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Progress and Interstate didn't take tiny Fort Mill cemetery

The intersection of Interstate 77 and S.C. 160 is one of York County's busiest. Thousands of vehicles every day rumble by through Fort Mill. Bustling Baxter Village is across the highway. And right there along the northbound exit ramp at Exit 85, almost unseen through the leaves and vines, are gravestones.

Under the canopy of pines and oaks and a cover of leaves and logs are more than two dozen visible gravestones, with other spots sunk in the earth that mean unmarked graves. The most recent stone says burial in 1969. The oldest readable stone says 1894. Some stones are so old the writing is worn off. Others lay flat. All the dead are within earshot of the world whizzing by at 60 mph.

Almost all his life, from when his grandparents were sharecroppers across the street on S.C. 160 when that now five-lane road was tiny and the interstate did not exist, Vaughn Stallings saw those stones. He saw them when he went fishing in little Stallings Pond a few hundreds yards away, when he ate a million peaches from the Springs peach orchards that were there where the highway runs.

"I just wondered who those people were," said Stallings, now 62. "I'm a Vietnam veteran. I knew there were veterans in there. They never get a flag on their grave. Didn't seem right."

Turns out the graves hold black people who, like Stallings' ancestors, came from area families that worked and lived nearby. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers could be white or black in those days, because working hard and being poor knew no color. Cemeteries were segregated, though, and this spot was for blacks.

The Springs family still owns the property and kept it untouched to honor those buried there when the business park next door and other properties were developed, said Anne Springs Close, the 85-year-old matriarch of the mighty Springs textile and agricultural family that owned so much property in the area then and still is Fort Mill's leading civic family.

Close recalled church meetings and revivals for the black families who lived near that spot when she was a child.

Will Close, one of Anne Springs Close's sons, said some years back the family looked for records but the search to identify the deceased wasn't fruitful.

"We sectioned off that corner and always wanted it to stay the way it was," Will Close said of the cemetery. "We kept the spot."

Annie Mae Walker, who still lives on a side road off S.C. 21 about a mile away, has spent all of her eight decades right around that area. She lived across Highway 160 just a few hundred yards away for much of her life, and has relatives buried in that cemetery.

"It was called India Hook, that spot, and we had what they used to call a church arbor there," Walker said. "Not a church, but an outside thing under the trees where we had camp meetings. They buried some people there long, long ago. Some folks used to tend the place. But after Hugo a lot of trees there got knocked over, and people died out, too."

Hurricane Hugo slammed through the area in 1989. Many years ago, some folks with the Boy Scouts approached people with the town of Fort Mill to possibly do a project refurbishing the cemetery, but that project never happened.

Stallings, the veteran, walked into that cemetery this week. He watched trucks pound by on the interstate nearby and found stones for veterans from World War I and World War II. He found names such as Strait, Watts, Spratt, Wright and Jenning.

Annie Mae Walker said her people were of the Jenning family.

"That cemetery is old and hasn't a person been put there in a long time, but it is important," Walker said.

Vaughn Stalling, who has nobody related to him buried in that cemetery, agreed.

"Every life there was important, every veteran there served this country," Stallings said.

Stallings plans to come up the little hill on Memorial Day weekend and put up some American flags for the veterans.

"It seems about the least we could do for people," he said. "They been here in the woods where nobody could see them for too long."