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WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND

WOYM: Memories of ‘Graveyard Hill’ in Roanoke's Norwich neighborhood

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Mike Bowles holds a group portrait of Morice Twine Mills employees circa 1920.

A long legal struggle ended nearly a year ago when the city of Roanoke and Walker Machine & Foundry agreed to a land swap and cash settlement that cleared the way for the historic completion of the section of Roanoke River Greenway situated within city limits.

Strollers and bicyclists who will be among the beneficiaries of the deal are reminded that when that particular section of trail eventually is opened, they will be passing by another sort of history.

The Walker Foundry property includes a once-forgotten cemetery that has been a topic covered in this space from time to time over the years. Researchers have concluded there could be more than 100 graves in the old Norwich Cemetery, as it last was known, most of those final resting places being unmarked after years of neglect.

Knowing as we now do that many of the deceased came from families of limited means, a good guess is that some of these unmarked graves were never graced with a headstone or other memorial.

More came to light recently during a conversation with Mike Bowles, an Oakey’s Funeral Service & Crematory retiree who grew up in Norwich. Bowles is one of the remaining unofficial historians of the city’s first industrial working class neighborhood.

“Most of it is hearsay,” he said.

Bowles and his childhood pals used to play on what they called “Graveyard Hill,” as the cemetery off the west end of Roanoke Avenue was known.

Recently he unearthed a four-page sheaf of documents that had been left for him at the front desk of Oakey’s Church Avenue office a number of years ago. He never knew who left the papers that contained information about the old cemetery previously known as the John Henry Mitchell Cemetery and the Hickey Graveyard before it was called Norwich Cemetery.

One of the papers is a detailed handwritten map of the hill bordered by Irvin Street to the east, the railroad tracks to the north, and Roanoke Avenue to the south. The presumed outline of the cemetery is denoted by short and closely arranged vertical lines within which is marked the location of the handful of graves at the top of the hill that do have recognizable headstones.

Another page, dated Jan. 14, 2009, is a digital list of 25 known names of those buried at Norwich compiled by Glenna Garnand Garner from newspaper obituaries and death notices and published at usgwarchives.net.

The other two pages in the file Bowles shared was a narrative in exquisitely precise cursive handwriting from an unknown writer. The oral history narrative was entitled “Norwich Cemetery.”

Bowles recognized many of the names on the Garner list as families he had known growing up. Of the list of names, 18 were of children, many of whom were no more than a year or two old.

Bowles knew from the names on the list that many of the families were connected to what was known popularly as the “twine mill,” Morice Twine Mills Inc.

“They came from all over to work in that mill — Floyd, Waynesboro, Lexington, all over — and they lived in company houses. That’s who’s buried up on that hill,” said Bowles, who also had family connections to the mill.

The handwritten narrative begins: “This information was given to me by Buren Hall, age 93.”

The story began with two of the structures contained on the previously mentioned map and identified with the notation “torn down.”

One was a log cabin known as the “Indian fort” because “the story goes” that the walls of the cabin had contained a number of arrowheads, apparent products of a frontier war party. The last resident of the cabin was named Granny Mitchell.

“When she was 100 years old, she told Bea Thomas that people had been buried at Norwich Cemetery as long as she could remember.”

The writer went on to point out that the source, Hall, estimated that there could be as many as 300 graves up on the hill. There was also this: “Rumor is that a lot of Confederate soldiers are buried there.”

Norwich did not develop as an industrial district until P.L. Terry founded the Roanoke Development Co. in 1889 and had a bridge built linking the new city with the bottom land west of the river. Shortly thereafter the Norwich Lock Manufacturing Co. moved from Connecticut to a new plant in Roanoke County (the neighborhood had not yet been annexed by the city).

After the lock company went out of business, the twine plant moved into the facility. Incidentally, Walker Foundry, idle now, was several years past its 100th anniversary when the right of way negotiations with the city were settled.

The narrative went on to describe a man named Stick Mitchell, a neighborhood bootlegger with a pet dog so loyal that upon the death of its master, followed the hearse all the way to the graveyard, the pooch howling the whole way there, expression of its canine grief continuing to be expressed “as they lowered him into his grave.”

Another sad story was the narrative’s last anecdote and it concerned the death of “Blanche Brookman’s sister’s child.”

“Some other children were playing with candles and caught the cradle on fire.” The baby “burnt up in the cradle and is buried in Norwich Cemetery.”

According to the narrative, about 50 babies were buried “near the railroad tracks.”

Buren Hall told the writer that many of the deaths had been as a result of typhoid fever and scarlet fever, the pandemics of the era. No doubt the terrible 1918 influenza pandemic sent its share to the Norwich hilltop as well.

If you’ve been wondering about something, call “What’s on Your Mind?” at 777-6476 or send an email to whatsonyourmind@roanoke.com. Don’t forget to provide your full name (and its proper spelling if by phone) and hometown.

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