Unearthed after more than 130 years from its resting place 6 feet beneath the surface, a baby’s headstone found at the city parking garage construction in downtown Tyler this week led officials to a neighborhood history lesson.
Self-proclaimed history buff and relic hunter Rick Garrett said the discovery by Rodney Kinard, foreman with L&L Asphalt Corp., was amazing.
Kinard was digging Monday with a track hoe on the site of the new parking garage at Elm Street and Broadway Avenue and called Garrett to tell him he found something he needed to see.
The foreman had unearthed a 2-month-old baby’s tombstone from 1883.
Garrett, 57, of Tyler, knew he had to grab the tombstone and find the right people to take and preserve it. He gently dusted it off in the back of his pickup truck Tuesday.
“Is that not the coolest thing, y’all?” he asked. “This hasn’t seen daylight in years.
“It’s a baby’s tombstone. I don’t know what to do with it. It needs to be handled in a special way.”
He said they have found no other signs of any headstones or bones on the job site, just a few old bottles.
“We’re always careful when we excavate,” he said, adding that they can’t slow down too much because they need to stay on schedule. “In my opinion, (the headstone) needs to be preserved.
“It doesn’t need to be cast aside … It needs some tender-loving care.”
Garrett started Rainbow Sealcoat, an asphalt maintenance firm, in 1982. He merged his company with L&L Asphalt a few years ago.
Garrett said he is a history student and enjoys learning about Tyler and Smith County. Through the years, he has found a cache of Civil War relics, and about 10 years ago, he and a friend found 22 Tyler railroad baggage claim checks under the Broadway underpass, a rare find.
The question city officials faced after Tuesday’s discovery was if the headstone, dated Oct. 30, 1883, was part of a grave site at the location, which could have slowed progress as they excavated for additional evidence.
The headstone displays the name of a 2-month-old child named William T. Swinney, and Smith County Historical Society’s Sam Kidd said records show the child was born to Charles T. Swinney and his wife, Josie, who married in 1882 in Smith County.
Kidd said the parents listed their occupation as farmers in the 1890 Census, and William, with his birth date in August 1883, appeared to be the first born of seven children. The records show the children went to the Model School in Smith County.
But how did the child’s headstone wind up buried under 6 feet of soil in downtown and not on a farm?
Kidd and Tyler City Engineer Carter Delleney believe the answer is simple - it was made at the location, which was a marble yard, according to maps from the 1880s.
The marble yard sat on the corner of Elm and Broadway where the parking garage is being constructed.
Kidd said that since Swinney was listed as a farmer, he believes the family might not have been able to afford to pay for the headstone, and the child was buried on the family farm somewhere in Smith County.
The headstone was then just placed somewhere on the marble yard’s property, and over the years and various construction projects, it was buried.
Kidd said records show the First Presbyterian Church, now on Rusk Street, was built on the site in 1919, and Montgomery Ward was built on the College Street side of the lot in the in 1930s.
The area also once held a horse barn and livery stable and a mechanic shop.
But it was not until construction crews moving vast amounts of dirt for the garage project that the headstone came to light.
Delleney said research will continue to see if the headstone might one day be placed with the baby’s gravesite.
Garrett said the Swinneys were some of the founding fathers of East Texas, and he hopes someone can trace the baby back to their family and put the headstone with their family plot.
“It’s a baby’s tombstone,” he said. “It means a lot.”