Dear Vance: On a recent visit to Forest Hill Cemetery, I discovered a large and very impressive tomb, apparently very old, with the windows sealed with sheets of plywood. What’s the story behind this ancient structure? — A.Y., Memphis.
Dear A.Y.: Elsewhere in this issue, we mention historic Elmwood Cemetery, noting that it is one of the places that make our city unique. And it’s a beautiful setting indeed, with impressive monuments scattered over 80 rolling acres.
But Forest Hill has a special charm — if that’s the right word when we’re talking about graveyards — all its own. Not only is it the final resting place of thousands of Memphis families, many of them as well-known as anybody buried at Elmwood, but it was also where Elvis Presley was briefly entombed after the performer’s death in 1977. After police uncovered — hmmm, maybe a better choice of words would be discovered — a bumbling plot to steal the King’s body (heavy casket and all, presumably) from the Forest Hill Mausoleum, the Presley Estate had Elvis’ remains, along with his mother, Gladys, who had been buried there some 20 years earlier, moved to the Meditation Gardens at Graceland.
Wait, I’m getting off-track here. Back to Forest Hill. Founded in 1888, the 120-acre cemetery originally faced to the west, with a grand entrance off what was then called the Hernando Road. Old city directories note the cemetery was located at the end of the “Forest Hill car line” (meaning streetcar) and visitors first walked past an imposing white granite chapel (shown on the opposite page). I found this photo, and another depicting how the vault appeared shortly after it was constructed, in an amazing book called The Art Work of Memphis, published in Chicago in 1912. In nine volumes, the authors and photographers compiled hundreds of images of the most impressive buildings in our city — a treasure trove for the Lauderdales of the world.
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Courtesy Lee Askew, from The Art Work of Memphis
Past the chapel, crushed gravel roads and carriageways led mourners through hundreds of graves, some with simple markers, others with ornately carved tombstones, along with a dozen or so family mausoleums, so designed that they resembled miniature mansions.
Sometime in the 1960s, when the north/south expressway was constructed through Midtown, it sliced off the western side of Forest Hill. The main entrance had to be moved to the eastern side of the cemetery, off South Bellevue, which explains why you drive past more modern graves before you finally cross over a little creek, drive over a hill, and finally enter the original, much older portion. The nice chapel at the Hernando Road entrance, no longer used and in disrepair, was demolished. What a shame.
Then and now, however, at the top of that hill stood the massive stone vault you’ve noticed, A.Y., but it wasn’t constructed for any particular family. Instead, Forest Hill may be unique in this region because it has managed to preserve its “keeping vault.” In the old days, when graves were dug by strong men with shovels, a burial in the winter, when temperatures were below freezing and the ground was rock-solid, was difficult. So you had the keeping vault. Bodies, safely encased in their caskets, were stored above ground in this building until the weather changed and they could be buried.
I wonder: Were there two funeral services? One, when the remains were placed in the keeping vault, and a second funeral, when the body was placed in the grave? I don’t know. I wasn’t around at the time.
Obviously, with the advent of power machinery to dig graves, even in frozen earth, the keeping vault was no longer needed, and over the years vandals and time have taken their toll on the structure. Forest Hill has sheathed the once-magnificent arched-glass windows with plywood, but one day a side door was left open, and I crept inside. What I found were a series of arched vaults, each of these niches marked with a Roman numeral and sealed with a heavy iron door with a sturdy latch. I confess I felt very nervous to be there, and Lauderdales rarely make such confessions. But I was terrified that some ruffian might sneak up behind me, conk me on the head, stuff me into one of those dark holes, and lock me inside. Who could possibly hear my muffled cries for help? Even with my trusty swordcane, I sensed this was a dangerous place to be.
So that’s the story of the old keeping vault at Forest Hill, and if you know what’s good for you, you will stay out of there.
Dear Vance: I found a business card for a Memphis taxi company tucked in a book. How old is it, and how do you account for the unusual name? – F.T., Memphis.
Dear F.T.: Amazing, isn’t it, that this tiny piece of paper from a business almost a century old has survived. Equally amazing, if I may say so, is the effort that went into answering your apparently simple question.
First of all, it didn’t help that the owner’s name was W.F. Williams. What did the “W” stand for? If (as I assumed) it stood for William, oh good gosh, do you know how many “William Williams” are listed in the telephone books each year? Well, I’ll tell you that in the early 1900s — for that’s when I began my search — there were more than 40. So then I turned my attention to the name of the driver. He seemed to spell his last name as “Antoine” but that turned up nothing, so then I looked for “Antioine” and that also turned up nothing. Finally, after considerable squinting, I decided the fellow’s last name was actually “Antwine” and I was right: Gerald T. Antwine was living here in the 1920s.
So that gave me a starting point, and I began to search back and forth through the business sections of the city directories for the 666 Taxi Company. That was an interesting journey. In 1915, there were no cab companies here. The next year, three were established — Rex Auto Service, Bismark Auto Company, and the Five-Thirty Taxi Company.
The following year, we had 16 taxi companies all competing for fares, and that’s when the curious notion of giving most of them three-digit names became obvious: Five-Thirty Taxi, Five-Twenty-Nine Taxi, Four-Forty-Eight Taxi, Seven-Eighty-Four Taxi, and Six-Forty-Four Taxi. The mind reels.
Not a single one of these companies was basing their name on their street address. Instead — and this was pretty clever, if you ask me — their name was their telephone number, back when phone numbers were only three digits.
The company that concerns us started business in 1919. That’s when the Six-Sixty-Six Auto Company opened shop at 112 Gayoso. That was their phone number — Cumberland 666 — so let’s just assume W.F. Williams didn’t care that to many people those particular numbers also represent something besides a taxicab. Or maybe he couldn’t do anything about it.
At any rate, he didn’t have to care about it for long, because in 1928, the company name changed to — are you ready for this? — the Six-O-Six-Sixty-Six Taxi Company. Well, what could they do? Memphis phones now had five digits, and the taxi phone number was — you guessed it — 6-0666.
Oh, and what about Gerald Antwine? Apparently he tired of driving a cab. Later listings show him working as a plumber, a job he held until his death in 1964 at the age of 63.
The 666 Taxi Company closed sometime in 1929, and the property on Gayoso became the Waldorf Hotel. Yes, Memphis at one time had a Waldorf Hotel. But that’s a story for another day.