Photography by Danny Fulgencio

A weathered historical marker buried in tall grass and weeds was the only indicator that some of Dallas’ earliest pioneers had been interred in the neglected piece of land at the Warren Ferris Cemetery. All the tombstones had been stolen or vandalized, and a dense thicket of invasive species had infested the half-acre site in Forest Hills.

To anyone passing by the plot at the corner of St. Francis Avenue and San Leandro Drive, it looked more like unattended wilderness than a historic cemetery. 

More than 14,000 cemeteries in Texas are neglected as community members struggle to pay for the perpetual care that’s needed to maintain burial grounds of the long-deceased. 

Neighbor Julie Ann Fineman is working to find a solution. 

Photography by Danny Fulgencio

In September, she founded the nonprofit Friends of the Warren Ferris Cemetery with the goal of honoring those who are buried there by restoring the landscape and creating a waystation for the declining monarch butterfly population. 

“The cemetery was on the verge of being an embarrassment,” Fineman says. “When I started learning and opening my eyes to the responsibility, I said, ‘Let’s clean it up.’ Once you’re educated, you can’t be a bystander. You have to be an upstander.”

As Fineman contemplated starting the nonprofit, she found inspiration in the words of the cemetery’s namesake, Warren Angus Ferris. 

“Should we not study the great volume of nature? Should we not draw wisdom from the past to guide us to the future? Should we not carefully read and correctly interpret these lessons written by the Supreme Architect of the universe?” Ferris wrote in 1871.

Originally a mountain trapper, Ferris was among the first to chart Yellowstone National Park before coming to Dallas as a surveyor in the late 1830s. He surveyed land that eventually became Dallas County and made his home on 640 acres in what is now Forest Hills. 

Ferris established the cemetery on his homestead in 1847 after the death of his son. Numerous members of the Ferris family and the neighboring community were buried there until 1906. 

“Warren Ferris had a lot to say about nature and appreciating the prairies,” says historian Susanne Starling, who wrote a biography on Ferris called “Land is the Cry!” “I think he’d approve of what Julie and her neighbors are trying to do.” 

Photography by Danny Fulgencio

Fineman saw the decrepit state of the cemetery nearly two years ago when she moved into her home on San Leandro Drive, becoming one of five co-owners whose property includes portions of the gravesite. While becoming a Texas Master Naturalist, Fineman met Starling at a volunteer event and picked up a copy of her book. 

After reading, Fineman felt compelled to restore the cemetery. She teamed up with former state Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt to create a nonprofit that would support the natural environment and provide a relaxing and educational space for neighbors.  

She recruited fellow Master Naturalists and mobilized community members. Together, they spent three months removing invasive species, such as privets and honeysuckle. The work has already led to the natural re-emergence of native plants that attracts animals, birds and monarch butterflies.

With additional plans to improve the space, Fineman started Friends of the Warren Ferris Cemetery to multiply her grassroots efforts. The nonprofit has received endorsements from Preservation Dallas, the Communities Foundation of Texas and the Texas Conservation Alliance.

 

“My husband and I are leaving for a year, and I realized I didn’t want the cemetery to fall back,” Fineman says. “That’s when I went into a healthy panic mode and spearheaded this endeavor. The Friends of the Warren Ferris Cemetery was born.”

Over the next five years, the nonprofit’s goal is to raise $200,000 for entry signs, plant identification tags, birdhouses, a second seating area and a marker bearing the names of interred Dallas settlers. 

Fineman would also like to establish partnerships with local schools to promote environmental stewardship.  In a program discussed with administrators at Alex Sanger Elementary — located across the street from the cemetery — Fineman proposed field trips to the gravesite, where guest speakers would teach students about surveying, archeology, wildlife and vegetation. Each field trip would be recorded and shared with the Dallas Public Library for community use.

By tying historical, environmental and educational elements together in the nonprofit, Fineman hopes to create a template for other neighborhoods wanting to transform an abandoned cemetery into a usable space. 

“This is an opportunity because they exist in so many neighborhoods, and people don’t know it,” she says. “We want to be the go-to place so others can adopt this model. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” 

Volunteer with Friends of the Warren Ferris Cemetery from 9 a.m. to noon on the first and second Saturday of every month during the winter, through April 2020.

Photography by Danny Fulgencio


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