Fenley was once a prominent name in Louisville. John Fenley bought 1,100 acres that spanned from Iroquois Park to the Outer Loop in 1841. His farm was known locally as Hickory Grove. John’s son, Isaac, inherited the land in 1853 and pioneered the use of native roots and herbs for medicinal purposes. In 1907, developer W.E. Stonestreet began the process that would turn part of Hickory Grove into the Auburndale neighborhood. The Fenley family itself donated land to the city of Louisville that would be incorporated into Iroquois Park.
As Louisville residents forgot that Hickory Grove ever existed, memories of the Fenley family faded too. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the small, private Fenley Cemetery that sat off Old Third Street Road behind River City Worship Center (7515 3rd Street Rd). An elderly couple, Herb and Brenda Sweeney, were the last caretakers of the place. Herb, 79, actually helped his dad and uncle dig his grandfather’s grave when he was a small boy. But at some point Herb and Brenda became physically unable to maintain the property. By 2009, years of neglect meant that no one could tell the cemetery was even there. Tombstones were vandalized or just knocked over, and the ones that remained were hidden by overgrown grass and weeds.
Resurrecting Fenley Cemetery
If not for Jack Koppel, Fenley Cemetery would have been forgotten long ago. Koppel is a retired city emergency management employee and an amateur cemetery archaeologist who has compiled a list of 300 abandoned cemeteries in the Louisville area (See Sidebar). His list helped convince the Louisville Metro Council to create a Cemetery Board last year. Koppel applied to be on the five-person board which will identify and maintain private cemeteries, but Mayor Greg Fischer has yet to announce his appointments to the body.
“I expect to be on the board,” Koppel says confidently. “I am not sure what exactly the powers will be. I hope that we can also regulate what the existing cemeteries can and cannot. Cemeteries are a valuable link to our past. It is important that we maintain and protect them.”
Koppel’s interest in cemeteries began in the 1980s, when he lived in the Abraham Hite House in the Fern Creek neighborhood. He discovered a private cemetery that was almost completely covered up. That is when he started to compile his list, which is made up mostly of small cemeteries on farms. Most are abandoned because the property is sold or a family member has gotten too old to care for the graves. Koppel’s list includes everything from the Allison Cemetery on Wolf Pen Branch Road to the Gaunt Cemetery near Taylorsville Lake.
A Campaign to Save a Cemetery
Fenley Cemetery was on Koppel’s list until Stefanie Buzan and Rosemary McCandless, the authors of “A View from the Top: The Neighborhoods of Iroquois Park and Kenwood Hills” (Little Loomhouse, 2007) began a campaign to save it last year. Buzan, a longtime Humana Inc. executive, and McCandless, a retired educator, first discovered the Fenley Cemetery in 2009 when Koppel called them to ask about a reference the “French Cemetery” in their book.
Koppel was convinced the two had unwittingly found evidence of the Fenley Cemetery. The authors did not know the exact location of the cemetery mentioned, but Buzan’s husband, Tony, did. He grew up near Auburndale, and the cemetery had been part of a popular cut-through route for teenagers.
“That day, Tony took me, Rosemary, Garry (Rosemary’s husband) and Jack to Fenley for the first time,” Stefanie remembers. “It was a mess. Jack wanted to put a group together to clean it up, but me and Rosemary were in so far over our heads with the Little Loomhouse (another South End landmark) there was no way. It stuck in my head for years. I felt so bad that it was sitting there in such a mess.”
It wasn’t until years later, when something about the Fenleys came up in a Facebook post, that Stefanie Buzan decided to do something about their cemetery. She and McCandless organized the first clean-up in April 2015. They reached out to Koppel, and he brought a couple of volunteers. Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch (D-13), who represents the Auburndale neighborhood, provided equipment and more volunteers from Passport Health Plan to help as part of an Operation Brightside Neighborhood Cleanup Day.
Buzan and McCandless have continued to work at the cemetery with volunteers from Humana, their neighborhood, and other history enthusiasts. Koppel has taught the group how to look for lost tombstones. Andy Harpole of Friends of Eastern Cemetery taught them how to do tombstone cleaning and repair. Buzan and McCandless have also applied to have a historical marker placed on the site so the Fenleys will never be forgotten again.
“We hope to get to the point that we can enclose the cemetery with a fence,” Buzan says. “We continue to maintain the plant growth in the cemetery on a regular basis. We would like to find a school or church group or a Boy Scout troop that would be willing to take on this responsibility so it can be passed down over time and the cemetery will not get in a situation where the folks that are taking care of it can no longer do it.”