Former Fort Worth Fire Chief John T. Wilkes died nearly 130 years ago, and in September his grave will finally get a marker — in the form of a QR code.

Volunteers in the Pioneers Rest Cemetery Association plan to install placards with QR codes at 20 graves, which will link to biographies about the interred person. The group hopes that educating the public about the people buried in the historic cemetery will help drive interest and investment in its restoration. 

“It makes a cemetery a much more human place,” archivist and volunteer Shelley Gayler-Smith said. “It’s not just some spooky place that you should never go into. It’s a place that is very human. People who did good things and bad things, who went to church, who went to school. Some were educated. Some were not. It represents everybody.”

Pioneers Rest Association plans to install 21 placards for its virtual cemetery tour. A mockup of the introductory plaque is shown here and the 20 others will be stationed at specific gravesites throughout the cemetery. (Courtesy image | Pioneers Rest Cemetery Association)

The cemetery

The cemetery is nearly as old as the military outpost of Fort Worth itself.

According to a sign from the Texas Historical Commission stationed just inside the cemetery’s main gates, about 3 acres of land were donated by Dr. François Ignace Gouhenant, who also went by Adolphe or Adolphus, in 1850. Gouhenant gave the land to his friend Maj. Ripley Allen Arnold as a burial site for his two deceased children, Sophie and Willis. Eleven soldiers from the Fort were also buried at the site around the same time.

However, a book compiled by Weldon Hudson and Barbara Knox disputes that Gouhenant was the original owner of the land and paints a more complicated picture.

As the city grew, Pioneers Rest became the final resting place for many of its early settlers, including Arnold, former commander of troops at Fort Worth, and the county’s namesake Gen. Edward H. Tarrant.

In 1871, the cemetery gained another roughly 3 acres, according to the same historical commission placard.

Today, the cemetery is bounded by a set of railroad tracks on one side, a new apartment building on the other, traffic from Samuels Avenue and a few single family homes. A recent site survey found that the cemetery encompasses approximately 7 acres.

However, some cemetery caretakers believe that the burials might extend beyond the site’s current borders. Eventually, the association hopes to have the money to complete a full ground penetrating radar survey to help them create a more accurate map of the interments. 

Sometimes people purchased gravesites, but were buried elsewhere. Others were buried within Pioneers Rest, but cemetery records simply list the location as “unmarked.” And occasionally people might have been buried on site but exhumed and reinterred elsewhere at a later date, particularly if the previous plot wasn’t large enough to accommodate all of their children or grandchildren. 

A radar survey would help them fill in the blanks where records are incomplete or missing altogether.

Smith said a handful of burials have taken place since 1993, but they have been infrequent.

If you go

What: Test out the QR codes during Fall Fest at Pioneers Rest
When: 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Oct. 15
Where: Pioneers Rest Cemetery
            620 Samuels Ave.
            Fort Worth, TX 76102
Admission: Free
Additional information: Learn more about the festivities here.

‘I’ve got an idea for you’

Teresa Wilson has only been volunteering with Pioneers Rest Cemetery Association since 2021, but the group’s treasurer has proven to be a Swiss Army knife of sorts. 

The former Lockheed Martin engineer remembers venturing out to the cemetery with other volunteers and a list of deceased service members, determined to plant flags for Veterans Day.

“We couldn’t figure out where they needed to go. It was a very labor intensive project,” she said. “If all you have is a printed list and you’re looking down that list to see if this grave is on that list, imagine doing that on all 7 acres and it’s just crazy.”

After that experience, Wilson made a spreadsheet and worked to update and digitize the cemetery’s records.

In her tenure, she also has created a new email address for the group, developed its website and set up the email marketing software Constant Contact to send out newsletters.

“We’ve had a lot of descendants — probably two or three a week, it has been pretty incredible — that are contacting our email,” she said.

Wilson got connected to the group through her involvement in the Mary Isham Keith chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, or DAR.

Her colleague Cecelia Rollins Van Donselaar, also first got involved with the cemetery association through DAR. A fellow member was into historic preservation and noticed that Pioneers Rest didn’t have the same level of support as other historic cemeteries in town like Oakwood or Mount Olivet. 

“I was just helping her, and I loved her idea,” she said. “It’s perfect for our chapter. Our mission in Mary Isham Keith is patriotism, historic preservation and education. And it really fits all three.”

The lifelong Fort Worthian also has relatives buried at Pioneers Rest, including her maternal great grandmother and great grandfather. 

Rollins Van Donselaar brought forward the QR code idea to the group and helped recruit several fellow DAR members to volunteer. 

“It was my responsibility to help the new (DAR) members become active in at least one thing,” she said. “And so, since I was getting heavily involved in this one, if they mentioned, ‘I love historic preservation,’ I’d say, ‘I’ve got an idea for you.’”

Pioneers Rest Cemetery Association President Melanie Smith has several relatives buried on site, too, which is how she first got connected to the group. But she didn’t officially take over as the group’s president until May of this year.

Smith has been working hard to apply for grants and raise money to support maintenance projects that had previously been deferred. The QR code project is supported by a $2,000 grant from the Tarrant County Historical Society.

Today the association has between 40 to 50 members.

It’s been gratifying to infuse new life into the group, she said.

“In this chapter of my life, I’m really enjoying all these people so much as friends because they want to contribute to the community their gifts that they have,” she said. “It’s amazing to me that we watch things fall together.”

The project

Gayler-Smith, who has a master’s degree in library science and is a certified archivist, said she was first approached about leading the QR code project in either February or March of this year. 

“I have used QR codes in exhibits and things of that nature … I used to work at the University of Dallas and I was like, ‘Well, I’ve used them for archival exhibits. I guess I could make them a permanent exhibit inside of a cemetery,’” she said.  

As a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts, she was excited to learn that some scouts had done similar projects using QR codes printed on aluminum or metal signs affixed to posts and planted next to the graves.

That tactic appealed to Gayler-Smith, who decided to emulate it after rejecting the notion of adding signage directly to the headstones. 

“That’s where I kind of got ideas of what would work for us,” she said. “Ours are going to be on poles to the side of the headstone, so it does not disturb any of the antiquity of the headstone and the integrity … or cause any type of damage,” she said. “That’s my archival self — no adhesives.”

A mock-up shows what the gravesite placards will look like. The two black dots represent where the signs will be screwed into the posts. (Courtesy image | Pioneers Rest Cemetery Association)

The cemetery association worked together to select a broad swath of people to highlight in the first round of the project. The field includes some early residents of the Fort all the way up to a person who died in World War II.

Each placard will include the person’s name, years of birth and death, and link to a written biography and photos, when available.

“I know one of the people we’re going to be featuring was a trumpet player for several orchestras around Fort Worth. Wouldn’t that be great if we somehow found an audio file that was associated with him one day playing the trumpet?” she said. “That’s the joy of this. The QR code itself will stay the same at the grave, at the headstone, but the information on the website can be updated as new information comes in.”

The highlighted group also includes a firefighter, a police officer, a real estate developer and a socialite. 

“Is (socialite) really a job? I don’t know,” Gayler-Smith said. “Is that her version of what it was back then to be an influencer? I think there’s relatability in that with the younger audience.”

Being able to recognize connections to modern life is really important to Gayler-Smith. She hopes by making information about such similarities more accessible, people will be inspired to engage more with the city’s history.

“We’re all in this universe together,” she said. “So I think it’s nice to be able to speak of the people that came before us and have a better picture of where we came from, so we can have a better picture of where we’re going.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:35 p.m. on Aug. 23 to add information about the project’s funding and the original ownership of the cemetery’s land.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...