106 year-old South Walton cemetery is final resting place for many county notables

Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 10:45 PM CDT
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Off County Road 393 in Santa Rosa Beach you’ll find the Historic Gulf Cemetery.

“People think it’s an old, almost abandoned cemetery that is just no longer active,” said Gulf Cemetery Association President Bill Keyes.

But it is very much active even though it has no manicured lawns or finely trimmed shrubbery.

“People say character, I can’t think of a better word. It has character,” said Keyes. “We try and keep as much of the trees and the palmettos and things as we can. That’s what gives the place character.”

It has a rustic feel if you will, and what it may lack in actual color, doesn’t mean it’s not “colorful”.

“It’s very different from a lot of other cemeteries,” said Keyes. “We kind of let people do what they want to do on their site within reason.”

The cemetery is more than a century old. Woodrow Wilson was President when the federal government turned the land over to locals.

“It’s unique in that it’s been run by an all-volunteer board for 106 years,” said Keyes. “I mean, there aren’t many businesses that are around that long, and it’s had its periods of ups and downs.”

But Keyes says new faces will come in and re-energize the site from time to time.

“It’s challenging,” said Keyes. “We try and be good stewards of the money that people donate and the money that people pay to have gravesites here, so a lot of the work we do ourselves.”

And some of the names on the headstones may sound familiar.

“There’s a lot of history here,” said Keyes. “A lot of the places and streets and lakes and beach access points are named after people and families that are buried in this cemetery.”

Take Blanche and Arthur Draper. Keyes believes Draper Lake, a coastal dune lake off 30A, is named after the local family.

The Ed Walline beach access where County Road 393 and 30A meet is named after the man who is buried at the cemetery too.

Members of the Butler family, for which Van Butler Elementary School in Santa Rosa Beach is named after, are also buried at the cemetery.

“So Zeke Bratkowski’s buried here,” said Keyes. “He was a professional football player for, I believe, 14 years.”

And he is a member of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, not to mention on the University of Georgia’s Circle of Honor.

Remember the terrible Mussett Bayou fire in Walton County a few months ago? The namesake of that area is buried at the cemetery also.

But unfortunately, many buried at Gulf Cemetery have been forgotten.

“Back in the olden days, they used wooden headstones, wooden crosses and over time those degenerated and they’re long gone,” said Keyes. “So there’s people buried here that we don’t know where, so certain parts of the cemetery we don’t sell sites anymore, just the newer area.”

Marker or no marker, one thing’s for sure. It’s not a bad place to buy your final piece of real estate.

Keyes says about eight to 900 people are buried at the cemetery including about 150 veterans, some from the Civil War. He says they’ve only cleared about 10 of its 40 acres. He says they can fit about eight to 9,000 more gravesites on the property. A site costs roughly $900.

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