History of Oak Grove Cemetery

by Vivian Lawson Hogue

Colonel Asa Peter Robinson, an educated Republican from Connecticut, settled in Central Arkansas in 1871 and drew up plans for a town named Conway Station. The drawing included street names and his visions of a school, church and the courthouse, all to be located on Court Street. The sale of his land for homes and businesses would produce the town of his vision. Conway was made the permanent seat of justice in 1873, and Robinson donated land on Locust Avenue for the Faulkner County Courthouse.

Although none of his visions came to pass at planned locations, Robinson succeeded in growing a community destined to be a center of education. He was an explorer, the first mayor of Conway, school board member, cattle farmer, railroad chief engineer, politician and real estate buyer and seller, but his strong personal goals always included education.

Robinson died in 1898 and was buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery beside his wife, Mary Louise de St. Louis of Montreal, Canada, who died before him in 1891.

There is often a perception by those in any historic community that its cemetery was one of the first provisions created by founders.

However, common sense indicates that this would not likely be the case. With no paved roads and miles between homes in early towns, people buried their kin on their own properties. As churches were built, they became the natural sites for interment of their members.

That could have its drawbacks as well, depending on burial practices and the lay of the land.

It was Conway’s Oak Grove Cemetery, located on what became the east end of Bruce Street, that would receive remains of earlier residents that had been buried in another location. Previously, some pioneer citizens and travelers had been buried in a cemetery on what was known as the McCulloch property in the northeast section of town. As many as possible of the remains buried there were exhumed and reinterred at Oak Grove. Current Old Conway residents still sometimes refer to the street that ran between this first cemetery and Hendrix College as “Cemetery Street,” but it was changed to Spruce Street in the 1980s.

According to the Faulkner County Cemetery Census conducted by the Faulkner County Historical Society in 1987 and published in 1990, the Oak Grove Cemetery was created in 1880. The document with formal language states, “Whereas the Town of Conway being a rapidly growing and prosperous Village and its citizens feeling the importance of properly providing for the burial of the dead . . . the Oak Grove Cemetery Association was formed March 9, 1880.” It was dedicated in 1881. Colonel George Washington Bruce was the first president, and the road leading to the cemetery was named Bruce Street in his honor in 1881, the first person to be buried there was an 8-year-old girl, Maude Ingram. In 1893, a well was dug for watering flowers and shrubs planted by families.

Of the current 24 acres of the site, 10 contain gravesites of Conway’s earliest prestigious and notable figures. One of the largest plots is that of Colonel Bruce’s family. Interred there are Colonel Bruce, his wife, Sarah McLane Bruce, and eight of his nine children, Carrie Cox, Mary, Daisy, Edward, Roy and Annie Gibson. Claude and Nellie, died at the respective ages of 1 and 2. Lula was buried in Georgia.

Also buried at Oak Grove are Roy’s wife, Verdie Maddox Bruce, and their daughter, 9-year-old Verdie Caroline. It was a time of extended grief for the family as Roy’s wife died in 1925, their daughter in February 1930, then Roy himself in June and his mother in July. Also buried there are Roy’s remaining three children, daughters Sarah Harris, Libby Townsend and son George W.

Other early notables buried in Oak Grove include:

George Clifton, a farmer and county treasurer; Charles W. Cox, attorney, politician, postmaster and founder of a local newspaper, the Log Cabin; Dr. J. F. Kinchelow, physician, druggist; Louis Lincoln, attorney, Conway mayor, newspaper editor, third cousin of President Lincoln; Edward M. Merriman, West Point graduate, attorney, direct descendant of President John Quincy Adams; P. H. Prince, judge; J. W. Underhill, teacher, editor and co-owner of the Log Cabin newspaper; J. R. Williams, farmer, businessman, city councilman, leader in the anti-liquor movement; Col. A. R. Witt, organized Co. A, 10th Arkansas Infantry, captured at Shiloh, local druggist.

John Dunaway, state senator; John Firestone, brick mason, made bricks for first brick building in Conway and for older homes and Hendrix buildings, a signer of Conway’s incorporation documents; Jo Frauenthal, businessman, overseer of creation of Faulkner County Fair, city councilman; Ida Baridon Frauenthal, wife of Jo Frauenthal, niece of Asa P. Robinson, active in clubs, helped select state flag; Daniel O. Harton, businessman, landowner; John Elijah Little, plantation owner; John Pence, carpenter, casket maker; John Hughes Reynolds, Hendrix professor, vice president, president.

Ellen Grisard Smith, civic leader, educator; Samuel G. Smith, businessman, first car dealer in Conway, built Conway Theater, founded Faulkner County Bank; George Burr, Hendrix College professor, designer of the Conway power plant, drew plans for Conway’s first sewer system, developed Conway’s first telephone system; and Frank Edwards Robins, Sr., owned, edited and managed the Log Cabin Democrat, helped form Conway Corporation. There are both Union and Confederate Civil War soldiers buried there as well those of later wars.

In 2009, the historic section was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, partly because of gravestone designs and symbolism in its period of significance, 1881-1959. The stone works of well-known state and national monument makers are numerous in this section. Some of the most poignant are those for children of the Victorian era.

Oak Grove Cemetery has a seven-member board of directors appointed by the Conway City Council. This board sees to upkeep, preservation, records and lot sales. The cemetery is supported by those lot sales, but also relies on the local voluntary tax and tax-deductible donations.

Aesthetic and practical features, such as a white iron gate entrance (1996), a flagpole and flag (2002), have been installed and a bronze historic plaque added in 2007. A gazebo was built and dedicated by the Robinette family in 2004. There will soon be a historical marker placed in connection with the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Hist
orical Marker Program, which is part of a statewide observance of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

When the ashes are back to ashes and the dust to dust, the essences of the deceased remain, whether infants or the elderly. Their stories may be accurate; they may be embellished by time, but they are recorded histories in themselves. It is nearly impossible to leave Oak Grove Cemetery without a sense that you have been in the presence of great and influential people. Try to imagine our city without them. Now, that is impossible.

(Information for this story was obtained from “Faulkner County, Its Land and People,” “Faulkner County, Arkansas Census of Cemeteries as of December 31, 1987,”published pamphlet by the Oak Grove Cemetery Board, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and “Goodspeed’s History of Central Arkansas, 1889.”)