Westover Cemetery: An Oasis of Beauty and Serenity
In the early 1800s, Augustans heading to Washington, Ga., left downtown along the path that led to the Cherokee country, travelled through Harrisburg, past the Overton plantation of Governor John Milledge, over Rae’s Creek to the village of Bedford and beyond. One of the early inhabitants of the countryside was George Walker, attorney-at-law, whose land included part of Rae’s Creek and one of the best mill runs in the county. Walker named his 2,000 acres Westover. With Virginia roots, he could have taken his inspiration from the William Byrd plantation in that state or perhaps the name reflected his geographical location on the sand hills west of Augusta.
Over the years several prominent Augustans owned the estate including Nicholas Ware of Ware’s Folly fame and Georgia Scenes author Augustus B. Longstreet, who in 1840 advertised it as the “well-known Westover,” at that time 500 acres with a large dwelling, three framed kitchens and other convenient buildings including a barn.” In the 1850s Colonel George Bird (Byrd) of the Augusta Arsenal acquired the property and it was his widow Mary who sold it in 1859 to Porter Fleming. There Fleming’s daughter Elizabeth, “Lizzie,” first taught school in the “old Longstreet residence.” Unfortunately, in 1880 the plantation house burned to the ground.
By the early 1900s the Roesel family, proprietors of several meat markets, including a shop at the corner of Highland Avenue and Wheeler Road, owned Westover. Julius Roesel signed a warranty deed in June of 1912 selling 80 acres to Pantheon View Company to develop a cemetery on the land. To the east was the Augusta Country Club. Wheeler Road formed the southern border and on the West was Highland Avenue. The planning of the cemetery percolated for two years until an announcement in The Chronicle appeared in April 1914 that a “beautiful site of the city” was under development on the Roesel tract as a cemetery with a “Marble Palace for the Dead” to be built by the Georgia Mausoleum Company. In May, well-known druggist and columnist for The Augusta Chronicle N.L. Willet wrote that he had been asked by his friend William S. Brand, superintendent of the Georgia Railroad and a member of the company, for potential names for a new cemetery. Willet suggested “pantheon view” and the company formed under that name. Willet observed that there was no spot in Richmond County with a “wider outlook than that selected by Mr. Brand on Wheeler Road.” The tract indeed was several hundred feet higher than downtown with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.
At meetings in the summer of 1914, the stockholders of Pantheon View Cemetery elected their board of directors and organized. The board included some of Augusta’s most prominent citizens from throughout the city, which by this time included Summerville. Robert Berckmans, who lived and worked at nearby Fruitland Nursery, accepted the presidency, avowing that he would make this “the most beautiful cemetery in the state.” Harry H. Bell, of Hackett & Bell Company, became vice president; Albert S Hatch, president of Merchants Bank, was treasurer. Other directors included names still known in Augusta: vice president of Augusta Brewing Company Ambrose J Schweers, architect G. Lloyd Preacher, People’s Oil proprietor Hollis C. Boardman, and postmaster Thomas D. Murphy, among others. Prosper Jules Berckmans Company provided the landscape architecture.
In mid-July the board placed an ad in The Augusta Chronicle to “let Augustans name their new cemetery.” Suggestions would be taken until mid-September when a committee of leading citizens would decide a name from among the many they hoped to receive. The Committee on Naming indeed comprised respected Augustans including Charles and Bowdry Phinizy, George Lombard, Mrs. S.L. Hollingsworth, Berry Benson (whose image Augustans could see atop the Confederate monument on Broad Street), attorney William Barrett, Chronicle editor Tom Loyless, as well as ministers from the major churches and others. In November the name announced was Pantheon View. They had decided to keep the original name.
A few days later, Berry Benson set off a furor with a letter protesting the process that had been used to select the name: “All I know...is that I received a letter saying I had been appointed on such a committee, and asking me to select, from a list of names furnished, my first and second choices. I did not approve of any of these as much as two not on the list and I replied...giving Greenwood as my first choice and Glenwood as second.” No meeting or discussion had been held. Avowing that he “would have protested against naming a Christian cemetery ‘Pantheon View,’” Benson argued that name evoked associations with the gods of the ancients—“Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Bacchus, including even old Pluto down in Hades.” In short, it was a heathen name.
Immediately the name became “an issue.” Letters poured in supporting Benson’s stand and reviling the Pantheon name, which most agreed was inappropriate for “God’s Acres,” as cemeteries were then called. First Presbyterian minister Joseph Sevier said that as a member of the committee, he had also not voted for Pantheon but for Sunset or Pinecrest. Others weighed in as well. One tongue-in-cheek response to Benson said Greenwood sounded “New Yorkish...hence would undoubtedly please a great number of us provincials...If we must have a ‘furrin’ name euphonious, high-sounding and ear tickling (whether we know what it means or not) Campo Santo, Sapollo or E. Pluribus Unum to say nothing of Pantheon View, Champs Elysees, Eleusinian Fields...may have distinct advantages.” However, the writer pointed out that Westminster Abbey was considered the English “Pantheon” without concerns about being seen as pagan, noting that the modern usage of the word meant a building in “which are buried the great dead of a nation.”
