On the back wall behind what was a Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler restaurant at Main Street and Berry Road sits a small monument to Norman’s history. Unless you are purposely looking for it or hauling trash to the restaurant’s dumpster you would miss it.
The plaque marks the spot of Norman’s first official cemetery. Although Johnnie’s closed last month, the plaque remains there for local historians to ponder.
Historian John Womack, writing in his book, “Norman: An Early History,” reports the acreage on the southwest corner of Main Street and Berry Road was school land and was used as a cemetery for early settlers. No agricultural claimant wanted to relinquish his land for a cemetery so burials were permitted on school lands.
Burials continued on the site until the early 1890s at which time graves were moved.
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Womack reports the land was respected and never plowed until it developed. After World War II the land was developed into city lots. Old-timers will remember the site was once home to the Nuway Laundry and Cleaners, a space-age looking building constructed in the 1960s. Friends wanted to save it from demolition and turn it into a jazz club.
When Johnnie’s came to town a local historian raised the issue of the early graveyard and the developer agreed to put up a monument, noting the site’s historical significance. No one expected it to be on the back wall next to the dumpster.
Most of the graves were moved to the new IOOF cemetery when it opened in 1891 but a few stone markers were still visible from Main Street in the 1920s. Historian Womack reports vandals removed most of the remaining markers. His research shows there were at least two dozen burials at the site, with 17 of them being infants and children.
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Throughout the county there are small cemeteries dotting the landscape. Former county commissioner Leroy Krohmer took me on a tour of the county’s southern end one afternoon. A small cemetery, the Holsonbake Cemetery, east of Lexington near Corbett was to be cleaned out by a crew of state inmates.
Early settler parents that couldn’t afford markers used baby rattles and small toys to mark the graves of deceased children. Some were marked with small, homemade concrete pads or etchings scratched in flat rocks. That cemetery started in 1895, just six years after the land run.
A census of the graves show many sons and daughters listed.
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At the old Johnnie’s, we’re not sure how long the the obligatory plaque on the back fence will be there: So here’s the wording:
“In memory of Norman’s long-forgotten pioneer settlers whose prairie graves were disinterred in 1890 by governmental order.
Historical records indicate not all remains were marked. To these pioneering souls, we dedicate this plaque.
Aug. 2, 2004, Harold Haralson, Mayor.