Jane and John Gauntt III stand beside the small grave of Sarah Herndon just off Donahoe Road in southeast Bell County. Sarah died nearly 160 years ago after being consumed by quicksand while walking to a neighbor’s house to knit. Jane and John have pitched in to clean up the grave area. Jason Deckman photo

Local family makes 160-year-old grave a project


There’s not much left of the once-thriving community of Donahoe. 

There’s a Donahoe Road, a community cemetery and a Donahoe Creek, but one of the last vestiges of the southeast Bell County ghost town is a lone grave about 10 feet off Donahoe Road. 

Until this week, the headstone was missing, but most folks in the area know exactly who was buried inside the small wrought-iron fence.

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Sarah Herndon was 63 the day she decided to walk to a neighbor’s house for an afternoon of knitting. Instead of following the road, Sarah decided to take a shortcut through a field. The alternate route involved crossing Donahoe Creek, but even after a recent rain she figured forging the stream would be easy.

Unfortunately, Sarah was wrong. 

The creek bed was very muddy, and at some point Sarah slipped and slid down an embankment where she became mired in quicksand. Within seconds, she was gone.

The McKays, the neighbors she was en route to visit, realized something must have gone awry during Sarah’s walk and quickly organized a search party. Nothing was found that pointed to foul play, but within a few days, her body resurfaced along the quick-sand banks of the Donahoe.

According to local lore, Sarah’s hand still clutched a sock she had been knitting. 

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For decades, folks in and around the Donahoe community took care of the highly visible grave, which was dug not far from the spot where her body was found. The grave, protected by the little fence, has survived nearly 160 years.

During much of that time, weeds were pulled from inside the fence, and fresh or artificial flowers were placed at the grave. But, as the years went by, Sarah’s grave became targeted by Mother Earth and vandals. Weeds and brush invaded the little fenced-in space, and at some point the headstone disappeared.

That’s when Jerri Gauntt discovered Sarah’s grave.

“It was the summer of 2020, and I needed an escape from the pandemic so I went for a drive,” said Gauntt, who lives between Belton and Salado. “My husband’s family has Bell County roots, so I knew where I was going. I was on Donahoe Road, and I noticed the little grave just off the road.”

“The headstone was missing — probably for a long time,” she said. “I think it was stolen. The marker eventually was recovered by a Bell County deputy, and at some point it was turned over to the Bell County Historic Commission.”

“My friend Nancy Kelsey heads the Commission, and I contacted her for information about the grave,” Gauntt said. “She knew exactly what I was talking about and told me she had the marker.”

Gauntt sent the headstone to a man in Brenham who specializes in old grave markers. He repaired it and added a heavy concrete base that would help the headstone stay in place.

The headstone reads: “Mrs. Sarah Herndon, Born in 1800, Died in 1863. Gone but not forgotten.” A hand with an index finger pointed toward Heaven was engraved at the top of the marker.

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When Jerri Gauntt found Sarah’s grave, it was much in need of attention. She began cleaning the area, and her husband John and two children pitched in.

“The kids — Jane and John III — are teenagers, and they belong to 4H and the local Republic of Texas chapter. They need community service projects so they got involved. We’ve been picking up trash and keeping it cleaned up.”

“That wrought-iron fence needs replacing — it’s dilapidated,” Jerri said. “That will be our next project.”

The headstone — fresh from repairs — was returned to the gravesite this past Sunday. 

“While we were reinstalling the headstone, a car pulled up and a man got out,” she said. “He had been working on another cemetery and saw us. He said his family is from the area, and Sarah was walking to visit his ancestors when she died.”

Others in the community have again joined in the effort to keep Sarah’s grave clean and weed-free, and flowers are occasionally being left at the site. Someone has even left a cross hanging on the old fence.

Apparently the words on Sarah’s headstone are true. She really is gone but not forgotten.

The gravestone of Sarah Herndon was replaced last Sunday by members of the Gauntt family — Jerri, John Jr., Jane and John III. The marker was apparently stolen from the grave and recovered by a sheriff’s deputy and turned over to the Bell County Historic Commission. The headstone was repaired by a specialist in Brenham. Jason Deckman photo

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