Tracking thedead:it's more than a hobby
This explains his presence in an Elfers field on a hot afternoon that draws sweat to his brow. He pushes a waist-high metal rod into the grassy topsoil. The prodding continues as Cannon repeatedly drives the pole between his dirty white Reeboks.
"There's something down there," he announces, a grin forming on his face. He's just discovered Alma Louise Pinder Houston, last seen 40 years ago.
No mystery surrounds Houston's death from colon cancer in 1966. Her life rates not even a footnote, except in the memory of her grandson.
Sam Houston was 22 when Alma Houston died. His only memories of her are the smell of smoking fish - and a bush near her burial plot at West Elfers Cemetery.
"I remember going out to that cemetery as a child," Houston said. "That bush in the middle of the park has been there all my life. That plant has been there as long as I can remember."
Sundays after church, Houston and his family would visit the 6-foot tall widow and homemaker, who would cook at her rented duplex.
"I can remember as a child in Tarpon Springs that she lived two or three blocks from downtown," Houston said. "She had a big smoker where she smoked tarpon in the back yard."
His grandmother never had a headstone. But Houston, who'd made his own map of the cemetery's plots, e-mailed Cannon to see if the two men's records of the Pinder family plot's location were the same.
"I shared some pictures with him in 1965 of the flowers and the grave site that we'd taken," Houston said.
After Cannon located a vault near the bush Houston remembered from his childhood, the two men marked the corners of the family plot, which also is where Moses F. Houston, John and Virginia Brown Pinder and their children, Samuel Jessie and John Thomas Pinder are buried.
Turns out, Cannon didn't have record of the Pinder family plot, and has since added them to his cemetery map.
"I am real pleased that he's taking an interest in the cemeteries, whether it be Pasco or anywhere else," Houston said. "He's been helpful to me."
Cannon documents his findings on a Web site he started last year. Through the site, Cannon gets requests from Tampa to the Netherlands from people searching for relatives buried in Pasco's 62 cemeteries.
Cannon, of Hudson, helps people like Houston piece together the empty spaces in the family tree. But there's more to it than that. By providing a peek into their past, he helps complete the fabric of who they are.
Cannon, a lanky 27-year-old with glasses, reddish brown hair and a matching beard, has long sought the final resting place of his great-great -grandfather. Randall D. Rewis died in Bayport in 1856, when what is now Pasco was part of Hernando County.
"I see our history destroyed with the development of the county," Cannon said. "I am essentially seeing part of my family destroyed."
Jean Walker moved from Safety Harbor to Hudson in 1974. In her new front yard, near the driveway, was a headstone:
"In Memory Of My Dear Husband William Stanton Quertermous, May 24, 1829, May 25 1887, Gone But Not Forgotten."
"It didn't bother me," said Walker, a 71-year-old widow. "I said, 'let him rest in peace.' "
Thirty years went by. Quertermous lay in peace on Walker's land. But he seemed forgotten.
Then, last year, Jan Preiczer of Ojai, Calif., typed "Quertermous' into Google, the latest step in a five-year search for her great-uncle.
Preiczer, a registered nurse who does genealogy as a hobby, knew most of her family was buried in Dewitt, Ark.
Her Internet search found a Quertermous burial site in Florida.
"I thought, 'What?' And there was a picture," Preiczer said. "I was absolutely floored, because there was a picture of the grave site and a closeup of the headstone."
Preiczer e-mailed Cannon, and the two compared notes on the Quertermous family's history, which Cannon chronicles on his Web site. Preiczer learned William Stanton Quertermous was buried on his property surrounded by a low-lying fence on what is now Walker's 5 acres of land.
"I thought, 'No way, this just can't be,' " Preiczer said. "Now, I even have the name of the person who owns the property. It's just sitting in this woman's front yard. I sent it to my family, and I said, 'Look who's online?' They were like, 'I wondered where he is.' "
Working among the dead doesn't bother Cannon, who used to prepare bodies for funerals at both Dobies and Michels & Lundquist funeral homes.
In the evenings, he researches grave sites and updates undocumented history, spending about 40 hours a week on his cemetery work.
Sometimes, his father, Dan, joins him, and the duo crisscross the county hunting for a slice of Pasco's past.
