Judge Bobby Junkins portrays the first Probate Judge of Etowah County Judge Lemel Eldridge Hamlin at A Walk Through Time. Photo courtesy of Eric Wright.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Gadsden turns back the clock this autumn, with Forrest Cemetery serving as a portal into the past.
On Sunday, October 17, residents stepping through the cemetery’s gate will leave their modern world and emerge in captivating former eras enriched with intriguing local individuals — whose incredible stories outlived the years etched into their headstones. Forrest Cemetery’s 12th annual A Walk Through Time resurges this year, inviting guests to experience the history that abounds in their hometown and meet prominent pillars who upheld their community years ago, building the foundation for Gadsden’s future.
As a cemetery stroll dedicated to the preservation of Gadsden’s historic Forrest Cemetery, A Walk Through Time educates visitors while it entertains. Those meandering about might recognize familiar faces ordained in period-specific clothing, acting as real people who once lived in Gadsden and are now buried in the cemetery. Attendees pass from grave to grave listening to the most interesting lives unfold before them, catching a glimpse of who used to walk the same paths their feet rest upon today. The individuals represented in A Walk Through Time are portrayed by notable figures throughout the current community, and some participants are actual descendants of the people they depict.
Unlike other cemetery strolls which recruit seasoned actors to portray characters, Gadsden’s A Walk Through Time incorporates everyday citizens eager to contribute to their community. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, elected officials and people from all professional and personal backgrounds coincide to create the cast. This year, A Walk Through Time will feature over 50 portrayers.
“We just have people who are important in our community today play people who used to be important in our community,” said event coordinator Pudden McArthur, who has been involved in the stroll since its inception.
A Walk Through Time originated in 2009, from the clever minds of two women: Artie Morgan and Sherrie Clayton. After the pair visited Maple Hill’s impressive cemetery stroll in Huntsville, they contacted the City of Gadsden, Forrest Cemetery Board and Forrest Cemetery Foundation about initiating a similar event at 700 South 15th Street. With the approval of the mayor, board and foundation – who prompted Morgan and Clayton to spearhead the initiative – the dynamic duo worked for over a year to organize the first cemetery stroll at Forrest.
While some might consider October an appropriate month for ghosts of the past to arise, the reasoning behind the event’s date proves less spooky. Since Maple Hill’s event was cancelled several years due to poor weather, Morgan and Clayton elected to hold A Walk Through Time in October, the driest month.
McArthur’s affiliation with A Walk Through Time sparked from her cousin, who served on the cemetery’s foundation board. While Clayton and Morgan sought individuals to portray a series of characters, McArthur’s cousin encouraged her to join the crusade. The first year, alongside 22 other participants, McArthur depicted her great-great-great grandmother Martha Boyd Ramey, who she still plays every year.
Personal circumstances shifted coordinating responsibilities further toward McArthur in the following years, who collaborates with a collection of passionate women and men committed to ensuring the event succeeds. Though the event emphasizes the importance of Forrest Cemetery’s conservation, accepting donations for its cause, all organizers (from the board, to the participants, to others helping) operate on a volunteer basis and never charge guests a dime.
As an educational opportunity, A Walk Through Time partners with local public and private school systems to invite students to attend for extra credit. Gadsden City High School Titan Ambassadors drive golf carts during the event for those who need assistance traveling from site to site. McArthur shared that children and parents alike enjoy A Walk Through Time, with adults commenting on how much they learn themselves in a mere three hours.
“It really is a history lesson,” said McArthur, emphasizing that several characters represent ordinary people who harbored extraordinary experiences. “It’s not that everybody [being portrayed] was famous – a lot of our people are not. You’ve never heard of them before. But they had such interesting lives and interesting stories.”
McArthur and the board begin planning in January, with instrumental organizers like Morgan researching with the utmost diligence new characters from different sources. Descendants are always informed of their relative’s portrayal in the stroll, with McArthur, Morgan and other volunteers requesting permission to depict their family members beforehand.
Following A Walk Through Time’s cancellation due to COVID-19 last year, this year’s theme will interweave 2020 and 2021, adopting two overarching motifs: Women’s Suffrage and Past Pandemics. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which provided women with the right to vote. As marches and rallies flourished throughout the United States to give women a voice, Gadsden experienced its own movement, with almost 40 suffragists advocating for equality and societal progression in the heart of the City of Champions. Their graves are marked for A Walk Through Time, with a skit illustrating their efforts for patrons to witness. Among the suffragists portrayed is the outstanding Ida Mathis, who purchased DeSoto Caverns in Childersburg.
Over 100 years transpired since the Spanish Flu pandemic hit Etowah County, alongside other diseases, such as smallpox, that impacted the area. A Walk Through Time will reflect on these illnesses that affected Gadsden years ago, with both themes mirroring subjects pertinent to modern society. Women’s rights and gender equality remain essential in society’s advancement, with women advocating for one another each day, while the COVID-19 pandemic impacted lives worldwide and continues to influence communities across the globe.
McArthur commended the board, foundation and volunteers who work diligently to make A Walk Through Time possible. She discussed the community’s response to the event, sharing that children and strangers alike have seen her in public (out of costume) and remembered her from the cemetery. While she enjoys all aspects of A Walk Through Time, one of her most beloved moments each year resides in the first time she sees everyone in costume – some entirely unrecognizable – all huddled in a van riding to their stations. Before Forrest Cemetery welcomes guests through its gate, McArthur strolls through the procession herself, thanking each volunteer who contributes.
A Walk Through Time serves as a bridge between the past and the present, while inspiring residents to consider their future. As they experience the exceptional individuals who once inhabited their home, connections form and a deeper sense of appreciation flourishes for the city and county. A Walk Through Time unearths the stories that represent Gadsden’s greatest achievement – its people. Through showcasing their influence on their families and community and remembering those who came before, A Walk Through Time prompts residents today to treasure the place they live, understanding the importance of their actions as they create legacies of their own.
“I think it’s important,” said McArthur, giving an example of the connections A Walk Through Time builds. “All of us every week, if not every day, ride by the Mort Glosser Amphitheater. I grew up knowing Mort Glosser; he was a close family friend, but people don’t know who he was or what we he did. We’ve had people play Mayor Meighan before for Meighan Boulevard and Hannah Snellgrove from the Snellgrove Center. [It connects things in town], it makes you think, that’s where they got this name.”
“I hope [A Walk Through Time] shines a little light on the history of our county, but I also hope [visitors] get an appreciation for the cemetery itself. It is a beautiful place…the chapel is on the historic register. It is magnificent and we should keep it that way.”
A Walk Through Time invites people to attend its event on Sunday, October 17 from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Guests park at the old Gadsden High School and are transported to the cemetery. Admission is free, but donations are accepted and contribute to preserving the cemetery through the foundation. While the Forrest Cemetery chapel typically hosts several performances, this year the chapel is closed to ensure the health and safety of all attendees. Patrons are encouraged to wear masks. After receiving over $9,000 in donations toward the renovation of the cemetery’s Comfort Station, the station now includes three additional bathrooms, one of which is handicap accessible.