WINFIELD — Side by side in a Putnam County cemetery stand two heart-shaped headstones, one for Ewok, one for Foxfire, both inscribed “We Miss You.”
Those would be strange human names, but they’re perfect for beloved chow chows, as the markers indicate.
The cemetery — located just south of Winfield on W.Va. 34 and divided into two parts, J.L. Bowling Cemetery and Teays Valley Memorial Gardens — is home to more than 40,000 departed pets and perhaps more than 1,000 humans. But many of the markers, like those for Ewok and Foxfire, are shrouded in tall grass.
So continues the ongoing frustration over the condition of the graveyard, which was ordered to be sold to pay off unpaid taxes and other charges around the beginning of this year. It hasn’t been sold yet, and a spokesperson for an assistant U.S. attorney who handled the tax case didn’t return requests for comment on when the sale may proceed.
The cemetery’s owner, Howard Hunter, said he laid off the property’s workers in 2011 amid financial problems that began before his late boss, J. L. Bowling, who died in 2009, willed him the property. Hunter said the state has put him in a kind of Catch-22: He can’t pay unpaid taxes racked up while Bowling was still alive because the cemetery isn’t operating, but he’ll be fined $10,000 if he gets caught working on the property without paying down the debts. Lawyers from the state Tax Department said the department isn’t threatening such a fine.
In June 2012, the federal government filed suit in West Virginia’s Southern District claiming B’s C&D owed more than $91,000 in unpaid employment taxes, penalties and interest dating back to 2002. B’s C&D, which stands for Bowling’s Cat & Dog, is the corporation Bowling set up to run the cemetery, though the suit states the corporation’s charter may have been revoked more than a decade ago.
The government requested a judge force the sale of the property to pay the tax liens against it. Hunter, the president and sole shareholder of B’s C&D, answered the federal government’s complaint without a lawyer. Hunter hand-wrote a letter to the court saying he didn’t currently have money to pay the taxes nor even the utilities but asked the court to let him try.
“When the cemetery didn’t have the money to operate, then Mr. Bowling had a roofing business and he would use that money to keep the cemetery going,” Hunter wrote. “But I don’t have a roofing business or anything else.”
Though Hunter is supposedly president of the B’s C&D, corporate officers are legally barred from defending their corporations from lawsuits without a lawyer, an attorney in the case said. So the court treated the case as if no one had answered the federal government’s complaint and ordered that B’s C&D must pay about $96,000 — the original owed amount plus interest that accrued since the case began.
Hunter said Wednesday he’s paid some of that amount but didn’t specify how much. He’s said he’s unsure about much of what’s going on with the property. He’s unsuccessfully been trying to sell it himself and pay off all the taxes, but he didn’t have any indication that the state or federal government was moving forward with a forced sale. He’s allowed his real estate listing for the property to expire.
Duke Jordan, who manages the Teays Valley area for Great Expectations Realty, said he had been trying to sell the roughly 28-acre property for at least two years. He thinks the last listed price was $299,000 — he used to list it for $499,000.
Jordan said he did get a couple calls from other cemeteries seeking to buy the property, which still has room for expansion, but nothing came through.
“It takes a special, special buyer for a cemetery,” he said. “Especially an animal, pet cemetery.”
Jordan said interested buyers are still welcome to call him at 304-415-0607; Hunter, whom the Gazette interviewed at his Culloden home, didn’t provide a number to call.
“I’m glad my husband can’t see it,” Jo Finney, of Scott Depot, said on a sunny Wednesday morning while visiting the grave of their Boston bull terrier. The marker reads, “Susie Two. Loved by Clyde & Jo Finney. 1-20-86 to 7-20-00.”
“I spent as much money putting her away as I would a baby,” Swinney said.
Clyde died three years ago. He’s no longer here to mow the area, and Jo said she has a bad back but would be willing to pay someone to do it. She called the situation a disgrace, but said the graveyard looks great compared to last year.
“When I came over here last year,” she said, tearing up, “that grass was a foot above that tombstone.”
Finney said the cemetery was kept “immaculate” while Bowling was alive. She remembered one July 4 when he lined both sides of road leading into the property with American flags.
“Everything was absolutely in its place,” she said.
Hunter said that, though Bowling maintained the property while he was alive, he hasn’t seen any paperwork that promised perpetual care of the graves to those who buried loved ones there. For now, it appears it’s up to people who care about those in the graves to maintain them. There’s lots of tall grass in the cemetery, but also mowed patches.
Van Ballard said that almost every Saturday and Sunday last year he’d leave his Belle home around 6:30 a.m., arrive at the graveyard around 7:15 a.m. and cut grass until 1 or 1:30 p.m. He said it would take him about two days using a push mower to trim the west side of the cemetery where his father and most of the humans are buried. His dad has some pets buried there, but he said Bowling never moved them next to his father’s grave like he was supposed to.
Ballard said he began cutting last year after he saw a news report on the cemetery’s condition, and the first weekend there were probably 40 people there. But the group dissipated. He started a Facebook page for the cemetery. It has only nine likes.
“I take it that nothing has changed,” he wrote in a June 2013 post, “so this Sat 6/8 or Sun 6/9 I will go out and cut what I can.”
Hunter said anyone is welcome to bring a mower or weed eater onto the property, and said if they don’t take care of the graves themselves, “they’re up s---- creek.” He suggested that while they’re trimming their own plots, they should fix their neighbors’ as well.
“If everybody did that,” he said, “it’d change.”
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