Rural residents help Mineolan with family ties

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The words historic preservation can represent many different things to people, but for one Mineola man those words meant finally getting to visit his grandmother’s gravesite for the first time in about 60 years.

Mineola resident Johnny Miller remembers when he was about 10 or 12 years old helping his family to clear the road from Farm-to-Market 49 leading to the Bell Family Cemetery. He remembers that a cousin from the Dallas area wasn’t expected to live long and that cousin has requested burial in the family cemetery. Miller’s maternal biological grandmother, Virgil Bell, had died when his mother was about 17 years old. “Course, I didn’t come along for a long time after that,” he said. After she died, his grandfather remarried.

Miller is one of Johnny Miller Sr., and his wife Lillie’s children. After he graduated from high school here, and served in the Air Force during Vietnam, he moved to Michigan and went to work for General Motors and retired from that company. Upon his and his wife Anita’s retirement from the company, they returned to his hometown.

The majority of Miller’s family is buried at Rockfield Cemetery. That is another rural cemetery that had fallen into neglect over the decades. Last February the Millers joined with the Mineola Junior Historians and other community members who volunteered to help clear away years of overgrowth of that cemetery. And that occurred after Miller and his wife had heard about the need for volunteers to help clear another cemetery in the Lake Fork area with which they had helped.

In the meantime, Miller became acquainted with some local history enthusiasts and asked if they could help him find his maternal grandmother’s cemetery. He didn’t remember exactly how to find it or who owned the property going to it and “I’m not just walking on peoples’ property without permission from them.”

The history enthusiasts had found through Roger and Mary Boone, the new owners of the Wag ‘N Tails dog kennel and property on FM 49, as well as with information from lifelong resident Weldon Greer, where the cemetery was located.

On Jan. 26 the Boones took Miller and Joyce Williams and Jayne Lankford to the cemetery. “They had seen the cemetery and were very accommodating to us,” Williams said. “They took us directly to it.”

Miller agreed, saying the Boones had been “very cordial and I really appreciate them.” The path included climbing over a barb-wire fence. Once there, Miller was able take pictures. He remembers that his great-uncle, James Dean, was buried there. His tombstone had had a type of a window that could be opened with a photo of him in his military uniform. However, that was no longer on the tombstone. “You can see where it was, but after all of these years…,” he said.

“I was just trying to reminisce and see if I was able to go there,” he said. “I kind of feel like it was a closure for me. For a while I was thinking I’d never find out where it was.”

It heartens Miller’s belief in people. “It makes me just feel thankful that the community has changed to be the kind of community it is now, compared to 50 or 60 years ago. Not that it was bad then, but you know, the race relations.” Miller pointed out that he and his wife attend St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church which had been billed as “the oldest black church in Mineola.” But now he said there are quite a few white people who go there.

“Not only do we enjoy the services, but we have a dynamic pastor and first lady,” he said, “and the people really seem to enjoy one another.”

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