Donald Pittman makes his way around the Crossroads Cemetery on the morning of May 5, walking between the graves of his mother and father, his grandparents, countless aunts, uncles and cousins, moving methodically with a push mower.
When he stops to wipe the sweat off his forehead and talk to the handful of volunteers joining him, he speaks with a soft, polite country twang out of place in modern-day Sandy Springs. A riding lawnmower driven by his cousin, Jerry Pittman, spits grass and dirt on his earth-stained khakis.
“It gets hot in a hurry up here,” he says.
The cemetery itself is a historical goldmine. It is in the shadow of the Crossroads Primitive Baptist Church next to Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School at the intersection of Dupree Drive, Mt. Vernon Highway and Powers Ferry Road. The graves date back more than 130 years and hold the bodies of soldiers, doctors and church elders.
The tombstones list the names of the community’s early settlers: Abernathy, Garmon, Heard, Power and Barfield. Some Sandy Springs residents today will only recognize these as the names of roads.
One Saturday a month throughout the spring, Pittman and a few other men drive the minutes and miles to Sandy Springs, a place where none of them now live. Pittman grew up there, but like the rest of the volunteers, he now lives somewhere else in Georgia, in Mableton. His sons live in Acworth and Hiram. One man, Chip Biller, lives in Douglassville.
They pick up the dead flowers, shear the weeds from the headstones, and battle the resilient green grass in a slow war of attrition. In the 1950s, the community banded together to keep the cemetery a peaceful place free of vegetation and neglect. Today the few who remember their spring appointment wonder if their children will tend the garden of graves when they put their mowers and trimmers down for the last time.
Pittman, the main organizer of the group, is 74. He’s beat cancer once and had a few scares since. He already has a plot picked out. And when he is gone, the cemetery will lose its greatest friend, the other volunteers say.
Pittman remembers when there weren’t many roads to speak of in Sandy Springs, just Powers Ferry, Johnson Ferry and Roswell roads and everyone shopped at Burdett’s grocery store. Jerry, straddling a riding lawnmower, says his mother and father used to ride to the Crossroads Church in a horse and wagon. Jerry learned what death was while sitting in the church’s hard wooden pews during his sister’s funeral.
“They’d have a two-hour funeral in those days,” he says.
It gave him nightmares then. At 73, Jerry proudly counts off the years he’s been alive.
Ed Cleveland is a regular and his son Scott sometimes joins him. Ed lives in Winston, his son in Powder Springs. Ed Cleveland began working with Donald Pittman in 1988.
“I haven’t missed a season since,” he says.
His grandfather is buried there and he is a distant relation of the Pittmans. Most of the volunteers are, their blood lines tangled together like the weeds suffocating the unmarked graves. The knowledge of the identities of those bodies under the blank stone slabs is long gone, anyone’s guess. Cleveland’s longtime doctor, Marvin Mitchell, is also a resident of Crossroads Cemetery.
Much of what he knows of its history he recounts from the stories he heard at his grandmother’s knee. In the early 1900s, when someone died, all the men would build the coffin and the women would go down to the Chattahoochee River to pick flowers.
“That was the best way they could get buried,” Ed Cleveland says. “They didn’t know they was poor, but they was real poor.”
The enclave of wealth that grew up around the cemetery replaced most evidence of the hardscrabble existence of the early settlers. The joggers and bikers passing by only experience the cemetery through the holes of a simple chain link fence. Sandy Springs resident Barry Lebowitz wants to do more to beautify the cemetery. The commercial real estate agent, who does not have relatives in the cemetery, started the Historic Cross Roads Community Association. He first became aware of it when he and his neighbors successfully kept a cell phone tower out of the neighborhood in 2010. The historic graveyard became one of several arguments against the tower.
“Our goal is to raise money to help the cemetery to spruce up the aesthetics on Dupree Drive,” he says.“ … It has a history to it. It’s a valuable cemetery to the neighborhood.”
In this video: Barry Lebowitz talks to Donald Pittman about the Historic Cross Roads Community Association’s plans to help keep up the cemetery.
The men, who started at 7:30 a.m., are done by 9 a.m., standing in a circle, drinking water, cracking jokes, swapping stories. Biller began coming to the cleanups in 2006 after he saw Pittman and his sons while he was cleaning up the graves of his relatives. He suddenly realized the grass around their headstones wasn’t cutting itself.
Scott Cleveland and Biller are among the younger men lending a hand, along with Pittman’s sons. They may be the last guardians of a dwindling tradition, a country cemetery looking more out of place as the suburbs and expensive houses pop up around it. Scott believes it’s a tradition worth preserving.
“If you look around at how many families have flowers on the graves, that tells you something,” he says.