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Worst Little Graveyard in Texas

Written by Blair Case.

When Civil War veteran Isaac Sylvester Tompkins grew old, he pointed toward a grassy bluff on the empty North Texas prairie and told his wife, Mary, to bury him beneath the shade trees at its summit. Today, 23 of Isaac's descendants lie alongside him beneath the live oak and cedar trees, but one wonders how peacefully they sleep.

The empty prairie has become Irving, and the small Tompkins Family Plat is a traffic island awash in some of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex's heaviest traffic. The cemetery lies in a tiny triangle formed by Airport Freeway, an eastbound exit ramp, and Valley View Lane. Directly across the six-lane expressway lies DFW International Airport, its runways aimed like gun barrels at Isaac's grave.

The graveyard isn't particulary spooky. At night, light from freeway lamps flickers on the gravestones. That banshee wail is just the shriek of an outbound 747, and that "something that goes clunk in the night" is a beer bottle heaved out a car window to shatter amid the tombstones. (The Tompkins clan rationalizes that motorists haven't heard the "Don't Mess with Texas" jingle or don't realize the plot is hallowed ground because it's slightly elevated above the roadway. A trust fund ensures litter is removed and the graves perpetually tended.)

Needless to say, graveside services can be lacking in "atmosphere." Mourners park precariously on the apron of the access road, wait for a break in traffic, then sprint for the cemetery gate. The noise of heavy traffic thundering past and of airliners struggling for altitude drown out even the most eloquent eulogy.

If Isaac could have foreseen the future, he might have chosen a different burial site, but that's far from certain–he could be a cantankerous sort. As part of a brigade led by legendary Texas Ranger Sul Ross, Isaac was encamped on the banks of Mississippi's Big Black River in May 1865 when word came that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. "War's over," Yankee soldiers shouted across the picket lines, but the war wasn't over for Private Tompkins. Having survived four years of cannon shot, minié balls, and saber slashes, he was in no mood to surrender. "We will fight them to the end, as long as life's blood flows in the veins of those who have followed Ross," Isaac declared.

But cooler heads prevailed, and Isaac, like others, swallowed his pride, swore an oath of allegiance, and returned to Texas. In November 1865, he built a small cabin on the blackland prairie northwest of Dallas, began raising livestock, endured blue northers howling off the plains, and prospered. In 1869, he married Mary Burns, 25 years his junior. On January 12, 1897, Isaac died of double pneumonia, and Mary, true to her promise, buried him on the bluff beneath the trees.

Today, Isaac's descendants take a perverse pride in their unusual family cemetery, which has room for several more graves, and plan to bury their dead there as long as space remains. As "The Worst Little Graveyard in Texas," the Tompkins Family Plat is a metaphor for the urbanization of the Lone Star State. But planted firmly in the path of progress, it also symbolizes the permanence of memory and the enduring stubbornness of family ties.

From the January 1998 issue.

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