Rosemary Cemetery in Sarasota's History

This is a condensed history of the Rosemary Cemetery, designed to give you a feel for how different residents of Sarasota have loved and hated the cemetery. It was taken from a report prepared by Team Rosemary member Evan Haarbauer as part of his independent project (Thanks Evan!). Enjoy - really. 
by Lauren Hansen

The Rosemary Cemetery near downtown Sarasota has been with Sarasota since the beginning. As it turns out, the beginning was created only a century ago as Sarasota slowly developed. New generations need only to turn their heads and receive a picture and pulse of grand and great-grand families and the construction of a city. Rosemary Cemetery, a plot for the deceased and open to the public, has been affected and has itself influenced the community of Sarasota, a community which has changed with the times and people and continues to do so. In some ways, Rosemary has not been a static entity as a burial place and public space. Rosemary’s shape has changed, its markers misaligned, vandalized and repaired, its plantings uprooted, overgrown, and replanted, and its relations to people, Sarasotians and others, removed and replaced, as goes the flux of the living and the dead.

“Rosemary” is an applicable title for the cemetery. Rosemary means sea dew and a sprig of Rosemary commonly denotes remembrance. Rosemary Cemetery is situated near Sarasota bay, and during much of Rosemary’s existence, the bay could be seen from Rosemary’s raised land. The cemetery is a place for remembrance, of ancestors and of history, yet as newspaper articles, letters, and other texts show, Rosemary Cemetery has not always been remembered and embraced. I plan to show how some community relationships with Rosemary have changed and are now changing. Public spaces always involve a variety of relationships with people. I will point to a few of these relationships beginning with Rosemary’s creation and scan through the early teens, the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the turn of the twentieth century.

What significance does Rosemary have, if any? Significance is perhaps the root of community relations with Rosemary and any place, historical and existing. Significance includes the attributes that stimulate thoughts and activities of a person, the reasons why a place becomes important. The Cemetery was in the blue prints of the Scottish settlers of Sarasota’s area. An investment company tempting people to establish residency surely used the cemetery space as an asset to publicize while also creating a cemetery as a traditional creation.

In the early teens of the twentieth century the Sarasota Times, the popular newspaper of the times, reflects Rosemary’s position within the community. Care and use of Rosemary seems to have fluctuated. Descriptions of disrepair and recognizable progress toward up-keep are seen several times. A special organization, The Ladies of the Cemetery Association, often referred to as The Ladies, was developed and produced many changes on the cemetery’s grounds and in the public.

Assistance, like significance, has played a major role in Rosemary’s history. These two roles are intimately related. Assistance has often been the outcome of a person’s connection to significance of Rosemary. People with family ties are often the ones who give donations of material and time to either the cemetery as a whole or individual lots. Assistance may result from significance in other ways such as some political or historical motivations. The original cemetery deed given by John Hamilton Gillespie, an early pioneer of Sarasota, shows some governmental relations to the cemetery, a written relationship that has not always, and in fact, steadily has not proved itself in action.

Relations of those other than donational assistance can be seen. In the same year that The Ladies were writing for help, some people were discussing the removal and resettling of the cemetery. To those interested in resettlement at least three reasons are stated: sanitation, spatial orientation, and size. Also, the fact of having to pass through the “colored quarters” was disliked. The reason most emphasized seems to be a size problem. Rosemary was seen as too small with no room for growth. The writer desired to move the buried to a larger outer region that would suit the expected population. This idea was only a proposal and did not fulfill itself. Since its beginning, Rosemary not only fostered ideas of unsuitable space for future populations, but actually reduced in size as the county allowed some of the surrounding region to be bought and used for commercial and street purposes (Burns, Newsletter, May 1987).

This proposal occurred in the same month as “small but steady improvement” was occurring at Rosemary. Gates and a driveway were donated, and the City Council, petitioned by The Ladies, helped clear the grounds of fallen trees and other undesirable growth and destruction. (Times, June 1, 1911). The article of resettlement and the article of steady improvements help show different perspectives and actions in relation to Rosemary, in this case, within a one-month period.

