Editor’s Note: This is part 1 in a series about Old Rapides Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Rapides Parish.
Buried in the grounds of Old Rapides Cemetery are a multitude of figures who shaped the foundations of Rapides Parish and the state of Louisiana.
“This is the most historic piece of land in all of central Louisiana,” said local historian Mike Wynne from an acre and a half near the Red River.
Enemund Meullion, the last Spanish commandant of the El Rapido district or, as it is called in French, Poste du Rapides, is buried there with his wife and bodyguard. Senators, US congressmen and governors and many ordinary citizens are also buried there.
Many of the names on the headstones know streets named after Foisy, Hill, Marye, Overton, Thornton, and Turner. Or cities named after Capt. CE Ball or Judge Henry Boyce are named.
The cemetery dates back over 200 years when the Spaniards ruled the area. It has been registered in the national register since 1979.
According to Father Chad Partain and Andrea Wilson Warren’s “Under the Shade of the Trees: History and Stories of the Old Rapides Cemetery”, the cemetery was known as the Old Catholic Cemetery before it was called Rapides Cemetery.
The records of the Catholic Church in Rapides parish were destroyed in a fire by Union forces in 1895. The history of the cemetery was put together by the tombstones that were still there.
There are approximately 2,300 known graves in the cemetery, but that is possibly only a small number of people buried there. It is also possible for one person at a time to be buried on top of one another.
The early graves or graves had wooden or metal crosses that have long since rotted, Wynne said. The earliest memorial belongs to 15-year-old Pierre Baillo, who died in 1809.
“By 1809 this was already a large cemetery,” said Wynne.
Here, Wynne and two other historians, Mike Tudor and Paul Price, all met with the Historic Rapides Cemetery Preservation Society to discuss the cemetery and establish a cemetery district to include all four cemeteries in downtown Pineville. Rapides Cemetery, Methodist Cemetery, Jewish Cemetery, and Mount Olivet Cemetery would be promoted as a historic tourist destination.
“We can actually document what went on here because it’s very closely intertwined with the history of the settlement,” Price said. “This was the burial place for all citizens.”
After the Civil War, Alexandria was burned down, the community impoverished and the cemetery in a sad state, Price said. Locals founded the Rapides Cemetery Association, which was chartered in 1872, and administered the cemetery until 2000, at which time the town of Pineville took over the cemetery.
Rapides Cemetery is located near the Gillis-Long Bridge, better known as the Jackson Street Bridge. The house of the first Spanish commandant Etienne Marafet Layssard once stood here.
Among those buried in Rapides Cemetery are Alexander Fulton, the founder of Alexandria; Pierre Baillio, who built the Kent Plantation House; James Madison Wells, Louisiana Governor during the Reconstruction; Cornelia LeGras, a free woman of color who owned land on her behalf; and Nick Velotta, an Italian immigrant who owned a grocery store.
This is one of the few cemeteries where people are buried together regardless of religion, race, nationality or socioeconomic status, Wynne said.
“This was a public cemetery and public means public,” Price said. Anyone could be buried there.
“That makes it very rare,” said Wynne. “Every kind of person is represented in this cemetery, and everyone in central Louisiana is buried here.”
Aside from the New Orleans and Baton Rouge cemeteries, this is what sets Rapides Cemetery apart, Tudor said.
“The French and Spanish did not have the same discrimination against blacks as the Anglo-Saxon slave masters,” said Tudor. “They liberated more and allowed them to be buried with them. That was unique for the French and Spanish. The Anglo-Saxon and British were more racist and didn’t want to allow it.”
What also makes the cemetery unique are the artistic details of the fences that surround the plots or decorate the graves.
“Look at the leaves and flowers,” Price said, pointing to a marble box grave of a five-year-old boy, William Prescott. “It is exquisite. And it is the purest white marble you will ever find anywhere and for sure in our cemetery.”
Because of these unique aspects, the Historic Rapides Cemetery Preservation Society, led by Tudor, is working to create a guided cemetery district.
The Historic Rapides Cemetery Preservation Society will meet with the Pineville Downtown Development District on June 14th to see if the area can be turned into a cemetery district.
“It is important that you fund these things that we ask for,” said Tudor. They need money for roads, markings and the removal of tree stumps left by Hurricane Laura.
“The Pineville Downtown Development District is a relatively new creation designed to promote the downtown area. We hope it will help us focus on that,” said Tudor. He said the city was already determined to rehabilitate the streets of the cemetery. Society will also get a marker. They would also like money for things like cleaning the cemetery and banners promoting the district.
“Preserving the history of this cemetery is critical to central Louisiana – all of Louisiana, in fact,” said Wynne. “But it’s also about tourism – bringing in tourist dollars to central Louisiana.”
The society is looking for volunteers as tour guides and volunteers to help maintain the cemetery.
“We’re trying to put together a civic group to preserve the cemetery as best we can so tours from across the nation can come here,” said Wynne.
“We’re going to try to have a whole volunteer group of faculty to lead these tours, especially for the eighth graders,” Tudor said. “This is where you can teach Louisiana history.”
The Society has also put together a booklet on the history of the Rapides Cemetery, which also includes the history of 26 people buried there.
“We could have done 100-150, but we picked 26 very important but different people who are representative of the community,” said Wynne.
The brochure will be the catalyst in promoting the cemetery tours to visitors who can self-guide or take a tour with a volunteer. It shows aspects of the cemetery for tourists or even eighth grade history students in Louisiana. The brochure is available from the Alexandria / Pineville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
An annual autumn tour of the cemetery was organized by the Society, the last in 2019 due to the 2020 pandemic. The tour featured actors portraying the people buried in the cemetery and telling their story.
“It was a hidden gem,” said Tudor. “To me, it’s as important and historic and interesting as the American Cemetery or St. Louis No. 1, and I’m not exaggerating.”
The American Cemetery at Natchitoches is believed to be the oldest cemetery in the Louisiana area of purchase. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is in New Orleans, where Voodoo Queen Maria Laveau is buried.
“This is really a diamond that has always been here, but we’re really going to make it shine,” said Tudor of Rapides Cemetery.
To volunteer for tours or maintenance, you can contact Mike Wynn at (318) 487-8805 or Paul Price at (318) 201-5560 or email@example.com.