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Lee Ashcraft, Chairman of the New Bethlehem Cemetery Association, walks among the gravestones at the sprawling cemetery, located at the corner of Church and Horn Lake roads, adjacent to New Bethlehem Presbyterian Church.

Lee Ashcraft walks among the long rows of graves at historic New Bethlehem Cemetery in Nesbit and points to each one as if addressing an old, long-lost friend.

As Chairman of the New Bethlehem Cemetery Association, Ashcraft considers it his sacred duty to make sure graves are properly cared for and maintained.

"When I started helping my friend Meredith Walker with the cemetery, there were no graves to the eastern boundary," Ashcraft said as he gestured to a row of newer graves at the now sprawling cemetery's eastern edge. "It has since spread out."

The cemetery is one of the best-kept small cemeteries in the county. The number of graves has steadily increased over the years.

The cemetery lies to the east of the historic New Bethlehem Presbyterian Church which dates to 1849. The cemetery is believed to be four or five years older than the church. The church was remodeled in the 1950s.

On any given day, the well-manicured cemetery is visited by a number of people who stop to place flowers on the graves of loved ones.

The cemetery, on a balmy Friday morning before Memorial Day, was alive with the smell of honeysuckle and wisteria. The earth smelled fragrant after a recent rain.

"Everything that we touch or see or that we are around in life becomes the fabric of our lives," said Ashcraft. "There is a lot of history here. Even in the markers."

Ashcraft pointed to a rather large stone obelisk with a carved drape with tassels on the fringe that adorns the crest of one particular tombstone.

"This drape over a couple's grave designates they will always be mourned," Ashcraft said of the tombstone, which dates to 1896, during the high Victorian period.

"This cemetery dates to the 1840s," added Ashcraft.

One of the earliest graves dates to Ann Eliza Thrasher, who lived for just a few months, or from September to December of 1845.

A large tombstone denotes the grave of Dr. William Raines, born in 1823 in Sussex County, Va., and died in 1865 in the small community of Raines, Tenn., which bears his name.

"It was Dr. Raines and his brother who gave the land for the cemetery," Ashcraft said.

The Manning family, which includes the patriarch and matriarch, Reuben and Elizabeth Howell Manning, are buried nearby.

Along the same row and unmarked are the graves of early settlers who died during an epidemic.

"There were a lot of yellow fever deaths that are not well marked," Ashcraft said.

Graves of well-known local celebrities like "Old Hughey" are well visited.

Samuel A. Hughey, a Confederate soldier, died in 1933.

"Old Hughey used to entertain the school kids in Horn Lake with his rendition of the Rebel yell," Ashcraft said. "He also used to write a column in the newspaper. He would lead off his column with "Well, boys …," which was his way of extending his greeting to his old buddies who served with him during the War (Between the States) and then talk about what was going on in his little corner of the world. My late mother-in-law, Mrs. Annie Ruth Brown, remembered when Old Hughey used to come to the school. She was in grade school then."

Ashcraft's beloved wife Ann, his in-laws and other family members are buried at New Bethlehem. The cemetery contains the graves of veterans from almost every American war or conflict.

There are veterans from the Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and later wars in the Middle East.

Brian Hicks, DeSoto County Museum Director is the keynote speaker for Sunday's Memorial Day service inside the church.

Hicks said he planned to recount the graves of distinguished individuals buried beneath its grassy lawn.

A Russian princess and her mother, state lawmakers, railroad workers, yellow fever victims, all call New Bethlehem Cemetery home.

"There are so many prominent men and women who are buried out there," Hicks said. "When you walk down the rows and rows of the cemetery, you recognize so many of the names are also on street signs in our local communities. It's really like walking through an open-air history book. It really tells the history of our county."

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.

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