Man's devotion to Farmers Branch cemetery keeps area's history alive
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Man's devotion to Farmers Branch cemetery keeps area's history alive

 

08:48 PM CST on Thursday, December 27, 2007
By STEPHANIE SANDOVAL / The Dallas Morning News
ssandoval@dallasnews.com


Paul Dafft

Paul Dafft has long loved poking around old cemeteries.


Paul Dafft Often, he's poked quite literally, sticking a steel pole into the ground in search of long-buried grave markers, especially at his beloved Farmers Branch (Keenan) Cemetery.

"When Paul reads that a person was buried in the Keenan Cemetery for which there is no marker, he becomes a man on a mission," said Marjorie Cutler, secretary of the Keenan Cemetery association. "Then, armed with a probe, he walks the cemetery for days until he finds the buried marker, moves it to the surface, does any restoration necessary and resets the marker."

For more than 30 years, the Carrollton resident has been one of the primary volunteer caretakers of the historical burial ground, tracing the histories of those who lie there, clearing weeds and unearthing long-hidden headstones, sometimes at the families' request, other times to satisfy himself.

 


REX C. CURRY/ Special Contributor
Keenan Cemetery is the burial site of 2-month-old John Keenan, the first baby born to settlers in what would become Dallas County. The cemetery holds seven members of the Keenan family, as well as an assortment of pioneers, lawmen and gunfighters. Now, terminally ill with cancer, Mr. Dafft is preparing to take his own place in the cemetery.


He'll do so with a measure of peace, knowing the city of Farmers Branch has agreed to take over maintenance and operations from the aging members of the cemetery association. The transfer is slated for early in the new year.

"It's the most historic cemetery in Dallas County," Mr. Dafft said. "We can't find any of them that's any older than this one."


Buried history

Indeed, Indians and buffalo still roamed when Thomas and Sarah Keenan settled in the area, then known as Peter's Colony, in 1842.

The couple's son John holds two distinctions. He was the first child born to settlers in what would become Dallas County. And, after his death in 1843, at the age of 2 months, he occupied the first grave in what would become Keenan Cemetery.

As more settlers moved in and some died, the Keenans opened their family burial ground up to others. In 1875, settlers donated that land and more, 1.5 acres in all, to Union Baptist Church for a formal cemetery.

Three state historical markers stand there now, one for the cemetery itself, another marking the baby Keenan grave site and one noting the burial site of the Rev. David Meyers, who founded Union Baptist out of the Keenans' home in 1846. He died seven years later of pneumonia, which he developed, according to local historians, after riding home in a cold rain from delivering a sermon in Collin County.

The cemetery holds seven members of the Keenan family, as well as an assortment of pioneers, lawmen and gunfighters.

Among the latter is early Carrollton settler A.W. Perry's son Sanford Commodore Perry, who Mr. Dafft said was killed in a gunfight at Poor's Tavern in 1876.

There's also a deputy sheriff who was shot to death in the 1890s.

And Constable Riley Burnett, who was gunned down in 1893. Mr. Dafft learned that residents, infuriated over the constable's shooting, were about to convene a hanging when the sheriff intervened.

"We have all kinds of characters down there, good ones and bad ones," Mr. Dafft said.


The man to ask

Local residents say that if anyone wants to know the cemetery's history, Mr. Dafft is the one to ask. Researching the history and caring for the cemetery has been his passion.

His first ex-wife, Marthann Dafft, joked that "if I were dead and buried, he'd know where I was born, when I was born, everything about me. But when we were married ... he couldn't remember anything."

Mr. Dafft was born and raised in Carrollton, moved to Farmers Branch in 1959 after he married, and moved back after his first divorce, settling in a house he had bought before age 21 for his mother and younger brother.

He served as a telegrapher in the Navy, then worked as a telegrapher and station agent for the Cotton Belt Railroad before retiring.

Mr. Dafft's mother and father are buried in the cemetery, which sits just northeast of City Hall, as are his second ex-wife, a brother and a son.

And, of course, he plans to be buried there himself.

Mr. Dafft joined the cemetery association in 1976, served as its vice president from 1994 to 1997 and has been president ever since. He is credited with bringing the first waterline into the cemetery, researching information for the state historical markers, obtaining and placing military markers on veterans' graves, adding a flagpole, planting trees and organizing the installation of a wrought-iron fence.

"You can definitely tell it has been a labor of love for him," said Derrick Birdsall, superintendent of the Farmers Branch Historical Park.

Mr. Dafft is wary of accepting too much credit. "I want to dispel the myth that I did this myself," he said. "This was not a one-man job."

Mrs. Cutler agreed, to a point. "A lot of people have really worked to preserve this cemetery," she said. "But Paul Dafft certainly in recent years has been the driving force of maintaining it."


Keeping up appearances

The cemetery association was founded in the 1930s, but as time went on, the folks who cared about the place moved away or died. By about 30 years ago, Mr. Dafft said, the graveyard had become overgrown and unkempt.

That's when he and other association members went to work setting things right.

But as they aged, they worried that no one would be left to continue. Now, the city's parks department will take over, nearly four years after Mr. Dafft and other cemetery association members first approached city officials.

Getting ownership transferred was a long process because of state laws governing cemeteries and historical places, City Manager Gary Greer said.

Assistant City Manager Greg Vick said city records show about 1,100 burial sites in the cemetery, 854 of them with headstones. The city will allow more burials for people who have purchased the remaining plots. But Mr. Vick said the cemetery is about full.

"I think what the council wants to do with that is basically preserve it as a historic and important cemetery for the city," Mr. Greer said, "so we will maintain it in the manner that it keeps a pleasing look to it."

And that allows Mr. Dafft to face his passing peacefully.

"That was our main goal, for perpetual care for the cemetery, because we knew we were running out of time and the membership was getting old," he said. "There's not the slightest doubt in my mind that the city's going to take over and do a good job on it."

 


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