Vince Evans rides through Alta Vista Cemetery as he might his old neighborhood, pointing out different people and noting their significant achievements or quirky characteristics.
In his official capacity, Evans is Alta Vista’s superintendent. But, unofficially, he has become the historic cemetery’s historian.
The latter title evolved from what Evans calls a self-defense mechanism. Often, he said, he encounters people in search of their lineage,
"People come in like once a week, twice a week, and they come up with these off-the-wall stories," Evans said.
He’s been told one of the cemetery’s residents was killed by a whale. Another man, owner of a hardware store by the name of Barrett, is buried in an above-ground crypt because his untimely death occurred in an underground safe.
"It’s the most interesting job I’ve ever had," Evans said. "It’s just so easy to come across stories."
No matter how riveting it has been for 10 years, Evans knows he will retire in the next few years.
But before he turns the business of the dead over to someone else, Evans wants to make sure Alta Vista is preserved.
He is in the process of applying to have the cemetery recognized as an historically significant location on the National Register of Historic Places.
A listing on the register would give the cemetery some pull in grant applications and preserve its historical value, Evans said.
The application to be placed on the register is designed more for buildings than for cemeteries, Evans concedes. But he wonders, how much more historical can a place get than a cemetery?
"I think that most any cemetery in my mind would commonly be a historic place, especially one as old as Alta Vista is," he said.
The cemetery, located in the heart of the city, had its first burial in 1872, but after it opened other graves were moved into Alta Vista from as early as 1829, Evans said.
Along with its age, Alta Vista is the final resting place of some of Gainesville’s most interesting residents, a quality that may be a major factor in clinching the cemetery’s spot on the register.
The cemetery is home to the remains of three Revolutionary War veterans, 125 Civil War veterans, two Georgia governors and two U.S. congressmen, as well as past mayors, postmasters, sheriffs and the man for whom Banks County is named.
There is, of course, the cemetery’s biggest name, Gen. James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s right-hand man and friend of President Woodrow Wilson. After spending the last 19 years of his life in Gainesville, Longstreet died in 1904 and was buried in Alta Vista.
His is Alta Vista’s most visited grave, Evans said.
But there are the other, less celebrated residents of the cemetery who are just as notable.
Manley Lanier "Sonny" Carter, an astronaut, logged 120 hours in space in 1991, shortly after flights resumed following the Challenger explosion. Three other cemetery residents also have connections with NASA and Cape Canaveral, Evans said.
Maude Mooney’s grave is decorated with a drawing of a female trapeze acrobat. As Evans tells it, Mooney, whose stage name was Millie Vortex, was a circus performer who became sick while the circus was in Gainesville in 1942.
"As they say, the show must go on," Evans said. "They had a place to be and they left enough money behind to get her well or ... bury her."
According to documents on the National Park Service’s Web site, the organization evaluates cemeteries’ historical significance by their significance to the community, specific events in history and military achievements.
Evans said he is confident Alta Vista has what it takes.
"I feel good about it; I don’t know why they would turn us down for that," Evans said.