The resting place of a town's past: Old Roswell Cemetery is at least 150 years old, and many local luminaries: lie there.

William Sampler has never strayed very far from his peaceful place deep within Old Roswell Cemetery.

The same cannot be said for the Methodist minister's gravestone. Long missing, it was probably carried off by a "souvenir seeker," said local cemetery expert Michael Hitt.

But Sampler and his wife, Elizabeth, remain here, right where they always wanted to be.

"They buried them under what was the doorstep of that first church, " Hitt said about the small log structure that stood near today's busy intersection of Woodstock Road and U.S. Highway 19 (Alpharetta Road). No death date was recorded for Sampler, who was the church' s first pastor, from 1836 to 1854. "They wanted to use the doorstep as their grave marker."

The Samplers thus claimed a prime spot in the Methodist Church Burial Ground, as it was formerly known, but it is not the oldest spot. A 4-month-old girl was interred there in January 1846, according to Hitt's records, making hers the earliest recorded burial in a cemetery whose 150th anniversary is being marked with the same understated dignity that characterizes this surprisingly bucolic spot smack in the heart of booming Roswell.

No outward signs of celebration mark the cemetery, which long ago ceased to be solely for Methodists (the church itself has moved three times since Sampler's time). In fact, some think the burial ground may be more than a century and a half old.

"If the church was established in 1836, it's hard to believe there were no burials there for (the first) 10 years," said Hitt, a Roswell police officer who spent five years researching the city' s cemeteries for a book. "It's probably more like 160 years old."

If so, that would put Old Roswell Cemetery on a par with some of the glitzier graveyards in this eminently historic town in north Fulton County. (During the Civil War, General William T. Sherman burned the Roswell mill, which produced gray cloth for Confederate soldiers, but he spared most of the homes and buildings that housed his troops - including many structures that still stand.)

The Presbyterian Church's Founders Cemetery on Sloan Street has Roswell's earliest known recorded burial, in 1840. It also has some of the town's most famous residents, including city namesake Roswell King, various Dunwoodys and James Bulloch, grandfather of President Theodore Roosevelt. When Founders got full, Roswell Presbyterian Cemetery took over as eternal home to the wealthy and well-connected.

"The Presbyterian Church was the church, literally, in Roswell, " Hitt said.

But Old Roswell has its big names, too, including members of the Waller and Coleman families, for whom Waller Park and Coleman Road were named.

"It has very many important people, like Charlie Foster, who started the Roswell Funeral Home," said Sue Wright, a member of the Roswell Cemetery Care Association, organized a few years ago to help preserve Old Roswell.

The still-active cemetery now straddles both sides of Woodstock Road and provides a cutaway look at society through the years - warts and all.

It was here that the wishes of the dead were so respected that when D.D. Hopkins passed away at age 70 in 1909, he was buried with his head pointed to the original log church atop the hill. It is here, too, where two teenagers were arrested in 1994 for overturning 20 headstones. Wright's group is working to repair them.

And it is here where all of the graves in some large family plots date to the 19th century - including some that still are decorated with flowers on weekends. Someone also badly misses the two young men, ages 25 and 32, who died in the 1970s. The week before Christmas, their plot was lovingly decorated with wreaths, reindeer and a small Christmas tree.

The earliest graves in Old Roswell were marked by simple fieldstones sunk into the ground and inscribed with dates, but no names.

"They didn't need them," Hitt noted about a time when generations of families stayed close enough together to tap each others' memories.

As time passed, the markers became larger and more ornate - in part to keep up with all the comings and goings, in every sense of the word. Closer to Woodstock Road in the older portion of the cemetery, a gorgeous, four-sided stone monument marks it as the burial place of Henry Ralph McDermet in July 1890. On either side are carved the names of two women, one who died in 1912 and was "buried in Forsyth, Ga.," and another who was "buried in Philadelphia, Pa." in 1952.

The more recent tombstones tend to be smaller and less decorative, in keeping with what Hitt somewhat regretfully describes as our changed attitude toward mortality.

"Our first parks were cemeteries," he said. "They were like works of art, where people would go in to plant flowers or just sit and think."

Deep within Old Roswell Cemetery, it all seems to make perfect sense. Highway 19 is mere yards away, and yet, surrounded by trees and the touchingly visible reminders of loved ones left behind, a visitor finds traffic sounds magically muted. All is perfectly still.

If you listen closely, you just might hear William Sampler sighing contentedly.

Copyright 1996, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, All rights reserved.

By Jill Vejnoska STAFF WRITER, The resting place of a town's past: Old Roswell Cemetery is at least 150 years old, and many local luminaries: lie there.., 12-29-1996, pp D01.