Lavaca County helps preserve Thigpen Cemetery

A promise made, a promise kept to rural Texas site

By Brenda Lincke Fisseler

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On the surface, this appears to be a story about a rural Texas cemetery, but it is really about a promise — a promise made, and a promise kept.  

The Thigpen Cemetery is on the John Smithers Survey in Lavaca County. The cemetery is the final resting place for six members of the extended Thigpen family, including William Thigpen, who died in 1887, and it is possibly the resting place of an unlucky squirrel hunter by the name of Gordon.   

My husband and I discovered this abandoned neighborhood cemetery in 2005 and decided we could save it from literally disappearing into the landscape. We were committed to the project, but we needed help.

A Caterpillar is pictured clearing underbrush at the Thigpen Cemetery in 2007

When help is not readily available, you must create it on your own. My research on cemetery restoration lead me to Senate Bill 951, enacted by the Legislature in 2005. The bill states that:

For purposes of historical preservation, or public health, safety, or welfare, a commissioners court may use public funds, county employees, county inmate labor as provided by Article 43.10, Code of Criminal Procedure, and county equipment to maintain a cemetery that has a grave marker more than 50 years old.  

Armed with this information, I approached my county commissioner, the now deceased Charles Netardus, and proposed a cemetery restoration pilot program based on SB 951 in February 2006. In return for our promise to maintain the cemetery and obtain a Historic Texas Cemetery designation from the Texas Historical Commission, Netardus would assist with the initial clearing of the trees, shrubs and undergrowth in the cemetery. I also hoped this would set a precedent for other cemetery projects in our county.

After some fence relocation for access to the cemetery, on June 15, 2007, Ronnie Opela, a Precinct 1 employee operating a Caterpillar, cleared the cemetery of decades of undergrowth. Netardus also contacted the Texas Department of Transportation about the cleanup of state property between U.S. Highway 77A South and the entrance to the cemetery and later provided fill dirt for low areas in the cemetery

What followed was 13 years of shredding, mowing, spraying, chopping and burning. We worked at the cemetery whenever time allowed. During the summers, we mowed, and during colder weather, we cleared by hand the brush between the grave markers that could not be reached by the Caterpillar. Believe me, one of the last places you want to be during a Texas summer is in a cemetery with bugs, snakes and poison ivy!

It took more than a decade, but Brenda Lincke Fisseler and her husband, with the help of others, restored the historic  Thigpen Cemetery in Lavaca County. A descendant of the Thigpen family installed a new sign. Photo: Courtesy of Brenda Lincke Fisseler

On occasion, individuals who were descendants of the Thigpen family would stop by the cemetery and generously thank us for our efforts because they were unable to physically assist us due to age or distance. One day, that changed with the appearance of the Randy and Jan Ritter family of Sugar Land.  

Jan Ritter is a descendant of the Thigpen family, and the Ritters immediately joined the effort to help maintain and improve the cemetery. The couple cleared brush, repaired and cleaned the tombstones, and created and installed a new Thigpen Cemetery sign.  

On Aug. 22, 2020, the Thigpen Cemetery was awarded a Historic Texas Cemetery designation by the Texas State Historical Commission.  

A promise made, a promise kept, a cemetery saved.

Brenda Lincke Fisseler is the director of the Friench Simpson Memorial Library in Hallettsville.