Following five years of hard work, Bill Freeze announced this week that his efforts have seen fruition — Gulf Cemetery has officially been designated as a historic site by the state of Florida.
Freeze's journey down this path began when he moved here in 2002 and purchased eight lots in the cemetery for his family.
In 2006, developers announced plans to get a right-of-way to cut a road through the cemetery so homes in their planned development just west of the cemetery would have access to County Road 393. The property to be developed was 40 acres, which Freeze estimated would have resulted in 200 houses being built, which would mean about 400 automobiles would pour onto the road through the cemetery. He was not fond of the thought of his family's final resting place being desecrated in that manner.
Freeze wrote a letter to the local newspaper stating his objections, which was printed. The letter resulted in 11 people contacting him who were in agreement, and all felt it was against standing laws.
The group collected $10,000, mostly of their own money, hired an attorney, and took the matter to court. A cease and desist order against the developers resulted, and a new cemetery board of directors was elected. One of those was Freeze.
The quest was then to find out everything they could about the cemetery's history.
Freeze learned a patent was signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 stating the grounds at Gulf Cemetery could be used for burial only. This was fodder for Freeze to pursue a historic designation.
He and the other board members have spent the past five years filing forms with the state and piecing all information together that they could find about the cemetery in a quest to garner the coveted status.
Copies of hand-written minutes of board meetings held in 1913, the patent signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, and ground and aerial photos of the cemetery's 40 acres were collected. They discovered that of all the patentees east of the Mississippi, Gulf Cemetery and Alango Cemetery in St. Louis County, Minn., are the only two still in operation.
They found that in the past century, while managed by all-volunteer help, the cemetery was sold in error three times for delinquent taxes, records were destroyed by fire, and the property was recently threatened by private developers.
On Oct. 22 the Freezes got up at 3 a.m. to prepare for the drive to Tallahassee and their 9 a.m. meeting with the Florida Historical Marker Council. After reviewing the material, the council voted to designate The Gulf Cemetery Association Inc. as a State of Florida Historic Site.
"This is very prestigious," said Freeze. "The normal length of time to get this designation is never. It is almost impossible to get. Very few get it. It took a lot of work as there are only so many historic sites in the state of Florida. Perseverance was the key."
However, Freeze said it is well worth the effort.
"It pays tribute to the volunteers who have taken care of the cemetery through the years and it shows we have not forgotten our veteran heroes, as well as all our loved ones who are at rest in the cemetery. This is an accomplishment of which the community can be proud of well into the future,” he said.
Manufacturing the marker takes approximately three months. Plans are to combine the annual Memorial Day service, the cemetery's Centennial Celebration, and the unveiling of the Historic Marker on May 26, 2014, which is Memorial Day.