Park, cemetery revived

Collaboration produces upgrade to College Town Park and new entrance for historic cemetery

College Town has a newly restored park with a new entrance to Historic Highland Cemetery thanks to a collaboration among College Town, BREC and Historic Highland Cemetery Inc.

The restoration of the park was a partnership between BREC and College Town as a result of the 2004 ballot initiative to improve the local park system. College Town Park was one of the parks scheduled for improvement under BREC’s Imagine Your Parks program.

“We do public input,” said Cheryl Michelet, director of communications for BREC. “As part of the public input, the neighbors in College Town came back and said we’d like to raise funds to help with the project.”

The original plan was to raise $60,000 to be matched by BREC. The neighborhood exceeded its goal and raised $85,000. With those funds and money from BREC, the park has a new playground, a picnic pavilion and sidewalks that run thorough the park and connect the cemetery at the park’s southwest corner.

To create the new entrance through the park, Historic Highland Cemetery Inc. purchased 400 square feet that separated the cemetery from the BREC park.

Cemetery sexton Kenny Kleinpeter and a friend welded together an iron arch to mark the new entrance. The longtime entrance on Oxford Avenue is permanently closed.

Kleinpeter said that by partnering with BREC, Baton Rouge’s oldest surviving cemetery will be more carefully monitored.

He has dedicated the last 15 years to restoring the tiny cemetery that dates to 1813. It contains the graves of some of Baton Rouge’s earliest settlers, including Armand Allard Duplantier, a French cavalry officer who served as aide-de-camp to General Lafayette in the American Revolution; and Pierre Joseph de Favrot, commandant of the Spanish fort at Baton Rouge. It was an overgrown eyesore when it was “discovered” in the 1960s by the late Evelyn Thom, one of the city’s early preservationists.

“The tombs were encased in a forest of young trees and a network of vines and underbrush that was almost impenetrable,” Thom wrote in 1976.

She described fallen trees on old cast-iron fences; poison ivy covering shrubs, tombs and trees; broken gravestones; and piles of bricks.

“I brought my clippers out to get to this stone and that stone,” Thom said in an Advocate interview in 2003. “What I found was a resurrection of history, the history of Baton Rouge, the pioneers.”

Every weekend, Thom and her husband, the late Dr. James A. Thom III, and their children worked to clean the cemetery just beyond the south gates of LSU.

Shortly after they began the project, Evelyn Thom made a sad discovery. Someone had taken many of the gravestones and pushed them in a pile in the back of the cemetery.

Thom did what she could to preserve the cemetery that was originally a tiny piece of a plantation owned by George Garig. Apparently, with Garig’s consent, people began using the tract for burials.

Because Garig was a practicing Catholic, he wanted the burial land consecrated as a cemetery. On June 9, 1819, he donated one arpent, about five-sixths of an acre, to the congregation of the Roman Catholic Church of Baton Rouge.

“It was the first active donation in East Baton Rouge Parish,” Kleinpeter said.

After Garig’s death in 1825, his plantation was divided. The half on which the cemetery is located came into possession of Robert Penny, a Protestant who it is thought could not be buried in the Catholic cemetery. The Pennys enlarged the cemetery to create an area where Robert Penny’s wife and two children were buried.

In 1849, in a property swap, Penny’s neighbor, Denis Daigre, acquired a 16-acre tract on which the cemetery is located.

After Daigre’s death in 1875, the property was divided among his heirs. A portion with the cemetery tract came to a daughter, Virginia Daigre Allain. In 1912, she sold her share of the property to a buyer who sold to Pelican Realty Co. in 1923.

Pelican hired civil engineer A.C. Mundinger to survey the property and lay out College Town subdivision. Mundinger drew his plan around the cemetery and 2 acres designated as College Town Park.

But there was a problem. When the map of College Town was officially filed before the subdivision was laid out, the measurements for the cemetery accidentally were omitted. This led to later encroachments on the cemetery property.

“What we call Highland Cemetery is a half acre survivor of what was said to be a two-acre cemetery,” Kleinpeter said. “We have evidence of at least 280 burials in Highland Cemetery. There are at least 100 burials at the house on the corner.”

Kleinpeter began working with Thom in the 1990s. His third great-grandfather is buried in the cemetery along with other ancestors. For 10 years, he and Ron Seidemann, an attorney who runs the Lands and Natural Resources section in the Attorney General’s Office, have been doing archaeological digs in the cemetery.

“Cemeteries come under my jurisdiction,” Seidemann said. “I can work out here because this cemetery is no longer operational.”

Kleinpeter said he believes that there have only been two burials in Highland Cemetery since the turn of the last century.

“The last active burial was in 1939,” he said.

Every Sunday, Kleinpeter and Seidemann carefully dig in the cemetery. Their goal is to locate graves and match them to gravestones found in the cemetery and to locate other graves that may not have been marked with stones.

“A newspaper article from the ’30s describes how the cemetery had many iron crosses with no text whatsoever,” Kleinpeter said. The men keep detailed records of their finds. “We don’t expect to find nonrelated cemetery stuff out here,” Seidemann said. “Just brick, mortar, gravel and the occasional bone. It’s not exactly Indiana Jones out here.”

Kleinpeter said he has located about 180 burial shafts.

“One hundred and fifty years later, I can take my probe and put it in the ground, and where it stops I know where a burial shaft ends,” he said.

Burial shafts are easy to locate because soil that has been dug is less dense than soil that has not been dug.

“We are very confident that our probe data is very accurate,” he said.

Michelet sees the partnership between BREC, which acquired the park in the 1970s, and College Town as an example of what can happen when neighborhoods and BREC work together.

“It’s neat to have a neighborhood work with us,” she said. “In our recent partnerships, neighborhoods are getting more active.”