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Talk of the Valley

Don Dalrymple is kneeling in Benson Cemetery next to the oldest grave he’s has found, Mary Jane Benson, who died in 1837. – Photo by Alexe van Beuren

By Alexe van Beuren

    Five years ago, retiree Don Dalrymple spent some time on the Internet looking for his ancestors.

    “I was looking for dead Dalrymples,” he tells me as we sit in front of the computer in his home overlooking Enid Lake. “And I came across a name I recognized.” Thanks to a website called and the efforts of one of its volunteers, Dalrymple traced an ancestor of his to a state he never would have known to look in.

    The experience prompted him to become a volunteer for that same Internet site. Five years later, Dalrymple has documented 8,268 graves, most of them right here in Yalobusha County – despite the fact that Dalrymple himself hails from Ontario, Canada.

    “I wasn’t born in the South,” Dalrymple tells me, his eyes blue and lively behind tri-focal lenses. “I wasn’t raised in the South. But I got here just as quick as I could.”

    Darymple moved to Memphis when he was seventeen, and apart from a four-year-stint with the Air Force, that’s where he stayed until 2003, along with his wife Faye and their son. After thirty-nine years of working with x-ray machines, Dalrymple retired from Siemens Corporation in 2003 and promptly moved to Enid Lake.

    He spends his mornings “drinking coffee and telling lies” at the Sylva Rena Grocery and Bait Store, and his afternoons pursuing his personal passion: documenting every last grave in Yalobusha County.

    There are over ninety-nine “official” cemeteries in Yalobusha County, and Dalrymple tells me that “that’s not all of them.” He takes me to one that was nearly lost: a small graveyard in the Mississippi woods. It contains the earliest death that Dalrymple has come across in the county– that of a sixteen-year-old wife named Mary Jane Benson, who died in 1837.

    “These are the people that made this county,” Dalrymple tells me, striding around the cemetery to show me grave after grave. He knows this particular graveyard well; several years ago, he was steered to it by Snooky Williams. It had been neglected for years, and was nearly lost in undergrowth.

    Due to a severe poison oak allergy, Dalrymple enlisted the help of his wife Faye, who spent three days cleaning the choked graveyard out with the aid of Round-Up. There is no church attached to the graveyard who would keep it up, and Dalrymple doesn’t even know who owns the land. After ridding the cemetery of weeds, Dalrymple has taken it upon himself to repair the cracked and fallen headstones and to keep the cemetery clear of new growth.

    He doesn’t seem to mind. Dalrymple points at one woman’s grave which contains three full names and an initial: “When you die,” he tells me, eyes bright, “put your maiden name on the gravestone. It’ll make it easier for people to find you.”

    On the drive back to his house, Dalrymple tells me he’s been unable to trace the sixteen-year-old Mary Jane Benson. She died before the census began tracking the names of women and children; prior to 1850, census-takers only wrote down the head of households’ names.

    Another difficulty that Dalrymple encounters when tracing the deceased is human error– accidental and deliberate. “People lie like hell about their ages,” Dalrymple says. “If there’s a fifteen year-old wife and the husband is forty, they’ll lie to the census-taker to make it look better. But then, as they age, they get more truthful.”

    Not to mention spelling problems. “People put the wrong names on tombstones,” Dalrymple says. “When you do a gravestone, it’s chiseled in stone, so you’ve got to make sure you do it right.”

    In the den of his home, Dalrymple shows me a binder of thirty or so graves he finds the most interesting. One woman died on her birthday; one gravestone, over in Calhoun County, shows an “eerie apparition” drifting out of the headstone. “Maybe something got on the lens,” Dalrymple says, and flips the page to the next story.

    Each grave that Dalrymple posts on contains a picture of the stone. (He sometimes uses shaving cream and a squeegee to help the letters be clearly legible.) But Dalrymple goes above and beyond the site’s expectations: he’s bought a handheld GPS receiver, so that the Internet can determine the precise location of the cemeteries and add a map, and he subscribes to several genealogical sites so that he can also link any information he finds out about each gravestone– such as copies of draft records and census information.

    “How many hours do you do this a week?” I can’t help but ask, thinking of the effort involved in documenting graves, repairing headstones, weed eating cemeteries, and conducting online research.

    Dalrymple flashes a smile. “More than my wife likes,” he says, and then he turns back to the computer.

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