Around noon Tuesday the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office investigated a vandalism complaint at the Coon Hill Cemetery just outside of Brownsdale.
Board members reported 13 gravesites had been disturbed by an unknown subject or subjects by knocking down the headstones and breaking one of them in the process.
“The man who mows the grounds came in and contacted us about what he discovered,” Bobby Boutwell said.
The historical cemetery, which is located a mile and a half off Mineral Springs Rd., is guarded by a heavy iron gate near the start of the dirt road leading to the cemetery. The board has decided to keep the gate closed at all times and only allow visitors to the cemetery when they call a board member ahead of time.
Despite the efforts of the board to protect the cemetery, which has been a target of vandalism in the past, people will still park near the gate or on the side of Mineral Springs Rd. and walk to the cemetery.
“I have been in charge of the cemetery for 20 years and we have had one or two instances of this every year,” said Al Enfinger, who is the vice president of the Coon Hill Cemetery Board. “We seem to have something like this every year.
“One time we raised $5,000 as a reward through (Santa Rosa) Crime Stoppers and we had no luck catching who did this.”
The historical cemetery, which is the oldest in Northern Santa Rosa County, has a reputation for paranormal activity, which is promoted by the Pensacola Paranormal Society.
“Located in the Florida's northwest panhandle, Coon Hill is a remote excursion into the paranormal,” according to the Pensacola Paranormal Society’s page for the cemetery. “Your adventure to this cemetery should include a good map of the area as finding the landmark haunt can be a bit difficult.
“Rumors of the cemetery include a spunky spirit who will actually push anyone who dares walk atop the rock wall which surrounds the area.”
The website even goes so far as to reference the damage in the past.
“If you're planning on staying overnight to do some ghost hunting, be sure to contact the cemetery to make arrangements,” said the website. “This cemetery is frequented by police due to the amount of damage to the headstones.”
“Be warned: They will prosecute for trespassing.”
“Eighty to 85 percent of the people we run out of here are from Pensacola,” said Sgt. Jason Rickmon, with the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office.
Rickmon also referred to another site in the area that has been problematic in the past call Calloway Swamp.
According to information Enfinger provided to the Jay Historical Society, the cemetery originated around 1820.
This was about the time of the first settlers including William Larkins, who was the first post master of Coon Hill back in 1845.
Larkins later moved to what is now known as Atmore, but when it was first settled it was called Williams Station in honor of Larkins.
The concrete wall was poured over 100 years ago with sand and gravel hauled to the cemetery from Diamond Creek using slip scoops pulled by mules.
Prominent people, according to Enfinger’s piece, include twoSenators, two Circuit riding Preachers, 15 Civil War Veterans, two Tax Assessors, three Postmasters, and many other prominent people.
Ancestral names of Byrnes, Campbell, Davis, Diamond, Enfinger, Ezell, Hart, Howell, Lee, Magaha, Mayo, McCaskill, McDavid, McKinnon, McMillan, Miner, Pearson, Penton, Pyburn, Reynolds, Rutherford, Salter, Savell, Severson, Slade, Williams, and others are buried here.
In the last 15 years there have been three major acts of vandalism at the cemetery. During that time about 150 headstones and slabs were badly broken. .
“Thank goodness it was not too much damage,” Enfinger said. “It has been worse, but we will do our best to repair and fix what has been broken this time.”
In the past, as was the case discovered Tuesday, the big unbreakable ones have been pushed over, sometimes breaking the slab as they fell.
While the headstones are priceless, Enfinger estimated the damage around $2 to $3,000. The largest amount of damage at one given time was estimated at $50,000.
In that act of vandalism, the statue of Mary, "'The Mother of Jesus" was broken beyond repair and had to be replaced.
At that time members of the board also installed three wrought iron gates in the concrete wall openings with the name “COON HILL" above the Entrance gate.
Over the past few years about 100 headstones and slabs and 73 new markers have been replaced or repaired, according to Enfinger.
It is actually unknown how many could be buried in Coon Hill Cemetery according to Boutwell.
“Most of the markers when the cemetery first opened were made of wood and the names were written on the boards,” Boutwell said. “The names faded and the markers either rotted away or were burned.”
If you would like to help the board in its effort to repair the damaged headstones, donations can be made to Escambia Bank in Flomaton, Ala.
Anyone with any further information concerning the identity of the suspect/s is asked to contact the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office at 983- 1190, or Santa Rosa Crime Stoppers at 437-STOP (7867).