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"Phil Comer, on his 'All Write by Me' blog... Definitely worth a look-see." Chuck Sambuchino, Editor, Guide to Literary Agents, Writer’s Digest Books.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Rose Hill Rambles teach visitors about history in Georgia

By Jackie Finch, Hoosier Times, The Herald-Times, Bloomington Indiana (Originally published January 20, 2002)

(MACON, Ga.) The physician was convinced the prescription he wrote for a patient was correct. The pharmacist who was asked to fill it was sure the medicine was deadly.

To prove his point, the doctor swallowed the prescribed measure himself. He promptly died.

Dr. Ambrose Baber (1792 – 1846) is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Ga. His grave and bizarre story are shared in a Southern tradition known as a "ramble."

"Rambling is part of the process in the South of having a sense of place," says Phil Comer, a member of the Middle Georgia Historical Society.

"One way you keep in touch with your sense of place," Comer says, "is through storytelling and going to the cemetery and rambling -- retelling the stories of people who have gone before."

On this sunny afternoon, Comer is taking us on a short ramble through Rose Hill Cemetery. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the 77-acre cemetery is one of the nation's earliest surviving public landscape cemeteries.

Twice a year -- once in the spring and once on the Sunday closest to Halloween -- the Middle Georgia Historical Society gives a Rose Hill Ramble, where they take guests on a tour of Rose Hill. The spring ramble this year will be at 2:30 p.m. April 21. But hardly a day goes by, Comer says, that a visitor does not wander through the cemetery, reading the stones and the history on a self-guided tour.

And that is exactly why Rose Hill is located where it is, Comer adds.

"Our early city founders didn't want the dead to be banished from the town," he says. "The dead were part of the living."

In 1839, the 16-year-old city of Macon was looking for a larger cemetery to replace an isolated spot across the river near Fort Hawkins and a nearly full city cemetery set aside in 1823. The city picked a site in the College Hill residential neighborhood near the downtown area and chose plans prepared by Simri Rose, a city councilman and newspaper editor.

"Many people think the cemetery was named after the rose flower," Comer says. "It wasn't. It was named for Simri."

A devoted gardener and amateur landscape designer, Rose created Rose Hill with the idea that it was to serve as both public park and cemetery. His goal was to create harmony within the beautiful natural setting.

The result is irregular meandering paths on terraced hillsides that slope to the banks of the Ocmulgee River.

The Blount Angel, ca. 1905, near the Ocmulgee River
Rose supervised the planting of rare and exotic specimens to complement native species. His legacy lives today in the bald cypress, balm of Gilead, hemlock, arbor vittae, columnar juniper, wild olive, broom furze and thorn that grow alongside poplar, oak, beech and sycamore.

In an era when public parks were rarely provided, the citizens of Macon took full advantage of Rose Hill's attractions. "It was a gathering spot for the community on Sundays," Comer says.
"They even had bands playing in a natural amphitheater, particularly around memorial holidays."

Leisurely afternoon carriage rides, picnicking and strolling were popular activities. Today, Rose Hill continues to provide many of the same functions even though early morning joggers have replaced horse-drawn carriages.

Picnicking in a cemetery is not at all contradictory to a Southerner, Comer says. "There is a southern custom of having meals with the dead," he says. "You'd clean up the cemetery plot, then sit down and eat a picnic lunch with the deceased family members."

Having grown up in Macon, Comer says such customs were second nature. It wasn't until he moved away and lived for a while in Kansas and Michigan that he saw not everyone was raised the same way.

Once an out-of-town friend was visiting and the two grabbed a quick drive-through lunch. Instead of eating in the car, Comer headed for the cemetery where his parents were buried.

"I sat on the stone and ate a hamburger," he recalls. But he also noted that his non-Macon friend was somewhat taken aback.

Folks who visit the cemetery do have to be careful of some unwanted guests that took residence in the early 1900s. Fire ants have built hills all over the scenic graveyard. Ranging from a tiny bump to a big tire-sized mound, the anthills are chock-full of biting insects. Disturb their homes, Comer says, and the fire ants will come swarming and, at some given signal, they simultaneously bite any exposed part of the disturber they can find to inflict their painful sting.

The cemetery is the final resting place of the humble and the exalted. Soldiers, governors, mayors, rock stars, railroad men, legislators, slaves, authors, children and even pets add their stories to the historic tapestry of Macon. Nearby, magnificent homes and humble slave quarters stand together in silent witness to the lives of Rose Hill's residents.

Rose Hill is filled with memorial art. Hand-carved Italian marble angels and monuments represent the finest workmanship. Two cast iron monuments and the natural mausoleum on the side of the ravine are unusual. Architectural motifs such as urns, columns, shells, laurel wreaths, resurrection ferns, and palm branches provide symbolism.

