Ground penetrating radar has revealed 16 marked and 28 unmarked graves at the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery, a one-acre historic cemetery in the shadow of the giant Florida National Cemetery.
Sumter County contracted with the Central Testing Laboratory of Leesburg, which hired GeoView, Inc., of St. Petersburg to conduct the survey.
With graves of veterans, county commissioners and possibly former slaves, the tiny cemetery sits at the southeast corner of Interstate 75 and County Road 673 on the edge of the Croom Wildlife Management Area.
Using the radar, GeoView was able to identify the location of unmarked graves in the accessible area of the cemetery. A hand probe revealed hard objects believed to be the tops of caskets at a 2.5- to 4-foot depth.
At 15 suspected grave sites, hand probing found soft earth, possibly indicating burial with shrouds or deteriorating caskets. The second group of graves were classified as probable pending more investigation.
County Administrator Bradley Arnold said four unmarked graves were discovered outside the current cemetery boundary. Since they were on public property, he said, the cemetery’s boundaries were extended to include them.
Earlier this year, Della Daughtry, a member of the Sumter County Historical Society, told commissioners she is working with Beverly Steele of the Royal area of Wildwood to rehabilitate the cemetery. After her presentation, commissioners asked Arnold to help create an inventory of the graves.
On a Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery Facebook page, Webster area resident Karen Taylor offered $800 for the county to catalog the graves.
Steele, who supervises a Royal area group called Young Performing Artists, became interested in the project because a black community of former slaves known as the Croom Settlement was located nearby.
At least eight veterans are buried at Wild Cow Prairie along with 19th Century county commissioners James Weeks and Charles Littleberry Branch.
Graves also include residents of Pemberton Ferry along the Withalachochee River, now a ghost town that disappeared in the 1930s.
The area was a crucial stagecoach route during the 1800s, linking Adamsville with Brooksville and Citrus County.