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Ross Smith finds nature and history in Oak Hill Cemetery

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Michael Barnes

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In 2006, Ross Smith was scouting rare wildflowers along U.S. 290 west of Austin. Off curvy Old Bee Caves Road, he spotted a sign that spelled out “Oak Hill Cemetery.”

“I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Texas cemeteries looking for ancestors,” says the retired state employee who now works as a craftsman and merchant. “So stopping into one more wasn’t unusual.”

The graveyard was like many of those out in the Texas countryside — small, fairly lonely and left to nature’s way. Here, indigenous latanas thrive next to planted tulips.

“It’s easy to see the change in the seasons by what is blooming and going to seed,” Smith says. “The native flowers and grass in the cemetery are what most of the folks there would have grown up with, before the days of manicured lawns and generic landscaping.”

Charmed by the peace and colors, Ross returned to the cemetery over the years. He’d tidy up a bit and, without being too spooky, chatted with the deceased.

“When I stop by, I say hello and chat about the weather and what’s blooming,” says the resident of Barton Hills. “Nobody’s ever talked back to me — and I don’t expect them to — but I’m certain they know I’m there and appreciate the company.”

On Memorial Day, Smith decorates the graves of veterans, marked among the 358 dead that the invaluable resource, findagrave.com, reports are interred here. The equally valuable Austin Genealogical Society website records only 291 graves.

Smith discovered three distinctive stones over graves of those who died in a rarely discussed conflict that flared between April and August of 1898. The war was intended to free Cuba from Spain and help end colonialism. Instead, it made the U.S. a colonial power and global player.

“It is the only place where I’ve ever seen Spanish-American War soldiers buried,” Smith says of Oak Hill. "I remember as a kid watching Memorial Day parades with old cars, fire engines, aging vets and Scout troops, and people lining the sidewalks as they went by, all heading out to the cemetery to put flowers and flags on soldiers’ graves.”

The U.S. declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. Early action was set in Cuba and Puerto Rico, but a quick naval victory over Spain in the Philippines led to the prolonged and equally ignored Philippine-American War.

At the outset, President William McKinley had issued a call for 125,000 volunteers. The Texas Volunteer Guard, which was organized into four regiments of infantry and one of cavalry, was designated the Texas Volunteers.

Who, then, were these three Oak Hill volunteers, none killed in the short war that witnessed more casualties from Yellow Fever than from military action. Their names, still clearly legible on the stones decorated with official shields: William P. Bell (1873-1946), Frank Campbell (1878-1957) and Rufus F. Smith (1874-1952).

Bell and Smith were in the early 20s. Campbell turned 20 in October, 1898. They were probably farmers, although a Rufus Smith is listed in a Handbook of Texas entry among the teachers at the northwestern Travis County hamlet of Round Mountain. That’s fairly close to Oak Hill, which had been called Oatmanville and hugged a road next to a limestone quarry a day’s wagon ride from Austin.

The best place to look for the pertinent military records was the Texas State Library and Archives, the handsomely renovated building just east of the State Capitol. There, helpful archivists brought out sewn, oblong booklets of thin, yellow-gold, finely ruled paper.

These are the “Muster-In Rolls,” which record in spidery script the commanders and Texas company names during the war, including two from Austin — the Governor’s Guards and the Capital City Calvary. The lists also include each soldier's age, place of birth, height, eye and hair color, residence, enrollment period and so forth.

The three vets buried in Oak Hill were not listed among the Austin companies, one led by Col. Woodford H. Mabry, later a brigadier general and namesake for Camp Mabry.

Now, Campbell and Smith's headstones say that they served in the Texas infantry. Other records at the state archives will surely tell us more.

Yet what led to that archival search was equally compelling: A country cemetery filled with familiar Texan names such as Bullock, Maddox, Johnson, Patton, Schwartz, Brown, Adams, Watkins, Arnold and Barnett. Plus one World War I vet with the nonconforming name of Pedro “Peat” Balencia.

There among tufts of native grass, scraggly trees and broken wind chimes was a name familiar to readers of this weekly series of history stories: Ernest W. Bargsley (1898-1935).

Four other members of Bargsley family are buried in a fenced family plot at Longview Park in Southwest Austin. Two of those died in the 1922 twin tornadoes that killed 13 people in the Austin area.

The Bargsley buried here — his surviving son, James. S. Bargsley, said he didn't know where his father was the day of the storm — was an Austin cop then a trolley operator. He developed tuberculosis and was confined to cottages behind the houses where his son, later a World War II vet, lived.

"If we had penicillin, we'd have known him longer," James Bargsley says. "Back then, you dug your own grave. Meaning that friends and family gathered to dig it."

His father's sharply cut stone is well tended, but Smith won't be decorating it for Memorial Day, since Bargsley did not serve in the armed forces during wartime.

“It is a way of honoring our past that seems quaint now,” Smith says. “But I think it’s good to be reminded of who got us here and what they went through to do it.”

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