Cast iron monuments in Rose Hill Cemetery
"If you see a full obelisk with a pointed top, it means the deceased lived a long life, he completed his life," Comer says. "If the obelisk is broken off or draped, it means he was cut down in the prime of life."

The monument for John B. R. Juhan (1867-1875) memorializes the 8-year-old who wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up. His stone is carved with a fireman's cap, jacket and belt with the insignia of Defiance Company No. 5.

John B. Ross Juhan wanted to be a firefighter
Another spot provides peace for mass murder victims. On October 29, 1890, Thomas A. Woolfolk, a member of a prominent local family, was hung for the ax murders of his father, stepmother and seven members of his family.

Unmarked graves contain the remains of the nine victims. Woolfolk is buried in Hawkinsville, Ga. In later years, some doubt was cast on his guilt by a statement of a part-time employee who was being lynched in South Carolina. He indicated that he had committed the crime.

Another simple stone bears the inscription "Lt. Bobby. Just a Brown Dog." A loyal pal and pet of Capt. D.C. Harris, the dog was the mascot of Company C, 121 Infantry. Lt. Bobby actually was commissioned a lieutenant for faithful attendance in training classes at Fort Benning. "Faithful to the last," the stone says.

Lt. Bobby, "Faithful to the last."
The dog was buried with full military honors on Feb. 1, 1936. What the stone doesn't tell, Comer says, was how the dog died.

Accompanying his master almost everywhere, the dog was accustomed to riding in an elevator at a local hotel where a friend was staying. Getting along in years, the dog still delighted in racing ahead of his owner and jumping inside the open elevator doors to wag his tail and wait for Harris.

"But on this day," Comer says, "the elevator doors opened and the elevator wasn't there. The dog leapt into the abyss."

Down over a hillside lie two graves that attract a great deal of attention, some of it unwanted. "I don't think there is a visit that I haven't been in this cemetery for any length of time that someone doesn't come up and ask me if I know where Duane Allman is buried," Comer says. "It's amazing the cult following the Allman Brothers have."

As struggling musicians, the early Allman Brothers Band lived up College Street from Rose Hill. To escape their quarters that were not air-conditioned, the band often would walk down to Rose Hill to think, party and work. They credited the contemplative place for inspiring several of their early songs -- as well as photographs for album covers.

Duane Allman died Oct. 29, 1971, when he lost control of his motorcycle on a Macon Street. One year later, on Nov. 11, band member and bass player Berry Oakley was killed in a motorcycle accident a block from where Allman lost his life.

Both men are buried side by side in Rose Hill. The graves have been targets of vandalism and rumored goings-on for decades. "Small angel statues placed at the foot of each of the graves were stolen a long time ago," Comer says.

Allman Brothers Band members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, ca. 2010, angels restored
Comer shared no more details. But the rest of the intriguing story can be found within the historical archives of the Washington Memorial Library -- an invaluable haunt for visiting genealogists. News accounts record that Oakley's sister had erected a razor-wire-topped, 8-foot chain link fence around the burial plots to keep people from defiling the graves. To discourage such behavior, she would sometimes hide in the nearby bushes and rush out to shoo away startled music pilgrims.

Fans left peace symbols and lipstick kisses on the markers, chipped off letters from the stones and carved their names and initials into them, the sister said.

Discarded condoms, beer cans and marijuana cigarettes have been left on the graves, she said in news reports. And someone even tried to dig a tunnel to steal one of the bodies.

But the Macon mayor ordered city workers to remove the fence in 1998, saying the dangerous barrier was not fitting for such an historic and public place.

The mayor also suggested the bodies should be moved to a private cemetery if the families object to gatherings there.

The grave of a fella who came and went long before the Allman Brothers watches from a nearby spot. Would he be bothered by all the hullabaloo? Probably not, judging from his simple epitaph:

"1838-1916. Been here and gone. Had a good time."

Dr. J. J. Suber in Oakridge section of Rose Hill

See another of Phil's Rose Hill Rambles (go)

© 2002 by Jackie Finch, reposted by permission. Originally published in Hoosier Times, The Herald-Times, Bloomington Indiana, Sunday, January 20, 2002. Jackie Sheckler Finch is a travel writer and lifestyle magazine editor from Indiana. Photo of Martha Ellis memorial by Jackie Finch. Other photos by Phil Comer. Unless stated otherwise, links not back to this site are for information and not the property of the author. 


  1. There is a stone of a young girl whose arm is often decorated with bracelets and flowers. I like to find out more about her. My daughter looked exactly like here at that age

  2. Anonymous, that statue is of little Martha Ellis who died in 1886 just short of 13 years old. Her brother (almost same age) went on to become a well-known architect. The monument, although not signed, was likely done by John Walz of Savannah who did so many monuments in Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery including the iconic "Little Gracie" who looks remarably like Rose Hill's Little Martha. Legend has it that Rose Hill's "Little Martha" was the inspiration of the Allman Brothers' song of the same name.