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
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
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
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."
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
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.
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
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
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."