Bellevue Cemetery volunteers after Florence: 'We need help'

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The historic Wilmington cemetery, short on cash and manpower, is still recovering from September’s hurricane

WILMINGTON – Every Saturday and Sunday, Charlie Rivenbark and a few friends beat the sun out of bed with a mission.

By 8 a.m., Rivenbark, along with Marion Vernon, Ed Richards and a weekly batch of locals serving out community service hours are out at Bellevue Cemetery on Princess Place Drive tending to the historic resting place. The early rise is not always the most enticing prospect after a long week.

But if they don’t do it, no one will.

The 32-acre cemetery, a nonprofit foundation, doesn’t have a perpetual care fund or a source of income to hire a landscaping crew.

Rivenbark, a Wilmington councilman, has been mowing the cemetery since he was a kid, as his father and other family are buried within the grounds. He was recruited by several men who oversaw the cemetery, including George Futch, to take over maintaining it 27 years ago and now shares the duties with people like Vernon and Richards, who is a retired Chicago police officer.

They’ve managed, so far.

But the cemetery, which was built in 1868 for residents of moderate means, has been dealt a series of blows from which it’s struggling to rebound.

First, it lost its source of income.

“When the film industry was roaring, we did OK because they paid us $600 a day to come in here and film,” Rivenbark said, referencing productions like “Sleepy Hollow” and “One Tree Hill.” “That was how we survived. With that gone, we have zero income.”

Then, the small team, already stretched thin to make up for the loss of income, was hit with Hurricane Florence, which proved to be a one-two punch.

“We’ve never had a storm with this level of damage,” Rivenbark said. “This place normally looks like a pristine park.”

The day after the storm, Rivenbark stopped by to check on the cemetery and the first thing he noticed was the shipping container with all the equipment donated over the years to help maintain the grounds was inexplicably missing.

“It floated up in the floodwater and sank down into Burnt Mill Creek and was left sitting at a cock-eyed angle” he said. “All of our equipment was ruined.”

Rivenbark’s Rotary Club has since donated two lawn mowers, but that hasn’t been enough to handle the new workload.

Since Florence, the men said they have received plenty of estimates for the cleanup work from vendors, but they can’t afford the suggested $40,000 and $150,000 bills. On their own, they estimate they have done at least $20,000 in work already.

“We would be back to doing our normal thing if we had that kind of money, but we don’t and so we’re doing it ourselves,” Rivenbark said. “And we’ll get there.”

They mow, they pick up sticks and take chainsaws to downed trees. They collect the pieces of fallen gravestones, and Vernon repairs cracked or broken stones by hand with an epoxy he mixes himself.

But they can only do so much. In addition to storm cleanup, Rivenbark said they continue to battle reckless drivers with the fencing along Princess Place Drive.

Although most are dedicated and very appreciated, those doing community service don’t operate heavy equipment and therefore have limited tasks.

More than four months out from Florence, the group is now on a time crunch to get the site back in shape for the spring. Last fall, they lost several weekends of work near constant onslaught of rain on what seemed like every Friday and Saturday.

“We need help,” Rivenbark said. “If we can raise $10,000 or $15,000, we could put this place back to what it was before the storm.”

“And that’s with us doing the work,” Vernon added.

The cemetery can accept donations through the foundation or contact him directly. Rivenbark said they could also use heavy equipment to help move out some of the debris they’ve collected.

Although they aren’t paid or employed by the cemetery, Vernon said they feel a sense of duty to keeping Bellevue in good health for those interred in it and their loved ones who visit.

“I love this place,” Vernon said. “If it had water and sewer, I’d live out here. I just love the history.”

Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or