Students from Stephen F. Austin State University conduct research at the historic Zion Hill Cemetery near downtown Nacogdoches. A model cemetery-interpretation program is being created for Zion Hill and nearby Oak Grove Cemetery through a "Preserve America" grant from the National Park Service.

NACOGDOCHES, Texas -- Collaboration between the City of Nacogdoches and Stephen F. Austin State University has resulted in a $250,000 "Preserve America" grant from the National Park Service for cemetery interpretation.

The grant was awarded to the City of Nacogdoches based on a proposal prepared by a team of city officials and SFA faculty members across various disciplines, including forestry, education, history and sociology. The city and university are contributing a matching share, for a total project cost of $500,000.

The first objective of the project is to build upon existing Geographic Information Systems data to create a model cemetery-interpretation program for the Oak Grove and Zion Hill cemeteries in Nacogdoches. Once established, genealogy researchers and heritage tourists may access the program online to learn about the historic cemeteries and the people buried in them.

"Ideally, someone in another state who is interested in genealogy or heritage tourism could go to the Web site and call up a cemetery of interest, click on a particular gravesite and access information from various sources," said Dr. Theresa Coble, associate professor of forest recreation and interpretation at SFA.

"They might find a picture of the tombstone, a newspaper clipping of the obituary, photos of the person buried there or even a link to a virtual tour of the entire cemetery - all in one place."

Genealogy is considered to be the fastest-growing hobby in North America, so there is considerable interest in this type of resource, she added.

Other program objectives are to facilitate a unified approach to community-based cemetery interpretation throughout the five-county Crossroads Region of the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail and to plan regional heritage tourism initiatives related to cemetery tourism.

"This project will serve as a model for other communities planning cemetery interpretation programs," said Chay Runnels, a lecturer in the SFA School of Human Sciences. "We already have heritage tourists who are visiting our cemeteries. This project will enhance their experience in Nacogdoches and hopefully draw even more tourists to the entire area."

Brian W. Bray, historic sites manager for the City of Nacogdoches, said the project also will benefit educators and students.

"I think the biggest impact will be that teachers from both within and outside the area will be able to learn something about the history of Nacogdoches through this new electronic medium," he said. "Locally, teachers will be able to plan history lessons related to the cemetery and the significant historical figures buried there, and then the class can actually go and visit the site."

A special project kick-off event will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Nacogdoches Convention & Visitors Bureau, located at 200 E. Main St. in downtown Nacogdoches. Transportation will be provided to nearby Oak Grove Cemetery, where local historians will share stories and information about the cemetery interpretation project. The public is invited to attend this free event.

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