In late January 2019, I went to Florida with my best friend, Christi, who lives in Omaha. She was ready to escape the freezing cold Nebraska winter for the much LESS cold Florida winter. This time we rented a place in Blue Mountain Beach on the Florida panhandle, east of Destin. I’ve been vacationing in that area of 30A since the 1990s.
I had never explored any of the cemeteries nearby so I decided to remedy that. Not far from our condo was Gulf Cemetery, which I had passed many times over the years.
Established by Patent by President Woodrow Wilson
Gulf Cemetery has a sign that explains some of its history. Burials unofficially began around 1910 when the city of Santa Rosa was established on Hogtown Bayou. What’s unusual is that the cemetery was officially established in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed patent 414345, which authorized the sale of 40 acres of land to the Gulf Cemetery Association.
I’d never heard of a cemetery established by a patent before. According to the sign, Gulf Cemetery and the Alango Cemetery in St. Louis County, Minn., are the only two U.S. patented cemeteries still in operation east of the Mississippi River. I’m still not exactly sure what that means.
The sign also notes that Gulf Cemetery has faced numerous obstacles since it opened. It was sold in error three times for delinquent property taxes and, more recently, was threatened by private development in 2006 when efforts to build an access road through it were thwarted. That one I can believe considering how rapidly the area has grown as a tourist destination. Originally, the cemetery was subdivided by various religious denominations but now the grounds are interdenominational.
The Gulf Cemetery Association was organized as a non-profit organization governed by five directors with the authority to establish the governing rules/regulations of the cemetery. The first directors were: M.L. Butler, W.H. Butler, George Gibbons, H.T. Lavermour, and John “Johan” Erickson.
According to Find a Grave, there are about 635 memorials listed but I know there are several more folks buried there than that. Several wooden cross with no names are scattered in the back.
On the day I visited, a number of cars came and went. Some folks appeared to be visiting graves but others I’m not so sure about. Maybe they were eating lunch. That may be why the sign on the tree is there. Still, I kept to myself while wandering around.
The Butler Family
The earliest burial recorded on Find a Grave at Gulf Cemetery is for Elizabeth Iola Notestein Butler, who died on June 22, 1913. She was the wife of Gulf Cemetery Association director Marquis de Lafayette (M.L. or Marcus) Butler, who I listed earlier. It appears that they spent most of their lives in Missouri and Minnesota (with a few years in Tennessee) before coming to Florida near the end of Elizabeth’s life. Even back then, retirees were heading south to enjoy their golden years in sunny Florida.
Elizabeth and Marcus married in Missouri in 1867. Marcus had served in the Missouri 69th Infantry, Company F, and later applied for his pension in 1922. The pair had several children together. One of their sons, William Henry Butler (the W.H. who was also a Gulf Cemetery director) moved his family down to the nearby Grayton Beach area before 1910. This must have enticed Elizabeth and Marcus to move south, along with a more agreeable climate.
Elizabeth died on June 22, 1912. Her part of the monument she shares with her husband lists her as “Mrs. M.L. Butler”, which was not an uncommon thing to see back in the day. But it always make me a bit sad to see a woman’s name submerged into her husband’s on a grave marker. Yes, she was married. But she had her own identity apart from him that’s worth remembering.
Over the next years, W.H. was working to build a resort in the Grayton Beach area with the help of his son, Van. I’m not sure where Marcus played a role in all this but when he died in 1933, his marker states what he felt he’d done. “I founded this city and climbed the hill and laid me down to rest.”
The name I find most in terms of who founded Santa Rosa Beach is Dr. Charles Cessna, who has a park named after him and a boat landing. One paragraph I found reads: “Dr. Charles Cessna and his newly formed company out of Chicago used the press all over the north to entice the rush of immigrants to America’s shores. Here was where a new life of prosperity awaited, not to mention the perfect climate.”
I do believe that Marcus’ son William and grandson Van were key players in the establishment of Grayton Beach and Santa Rosa Beach in the coming years. Van and his wife were schoolteachers for many years and one of Santa Rosa’s schools is named after him.
The Mysterious Marie Joubert
One old marker I found posed a true mystery for me. I was not expecting to see a grave stone with a French inscription in a coastal Florida cemetery. But the articles I read about the early years of Grayton Beach/Santa Rosa indicated many immigrants settled in the area. So perhaps it wasn’t unexpected.
A native of France, Marie died at the age of 73 on Feb. 3, 1917 from a kidney ailment. Her death certificate states she was a housewife and a widow but does not list her husband’s name. I don’t know how she came to live in Florida. Her father’s name was T. Mollet. I noticed that her death certificate was signed by a W. Cessna, perhaps someone related to Dr. Charles Cessna.
Fine to the Finnish
There are nine Ericksons buried in Gulf Cemetery, a number of them children who died young. I was curious to know who they were. Born in 1883, John or Johan Erickson was a ship’s carpenter who emigrated from Finland sometime around 1901 or 1906. He and his wife, Anna, lived in Hibbing, Minnesota before moving to a homestead in Santa Rosa Beach by 1915. You might remember his name as one of those Gulf Cemetery directors I listed earlier.
Together, they would have six children. Son Onne (1909-1998), Alvar (1911-1915), Astrid (1913-1983), Otto (1915-1916), Elis (1917-1919), Elva Viola (1920-1921), and Alfred (1922-2019). As you can see, four of the six died in childhood.
I am thankful to Find a Grave.com for many reasons. Sometimes it is thanks to a bio that someone wrote that I glean my only information. According to the memorial made for Elva Viola Erickson, she was bitten by a dog and contracted lockjaw. She died soon after on Aug. 11, 1921.
John’s brother, Erick, is another sad story. Like his brother, he emigrated from Finland to America as a young man. But it appears he remained a bachelor and worked as a coal miner in the North for many years. According to his Find a Grave memorial, he contracted Black Lung and went to spend his last days in Santa Rosa Beach with John and his family. He knew his days were numbered.
Erick Died on April 20, 1916 at age 39. He was buried among John and Anna’s children. John eventually died at age 77 in 1960 and Anna died at age 82 in 1962. It appears that the Ericksons actually lived in Pensacola from the 1920s until they died. But John and Anna are both buried at Gulf Cemetery, along with some of their children.
Cause of Death: Acute Indigestion
Death certificates can be eye-opening documents. This was the case when I looked up Emma Draper Harris.
The daughter of British parents, Emma Draper was born on March 6, 1883 in Canada. She married Edwin Harris in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada in 1903. They had a daughter, Gertrude, a year later.
I don’t know when the Harris family moved to Santa Rosa Beach but Emma died on April 23, 1918. Her death certificate states the cause of death was “acute indigestion”. It notes this was her fourth attack and that she died during the last episode while eating dinner. I’m wondering if she had a heart attack.
Another interesting tidbit on the death certificate is the undertaker is listed as none other than W.H. Butler, whom I mentioned earlier. Amid his many talents, was he also a funeral director? That’s curious indeed.
Lastly, sometimes I come across a grave that just tugs at my heartstrings. That’s the case for Master-Sergeant Ermel Howard, whose grave marker has a toy Army jeep at the base.
Born in 1925, Ermel Howard served in the U.S. Army Air Corps before it became the U.S. Air Force during World War II. Then he went on to serve in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. After retiring from the military, Ermel worked as a government worker at Eglin Air Force Base Hospital. He died at age 92 on Dec. 10, 2017.
I think Ermel was pretty amazing to have served in three consecutive wars, a feat not many have accomplished. It’s folks like him who are the backbone of our armed forces and I appreciate all he did.
Next time, I’ll be back at Gulf Cemetery with more stories from Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.