"It's like field day," Dan Cannon said. "We get in the pickup truck and go to sites. There's quite a few cemeteries in Pasco County that have met their fate or been razed. We sometimes spend all day doing it. If you run across one of these places, it's kind of exciting to walk out looking into the woods and find a headstone."
Jeff Cannon doesn't think spending hours in cemeteries is odd.
"This is what I do. I collect historical documents," he said. "I guess you can call it a hobby."
In April, Natascha Toonstra of the Netherlands e-mailed Cannon about locating relatives she thought were buried in Ehren Cemetery.
Cannon took pictures of Toonstra's relatives and sent them to her. He also told her something she didn't know: she had a relative Cannon thinks it's a grandmother living in Tampa. The two women have since contacted each other.
Inside his dark blue F-150 pickup, Cannon carries a miniarsenal of tools:
A yellow tape measure to estimate the length of a grave site after he hits a vault with his metal rod.
A map of cemetery plots he updates if he comes across an unmarked grave.
Locating someone's relative sometimes takes Cannon all over the county. To trace a dead person's steps, he checks land records, newspaper clippings, genealogy Web sites and whether they served a political position.
If the individual's family contacts him, Cannon encourages them to buy a headstone and adds the relative's name to his working list of Pasco's dead.
A dead man in the woods near U.S. 19 and Sea Pines Drive, homeless people and abandoned vehicles are among elements Jeff and his father have encountered while scouring Pasco's wooded areas armed with maps of the county's cemeteries, some of which are unmarked.
"There are places where people are buried on top of people," Cannon said. "Some early headstones are concrete slabs the families made and put names on."
On a recent overcast afternoon, Jeff and Dan visit Ehren, near Land O'Lakes. Two cemeteries are within a few miles of each other. The well-kept Ehren Cemetery sits on what was once the white side of town, Dan says. The other, the dilapidated Mount Carmel Cemetery, sits on what was the black side of town, behind what used to be Mount Carmel Church.
During their visit to Mount Carmel, Jeff and Dan stumble across the headstone of a young boy. His headstone reads "Eddie, son of R.M. & M.V. Lewis, born March 17 1892, died Nov. 8 1906."
"Can you take a picture of this?" Jeff yells to his father. "Somebody's cleaned it up."
Jeff finds an infant grave he hadn't seen on a previous trip, which he hopes to add to his list of the cemetery's dead. The small headstone rests against a tree, and reads "Infant daughter of T.M. Horton born Dec. 28 1933."
A few minutes later, Dan disappears farther into the woods and announces another discovery.
Jeff quickly replies, "That's W.G. Gibbs you're standing over."
Cannon's interest in cemetery history began two years ago, when he started researching his own family, who have lived in Pasco County since 1878.
Cannon's great-great-grandfather, Elijah Rewis, is buried in West Elfers Cemetery. Elijah Rewis was a county commissioner in Hernando.
Hudson Avenue and Hayes Road, now home to Word of Life Conference Center, is where his missing relative, Randall D. Rewis, owned 160 acres of land.
"I never found the location where he's buried. I have reason to believe he's buried like Quertermous, on his property," Cannon said.
"Once I started digging into my family history, I discovered cemeteries with headstones that weren't accounted for or surveyed, or people didn't know about them," Cannon said. "I got a list of cemeteries online. Through my research, I discovered sites that were destroyed."
"Our cemeteries are filled with early history," he said. "A lot of people buried here started our county. My family has been here since 1878, so essentially, it's my history, too."
In the past year, Cannon has become somewhat of an activist, contacting County Commission members and attending meetings to lobby for the historic preservation of cemeteries. He's organizing cemetery associations for people whose family members are buried in neglected cemeteries like West Elfers.
In his spare time, he's writing a book about Pasco's cemetery history. He's also assisting with research on a Pasco history book with officials from the Pioneer Florida Museum in Dade City, called Pasco County, Its History and Its People.
"Anybody who is in contact with him for one reason or another can't believe that he can find the things as easy as he can," said Carolyn D. Falls, a member of the history committee at Pioneer Florida Museum. "He's just got a knack for it. The cemeteries are scattered all over the county. It's uncanny."
What drives Cannon is uncovering the lives of Pasco's dead and connecting the dots for families seeking a window into their pasts.
"That's what keeps me going," Cannon said. "Finding information no one else knows."