Couple to bequeath money for maintenance of Historic St. Nicholas cemetery

Couple to bequeath money for maintenance of Historic St. Nicholas cemetery
The Foster’s columbarium rests within the Foster family’s historic family plot

Considered to be an “abandoned” cemetery, with no families or funds to pay for its “perpetual” care, the Historic Cemetery in St. Nicholas, a final resting place for some of Jacksonville’s most prominent and founding families, including Katy Clinch and famed architect George Olaf Holmes, has long relied on the goodwill and sweat equity of neighborhood residents for landscaping upkeep and general maintenance. 

Currently managed by St. Nicholas Area Preservation (SNAP), which took over the cemetery’s management by default after a longtime resident chose to step back after nearly 30 years of voluntary service, the neighborhood organization recently received word it will be the beneficiary of endowment funds for cemetery upkeep through a bequest, which will be realized  upon the death of its benefactor and his wife.

Tallahassee resident Ray Earl Foster, his wife, Barbara Fulghum Foster, and Ray’s brother, Harry Stephen Foster, an Arlington resident, have made their intention known that when the time comes, they plan to have their ashes buried in a columbarium they have erected in the Foster family plot at the historic gravesite. To assist the neighborhood with cemetery maintenance, Foster and his wife have established a bequest in their will but are unable to specify the exact amount as it will be a portion of the value of some investments at the time of their deaths, Foster said. 

The Foster’s new columbarium
The Foster’s new columbarium

“We are interested in making a contribution,” said Foster. “When I was thinking about where I wanted my remains to be, I realized by putting it in St. Nicholas, I can have my urn placed in close proximity to four branches of my family. The single biggest nexus for all my family lines is the Historic St. Nicholas Cemetery. That is where the most converge.”

Foster and his brother grew up in St. Nicholas. He attended Southside Grammar School No. 7 in San Marco and graduated from Landon High School in 1964. He and his brother have a dozen ancestors who are buried in the cemetery, including James R. Booth, (1832-1886), Rufus Foster (1818-1903), Henry Rufus Foster (1862-1942), Emma Brooks Foster (1872-1945), Thomas Cartrell Platt (1828-1901), Catherine Jones Platt (1829-1924), Florence Ann Platt (1860-1957), Herbert Henry Platt (1870-1920), Edith Margaret Platt (1865-1942), Alfred Lawrence Platt (1868-1938), Arthur Eugene Van Loon (1858-1933) and Arthur William Van Loon (1894-1896). Foster is also a direct descendant of Elizabeth Swaim, who is buried in Springfield and after whom the Swaim Memorial United Methodist Church in San Marco is named.

Foster’s wife, Barbara Fulghum Foster, is a native of Ortega.

It’s no secret SNAP had been struggling to find a lawn service to provide routine maintenance for the cemetery. For more than 50 years, the property was maintained by St. Nicholas residents, who banded together several times a year to clean up the property, generating much sociability between neighbors and community spirit. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Angie Van Etter organized 40 to 50 of her neighbors to cut back the vines and pick up leaves, later passing the torch to Kay Ellen Gilmour, who has spent nearly 30 years not only arranging clean-up days, but also mowing the property herself with her 36-inch Yazoo riding mower. Also, over the years more than one Boy Scout has done his Eagle project in the cemetery.

 Gilmour has also researched the genealogy of all the “cemeterians” buried at the gravesite and has written the book, “A Genealogical History of Florida,” detailing the information.

Ray and Barbara Foster
Ray and Barbara Foster

Two years ago, when Gilmour decided to sell her riding mower and hire Michael Finne of Green Frog Lawn Service to mow her property, she paid $100 per cut out of her pocket to have Finne cut the grass in the cemetery, too. “He did it as a favor to me. It took him a couple of hours, and it ruined his machines, but he said he’d do it to be a Good Samaritan,” Gilmour said. 

But in 2018, Finne declined the work, and at that time, Gilmour decided to “retire” from being the neighborhood cemetery clean-up organizer. 

Because no one is officially responsible for the care and upkeep of the St. Nicholas landmark, SNAP, which reorganized last year, has decided to take it on, said Erik Kaldor, president of SNAP. Routine maintenance is “more than what neighbors can be expected to do,” he said, adding it is to the neighborhood’s advantage not to have coyotes and other varmints living within the 1.5-acre parcel if it is left to go back to nature. 

In January, SNAP contracted with First Coast Lawn & Property Maintenance conduct monthly maintenance after a large clean up, which included a small tree removal.

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