Early in 1912, the question of resettlement was again brought forth. This time a letter to Sarasota Times has two reasons for resettlement: size and position. Again, the size was seen as inadequate for future population growth and removal seemed most fit to a larger, adequate cemetery

Fast Forward to the 1970s.

“There is perhaps an acre or two of land that sits nearly unnoticed to passing motorists along Central Avenue” (McGuinn in Tribune, Nov. 2, 1978). This sentence begins an article that shows a lack of physical care to the cemetery, a common characteristic of Rosemary’s history. Overgrown weeds covered the cemetery in November 1978. The county was mowing about every six months. The spokesman for the City of Sarasota Parks Department mentions that there was no special fund for Rosemary maintenance. This affected the cemetery as a whole. Individuals such as Mrs. Bernard L. Doyle and John B. Browning, both descendants of some buried in Rosemary, had their own individual marks on the Cemetery, marks that produced physical beautification and reflected ancestral connection and care. Doyle weekly tended the Burns’ family plot. Browning and his son reported to visit twice a year (McGuinn, Nov. 2, 1978).

In the mid ‘80s a newsletter and invitation emphasizes hope and action for Rosemary. “Rosemary Cemetery is coming Alive” titled a letter from Lillian Burns, an active participant in Rosemary action. The letter describes Rosemary’s past, an insufficiency of up-keep, and work and plans toward raising money, planning events for the community, persuading city officials for help, rehabilitation, and beautification. The previous year (’86) a “Rosemary Cemetery Workday” was held, and a cocktail cruise was a reward for the participants.

There have been leaps of activity of conservation and rehabilitation within the past few years. A needs and assessment document prepared by The Center for Historic Cemeteries Preservation (CHCP) for the Sarasota County Historical Society and Rosemary Cemetery Committee, established in the ‘80s, was completed in 1999. This document covered details of plans to rejuvenate the Cemetery. In 2001 Lynette Strangstad of Stone Faces and Sacred Spaces produced a document for conservation giving details on what materials and the processes to complete conservation. I have not seen any other works such as Strangstad’s and the CHCP’s that entail such thorough descriptions and projections for Rosemary. These works are extraordinarily important to many such as the Sarasota County Historical Resources Department who see the tedious steps taken toward Rosemary.

A Tribune article says that other goals include a grave-by-grave survey including maps, photographs, and epitaphs, and interpretive signs, a walking tour by brochure or guide, and a history study unit for elementary education. Recently, students at New College of Florida have pursued many of these goals. A survey has been completed that should help in registering Rosemary with the National Register. Cemeteries have not been a usual place for the Register, but there are hopes that Rosemary fits the mold with its historical figures and unique place in history. The Register would “officially” acknowledge Rosemary’s significance as a historical site and would offer a level of protection (Thompson, 40-1). Students also captured photographs and blueprinted a walking tour. This essay is my contribution.

Rosemary Cemetery is in the roots of the city of Sarasota. Early pioneers and “major” figures are buried there. Rosemary Cemetery has had a unique history, not without its changes and variety of interests. These are some reasons why Rosemary Cemetery has significance in the minds of many. For some, Rosemary Cemetery brings connection with the past land and people in an afternoon stroll or in a educational setting. As Mary Shanks found, for at least one person, Rosemary Cemetery catches a least partially mistaken ideas. A person stated that Rosemary Cemetery is a black cemetery, not for white people such as Mary. The Cemetery is composed of mostly Euro-American people with only two burials of African American, Rev. Lewis and Irene Colson, but is now situated in a high black residency area. As I look at historic textual information and actions now occurring at Rosemary Cemetery I see fluctuation; fluctuation in care, organizational help, beatification, biological growth and styles, and donations. Diminished interest and funds have created overgrowth, vandalism, loss of land, and loss of significance, not once, but throughout the twentieth century. Yet increased interest and funds have shown rehabilitation programs of different styles and degrees, replacing, recreating, and renewing the first cemetery of Sarasota. Organizations such as The Junior League, Historical Society of Sarasota, Sarasota Alliance for Preservation, the Garden Club, and a New College group among others have all held interest and helped for rehabilitation purposes. 

A Bibliography for this report is available in the Resources section