Texas Book Festival
Texas State Cemetery explores literature, history and the scandalously deceased
In the middle of east Austin there are two men who surround themselves with death. Each day they go to their workplace - which is quiet, but a little crowded considering they share the space with 4,200 bodies. They are modern day crypt keepers - I really wanted them to have long, stringy hair and a penchant for inappropriately cackling at morbid tales.
Alas, they were history majors. And disappointingly un-creepy.
“Try giving a cemetery tour to 150 fourth graders at a time. It’s like herding squirrels. There is certainly no typical day here.”
Even though they aren’t as spooky as the story-telling-rotting-corpse in Tales From The Crypt, Will Erwin and Jason Walker provide a frighteningly similar service. Technically they are the Senior Historian and Director of Research at the Texas State Cemetery, but they are really a two-man operation that has been working towards curating the cemetery in multiple forms. Not the least of which includes the recent publication of their book, Texas State Cemetery, which details the history and high profile residents of this eternal underground hotel. They’ve been working to flip it from a Motel 6 into the W, which is more fitting considering the fact that not just anyone can be laid to rest there.
"The folks that can be buried out here are public officials, legislators, judges, governors, anybody that serves the state in some sort of public official capacity," explains Erwin.
"There are also some cultural figures," notes Walker. "Writers, Steven Weinburg-the physicist up at UT has a plot here. They have to apply, though."
"The reason why they hired historians out here to begin with is because the cemetery was really forgotten for a long time," Erwin continues. "Before 1993, that’s when former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock came out for the funeral of his buddy, and the place was in poor condition. Nobody ever came over here, you know? I mean, Steven F. Austin is here, he’s the father of Texas, and that just made Bullock really angry and so he did a renovation and part of the renovation was that he didn’t want this place to ever be forgotten again."
Hopefully, with their help, it won't be. "That’s why we’re here," Walker says. "To make sure that people don’t ever forget about this cemetery. And I think that this is exactly what [Bullock] envisioned. We hope it is."
These gentlemen created the new Texas State Cemetery website, recently started a blog, curate records, created a downloadable audio tour of the cemetery, have plans to create a phone app (they could use some help if you know anything about app creation) and they give tours to schoolchildren. Lots of tours. They see around 15,000 kids a year.
“Try giving a cemetery tour to 150 fourth graders at a time. It’s like herding squirrels. There is certainly no typical day here,” Erwin says.
They can now add first time authors to their list of accomplishments. It took them 10 years, and some help from the well-known photographer Laurence Parent, but this weekend they will be attending the Texas Book Festival for the first time on the other side of the table. Erwin was also a contributing photographer, you can see some of his shots here.
Saturday night they will be giving a tour of the cemetery starting at 8pm as a part of the TBF Lit Crawl, it will be moderated by Stephen Harrigan, this year’s recipient of the festival’s Texas Writer Award.
Talking to them for an hour, and seeing them go on little hardcore nerd rants where they drop names and terms like Marbury and Madison, Valley Forge and midshipmen Navel officers, was amazing to watch. The tour is definitely going to be worth stopping by, and they even gave me a sample of some of the stories you might get to learn about Saturday night:
Erwin: Of course, there is Robert Potter. Had to leave the east coast, like a lot of the guys who created Texas, they came down here because they needed a second chance. Robert Potter had to leave because he maimed…I guess is the polite word…his wife’s two cousins. She was cheating on him…
Walker: With both of them!
Erwin: One was a Methodists minister, one was a farm hand.
Walker: Sixteen year old farm hand! Potter was a North Carolina congressman. When he found out about the affairs, he maimed them…
Erwin: He gelded them. He hog tied them and gelded them. That’s old school.
Walker: So he came to Texas. He was a Texas naval officer, and he signed the Texas declaration of independence.
Erwin: But he was not a good guy. Apparently he tried to burn a church down, and was trying to escape the ensuing lynch mob when he jumped in what is now Potter’s Pond, and some guy pulled out a gun and pow. So the first secretary of the Texas Navy died in a pond. We don’t usually tell that one to the fourth graders.
Watching them go back and forth, with complete excitement about these historical Texans, is adorably disturbing - which is right up my alley. If it sounds like it’s up your alley, too, then bring a flashlight and come on by Saturday night at 8pm to hear more tales from the Texas crypt.