After multiple social media posts were made over the weekend, Fort Smith Parks Department crews were out in force Monday (Sep. 14), mowing Oak Cemetery. Fort Smith Attorney Joe McCutchen shared a Facebook post Sunday that included photos of Oak Cemetery with tall grass and overgrown weeds.
“Oak Cemetery is owned by the City of Fort Smith. I have been to Oak Cemetery recently and have expressed my strong feelings of disappointment (and) disgust with the city concerning the lack of care. Is this the respect and dignity that deceased members of our community deserve? I don’t think so.
“The city routinely hands out fines and more for private owners of property that don’t meet private upkeep at standards that the city demands. Hypocrisy!” the post said.
The city has a nuisance ordinance that states that all grasses and weeds in the city shall be maintained at 10 inches or less in height. If that is violated, the city can issue an order to cut to the property owner. According to section 1-9 of the city’s municipal code, “except as otherwise provided, a person convicted of a violation of this Code shall be punished by a fine: (1) Not exceeding $1,000.00 for the first offense or violation; (2) Not exceeding $2,000.00 for the second offense or violation; and (3) Not exceeding $4,000.00 for each subsequent offense or violation.”
Another post made Sunday by Jennifer Silberzahn Webster on the Fort Smith Residents Forum page showed photos of a woman mowing around gravestones at the cemetery.
“This is one single woman trying to clean up areas of the Oak cemetery. I stopped and talked to her. She was using her Weed Eater, trying to find headstones. I took her to her house to help her get her mower, so she could try to do some more. Kudos to the caring person for everything she’s doing,” the post said.
Other posts mentioned that others had gone to help with the landscaping work.
Shari Cooper, public relations and communications manager for the city of Fort Smith, said the city had heard from members of the public as early as last week.
“It had been too wet for (the parks department) to have the chance to cut the grass,” Cooper said.
Because of a wet summer and shortage of seasonal workers, the parks department has had difficulty keeping up with unusually fast grass growth in the city’s parks, Cooper said. In the past week, the city had eight inches of rain and in the past month it has had 13 inches, she added. That amount of rain has caused grass and weeds to grow very quickly.
“Also, the city’s (professional) mowing equipment weighs about 15,000 pounds. They will sink if the ground is too wet and leave ruts,” Cooper said, noting that if a mower were to sink while on one of the many hills in the cemetery they can tip over, becoming a safety hazard to city workers using the equipment.
Parks Director Doug Reinert said the city is down 20 seasonal workers this year due to cuts in the department’s budget. In April, Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken asked each department to cut 10% of their budgets in anticipation of lost sales tax revenue to the COVID-10 pandemic. The city has 36 parks with 700 acres to maintain. Seasonal workers are usually hired during the spring and summer months to help with mowing, Cooper said. Because of a hiring freeze, that did not happen this year.
Cooper also said parks workers were still tied up on several projects resulting from a tornado and record flooding of the Arkansas River in Fort Smith in 2019.
“They have a very heavy workload,” Cooper said.
The city’s streets department does have plans to begin an improvement project on the roads inside the cemetery in November, Cooper said. That project will include a drainage system and landscaping. An adequate drainage system was not installed when the cemetery was created 152 years ago, Cooper said.
The oldest monument in the city-owned cemetery is dated 1842, the same year Fort Smith was incorporated, and marks the grave of Captain Gookin, the cemetery’s website states. The 30-acre facility holds the graves of at 28 of those hanged by Judge Issac C. Parker and more than 100 U.S. Marshals, deputies and court appointed officials. The Sexton House museum at the cemetery provides office space and a storage area for burial records along with photos, historical artifacts and documents. A multi-media center is also available for visitors to view videos and a pavilion is located next to the museum, the website states. Plots are still available for purchase in the cemetery. Graveside services are required to be held at the pavilion.
Oak Cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the oldest burial sites in the State of Arkansas.