Wentworth and the preservation committee members for all their time and effort to get this project completed.
Cooke also praised Carter’s research and preparation of the cemetery and the county home information that now is a permanent part of the kiosk. Efforts by Jordan Rossi, then-director of the Museum and Archives of Rockingham County, also contributed to the overall efforts.
In his remarks, Carter said the N.C. General Assembly enacted a law in the mid 1820s to levy a tax to finance a poor house in Rockingham County. In 1828, the county purchased 200 acres of land from Robert Galloway for $200 and two log buildings were constructed at a cost of $3,734. Over the years, additional log buildings were added as needed. Residents were called “inmates.”
By the early 1870s, the poor house, now under the auspices of the Rockingham County Commissioners, consisted of nine hewed log buildings with two rooms each. In 1874, the commissioners contracted for five one-story brick buildings grouped several feet apart, to replace the original log cabins.
A frame hospital was built adjacent to the structure.
In 1891, the name of the “poor house” was changed to “the House for the Aged and Infirmed,” but over years, it became known as the County Home, Carter said. However, by 1913, the brick structures were “crumbling with decay” and a new building replaced them in 1913 at a cost of $21,690.
The speaker said the purpose of the County Home was to provide housing and care for poor and infirmed citizens, adding county records chronicled their deaths and most were laid to rest in the County Home Cemetery. Some names were compiled from U.S. Census records. Since the census is done every 10 years, Carter said some names are missing and may never be known.
But, in the mid 1950s, Rockingham County, like other counties in the state, realized it would be cheaper to close the county homes and place those residents in licensed boarding houses or nursing homes, he said. On June 30, 1955, the commissioners voted to close the County Home and transfer its 21 residents to other facilities.
The building was remodeled as office space and many county offices have occupied it.
Carter noted the earliest burials in the cemetery probably dated from soon after the county home opened in 1928. When residents of the home died, they were buried in shallow graves, often without funeral services, to mark their passing.
Their bodies were not embalmed and were placed in cheap wooden coffins. At one time, only field stones marked a few of the several hundred graves which soon began to cave inward.
The only marble tombstone in the cemetery is for Rachel Mooney, who died in 1916.
The date of the last burial in the cemetery is believed to have been around 1950.
As was the custom at the time, the graves were segregated by race, Carter said, noting whites were interred on the east side of the cemetery nearest County Home Road, and African-Americans were buried on the west side of the cemetery nearest N.C. 65.