By Laurie Wozniak of Simpsonville, SC
A walk through Springwood Cemetery, located in the heart of downtown Greenville, is akin to a stroll through history.
The cemetery began with just one grave dating to 1812, that of Elizabeth Blackburn Williams, mother-in-law of Waddy Thompson, a prominent village leader who served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1826 to 1829 and in the United States Congress from 1835 to 1841. When Mrs. Williams passed away on July 15, 1812, her wish was to be buried in the gardens she had loved on Thompson’s property.
Two years later, Thompson sold a tract of his land to Francis McLeod. McLeod opened the land for public burial in 1829 and in 1933 deeded a portion of it to the burgeoning City of Greenville for continued use as a public cemetery. Through the years, additional tracts of land were added, resulting in the 30-acre property of today. So it is that Springwood is South Carolina’s oldest municipal cemetery.
The cemetery has been known as Elford Cemetery, the Old Graveyard and the Old Village Burial Ground. It eventually became known as Springwood, most likely named such for the spring that flowed through the woods and fed two ponds on the property. The location of the spring is remembered by a stone arch on the property of the adjacent Kilgore Lewis House. The arch’s keystone is inscribed with the words, “Thank God for water.”
Springwood’s pleasantly winding paved roads divide the cemetery into 20 sections, marked A to T, with A containing the oldest graves. Circular and semi-circular walks are found in the sections dating from the mid to late 1800s. These were designed by Gottfried L. Norman, a landscape architect who was inspired by the rural cemetery movement, which began in 1831. Prior to this time, most burials took place in churchyards, but as communities grew so did overcrowding, as well as concerns about public health. As a result, cemeteries were established in rural settings. Influenced by English landscape gardening, they were consciously designed to provide sanctuary, solitude and beauty.*
The remains of people of all races, ethnicities and livelihoods have been interred at Springwood. The northeast corner was once a potter’s field for African Americans and indigent whites. The graves of soldiers from nearly every major conflict in our nation’s history – including the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War – can be found here. All told, including both the named and the nameless, more than 10,000 graves are located within the cemetery’s gates, about one quarter of them unmarked.
With the graves of so many different souls over the course of more than 200 years, Springwood also features a wide collection of grave marker styles and funerary art. In the earliest sections, many markers are very simple flat stones, tablets or crosses, their engravings now nearly lost to years of wind and weather.
In sections from the Victorian era, the markers become quite ornate and symbolic. For example, an obelisk represents life and health, while a broken tree stump or column symbolize a life cut short. A Celtic cross symbolizes the bridge between life and death, while a praying angel stands for religious devotion. A cherub is often found on the gravestone of a child. The graves of children are not uncommon in Springwood’s earliest sections. Side-by-side graves of a mother and infant are most often a testament to deaths during childbirth. Fewer such graves are found in later years as health standards improved.
You can also find the graves of those who died during the 1918 flu epidemic that hit Greenville in the fall of that year. Many of these graves belong to young men who served at Camp Sevier. Because they had no family nearby to bury them, the Army paid for their burials at Springwood Cemetery.
Notable Greenvillians buried at Springwood include James C. Furman (1891), Governor Martin F. Ansel (1911), Congressman John Jackson McSwain (1936), Robert I. Woodside (1949), Frederick W. Symmes (1957), Charles E. Daniel (1964), and Robert Craft Peace (1968).
Though plots are no longer available for sale at Springwood Cemetery, occasional burials still take place there. One may also purchase a niche at the Springwood Cemetery Columbarium.
To explore individual gravesites at Springfield Cemetery, please visit Find-a-Grave.
Springwood Cemetery is listed in the National Register:
Springwood Cemetery is locally significant for its association with a number of persons important to the early history and development of Greenville, and for its funerary art and distinctive landscape design which reflect the rural cemetery movement of the mid to late nineteenth century. The first burial in what would become Springwood occurred in 1812. Over the years Springwood has been known by various names including Elford Cemetery, the Old Graveyard and the Old Village Burial Ground. Springwood features a formal, planned design. A series of winding paved roads run throughout the cemetery and dissect it into several sections labeled chronologically from A to T. Sections dating from the mid to late nineteenth century feature circular and semi-circular walks designed by Gottfried L. Norrman, a landscape architect inspired by the rural cemetery movement. According to survey completed in 1978, the plots contain approximately 7,700 marked graves. It is estimated that another 2,600 unmarked burials are located in the cemetery. Gravemarker types and materials vary dramatically from natural fieldstones to raised brick tombs to elaborate Victorian monuments to Greek peristyles and sculptures to contemporary marble headstones. The variety and style of monuments reflects the long history of the cemetery as well as the socio-economic diversity of those buried there.
* Cemeteries differ from churchyards and graveyards in that they are not located next to a church.