The first resident of the Lutz Cemetery is a man known only as Mr. Nims. His grave marker is gone and the burial plot nearly obliterated.
Local historians think he was buried there in 1914, and almost nothing is known of his personal history.
That is not the situation, however, for most of the people resting in peace at this hallowed ground, off U.S. 41 at Fifth Avenue.
Instead, their headstones and grave markers are a narrative of the history of Lutz from past to present.
The cemetery is more than 100 years old.
The original cemetery plot was 230 feet by 80 feet, in what today is the western portion of the cemetery, according to “Citrus, Sawmills, Critters, Crackers,” a history of Lutz by Elizabeth Riegler MacManus and her daughter, Susan MacManus.
Today, the site measures nearly 8 acres.
Early settlers who are buried include Fred Polen, a teacher at Myrtle School, and later a mail carrier; and Herbert Vernon, owner of Vernon & Land Co. Three generations of the Goheens can be found there, too.
Ira Goheen and his father, Alfred, made Mr. Nims’ coffin, according to the MacManus’ book.
Modern day community activists also are at the Lutz Cemetery including Oscar Cooler, a champion of Lutz youth sports. The Oscar Cooler Sports Complex is named for him. And Carolyn Meeker, former president of the Lutz Civic Association, is another activist buried there.
“This is a community cemetery,” said Mary Lewis, vice president of the Lutz Cemetery Association Inc., and the cemetery’s director of operations.
The cemetery is a legacy donated to Lutz residents by C. E. Thomas, president of the North Tampa Land Company. A group of Chicago investors bought about 32,000 acres, north of the city of Tampa. They called their proposed settlement “North Tampa.”
The company targeted its advertising to would-be farmers and settlers in the North and Midwest, especially in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
The first permanent settler was Mike Riegler, a 30-year-old German immigrant who later donated land for the Myrtle-Denham School.
A few years into the land sales, Thomas made an offer that anyone who bought 10 acres could have a free lot in town or a burial plot in the cemetery.
Residents cared for the cemetery in the days when activities, such as “barn raising” ceremonies, still thrived and brought families together for a common effort.
For many years, Lutz’ residents gathered once or twice a year to tend to the cemetery. According to the MacManus’ book, men would come with hoes and rakes; women would pack a picnic lunch.
Just when that practice ended isn’t clear but the Lutz Cemetery Association came together in the mid-1950s, said Vernon Wynn, the association’s current president.
“It goes waaaay back,” Wynn said.
But, the association has had a low profile within the community, he said.
Today, the association is taking a more activist role in bringing attention to the cemetery. Board members recently installed a Lutz Cemetery sign near the front of the cemetery facing U.S. 41. For years, motorists could zip past and not realize the cemetery was there.
“It’s really visible now, where before it wasn’t,” Wynn said.
Wynn can point in almost any direction at the cemetery and find a family member. He traces his roots to Lutz pioneers who were among the earliest to buy land and settle down.
He remembers a garage, close by the cemetery, owned by Bill and Mary Starkey.
“Everyone gathered there. It was the only automotive type garage out here,” Wynn said. “It was kind of like a meeting place.”
Today, a few shade trees and a brick utility building on cemetery property might catch someone’s eye, said Lewis, who more than 27 years ago began working with the association.
She takes care of the cemetery’s operations from cutting grass to selling burial plots.
To most people passing by, she said, “It’s just a piece of property with a little building on it.”
The sign isn’t the only new addition to the cemetery.
Decades ago, a metal archway covered the entrance into the cemetery. It long ago was taken down. But, a replica of the archway now stands in front of the small brick utility building.
For the first time, the association had a display table at this year’s traditional Lutz Fourth of July parade.
Association members handed out brochures and collected about $1,200 in donations.
The money is essential to maintaining and preserving the cemetery, Wynn said.
The contributions are needed, said Lewis, a Lutz transplant from Long Island, New York. “People think it survives on its own.”
A few months ago, several pine trees had to be removed at a cost of about $3,000. A new roof had to be put on the utility building.
“We just can’t continue taking care of this, unless donations are made to the association,” Wynn said.
More than 1,600 people are buried at Lutz Cemetery, Lewis said. Only about 100 gravesites remain.
The association is considering adding cremation sites, and potentially looking to add more land to the cemetery.
Lewis came to Lutz in 1973, for a weekend of fun with friends, and to attend the annual pirate fest and Gasparilla parade. She was 25 years old and newly widowed.
She and a friend thought the trip to Tampa would be a distraction.
“Before it was over, I’d bought a house,” Lewis said.
And she stayed.
“I’ve never had a desire to leave. I’ve always felt comfortable here,” she said.
The Lutz Cemetery will be her final resting place.
For information contact Lewis at (813) 310-6637, or write to Lutz Cemetery Association, P. O. Box 1353, Lutz, FL 33548.
Published November 11, 2015