About 10 days after the controversy had begun one of Augusta’s most respected citizens Joseph B. Cumming asked for someone to explain how the name Pantheon View had first been chosen.
A few days later, a contrite Nat Willet, after assuring Augustans that he had no intention of hurting “the sensibilities of good people” explained how long ago he had come up with the name. Willet said that the original names he had thought of were Mount Hope and Vera Paz, “true peace” in Spanish. But when he learned of the mausoleum, he thought of various pantheons—in the modern use of that word. Although he had not had the ancients in mind, he defended the Greeks “as founders of a large portion of our civilization...philosophy, art, beauty.” In fact, he wrote in reference to the “Great War,” his idea of what was heathen had “become of late very shadowy...as I see eight civilized nations today trying their best to annihilate each other and to destroy the art and the science and the industry of generations, I speak the word ‘heathen’ in a whisper.” To Willet, pantheism signified the “immanence of God.” He further argued that the cemetery was a space similar to public schools, not essentially Christian, but open to those of other religions including Judaism.
In the end, he said it was good that the cemetery was to get a new, more satisfactory name. Three days later Berry Benson responded that he took off his hat to Willet “for the beautiful, soulful letter” and fully accepted Willet’s explanation. The discussion thus ended on a civil note between these gentlemen and the newspaper announced that the Pantheon View discussion was closed.
In the thick of the controversy, one calm letter had come from a resident of the Hill. It recalled the name of the property in earlier days: “The clump of trees at the front of the property on Wheeler Road were in the front yard of the old Fleming Home...this home of Porter Fleming Sr., before it was destroyed by fire was known as Westover...why not Westover Cemetery?” On November 25, the announcement came that the cemetery would be Westover.
With the name resolved, the work began. The emphasis in the sales literature was that this would be a cemetery, not a graveyard. By the 19th century, burial practices had begun moving away from the family and church graveyard concept, although in Southern rural areas it continued longer. The difference was the perpetual care that a cemetery offered, even to families of more modest means. It reassured that two or three generations down the road, graves would not be neglected, overgrown or buried by erosion. Westover’s location further assured that graves would be high and dry.
Under the guidance of its leaders, the cemetery emerged as a beautiful site. The mausoleum, completed in fall of 1915, was an imposing marble edifice. The plan placed the main entrance at the intersection of Monte Sano and Wheeler, which offered a beautiful view of the spring. The cemetery sloped gently down for half a mile toward Lake Olmstead. Four miles of driving paths wound through hills, ponds, ornamental shrubs, open spaces of lawn and majestic trees, some there from Westover’s long-ago past. “Man and money, backed by skill and taste, all from a scientific standpoint, had so aided and abetted nature that today a cemetery of ideal portions is given Augusta” said one announcement.
The earliest interments came in May 1915, the first being Mrs. Julia Seats who died at the age of 84. Following a service at her downtown home was “interment at Westover, the new cemetery.” In September 1915, Westover Cemetery’s board performed an act of charity when it donated a 20- by 20-foot lot to the Mary Warren Home. The obituary of deceased widow Mary Burns appeared on September 2, announcing that after a funeral service at the home that morning, she would be interred at the new Westover that afternoon. Other Mary Warren residents joined her over the next several decades.
Although the name of the cemetery became Westover, the company remained Pantheon View until 1930 when it was sold to Associates Investment Company. The next year the new company made an arrangement with the Society Adash Jeshurien [sic] for the dedication of a certain portion of the cemetery “exclusively for the use of persons professing the Jewish faith.” In that area and throughout the cemetery are the final resting places for Augustans from all walks of life, including many who made significant contributions to the city, state and nation.
Today Westover continues to serve the community, expanding and adapting to changing end-of life customs. Over the years Augustans have enjoyed Westover as an oasis of beauty and serenity even as the areas around it developed into bustling neighborhoods, thriving businesses, busy streets and the most famous golf course in the world. Many remember childhood Easter egg hunts, visits to feed the ducks or driving lessons given by nervous parents on the winding and hilly roads. Most significantly, the beautiful plantings, flowers and ornaments on family graves and crypts at holidays and throughout the year are testimony to the visits paid to departed family and friends. Perhaps Major Joseph Cumming summed it up best as “a beautiful resting place for the beloved dead and beautiful living place for the sorrowing living.”
Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell is an Augusta historian, author and director of the Center for Study of Georgia History at Augusta State University.