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Town tight-lipped as Dozier grave excavations near

Entrance to former Dozier School for Boys
Entrance to former Dozier School for Boys (News Service of Florida photo by Tom Urban)

MARIANNA, Fla. – As university researchers prepare to dig into an unsavory chapter of Marianna's past, many in the rural Panhandle community would simply prefer the issue remain buried.

With the name of the city repeatedly associated with news reports about decades of questionable deaths at the former state-run Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, many in downtown Marianna on Thursday preferred to remain tight-lipped about the excavation of unmarked graves that begins Saturday.

At Florida Land Title, an employee noted he served on a number of local boards as a reason not to publicly discuss how the coverage and research is impacting the city. Meanwhile, a worker at ERA Chipola Realty in Marianna declined to comment, saying the firm's "clientele is the community, and we try not to choose sides on things that could be political."

Those willing to speak called the work --- approved by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet --- a waste of taxpayer money, with one saying the effort by University of South Florida researchers is to "make a reputation and make money."

When asked about the pending excavation, long-time Marianna resident Ken Stoutamire summed up his feelings by saying he had "disgust" with the government for allowing the dig to proceed.

"I don't know of anybody who approves of it around here," said Stoutamire, whose family has been farming in the Panhandle since before Florida achieved statehood. "It doesn't reflect good on Marianna. There is just Marianna and the boy's school. The association is hurting us. And we need them to get out of here."

Marianna resident Bill Hopkins said the excavation is "dragging up an old wound."

"I haven't heard anybody saying that just because this is happening out here I'm not going to stop here, but it's just a shadow over our community, that we don't need," said Hopkins, a World War II veteran who has lived in the city of just over 6,000 for 43 years.

"This is a good community, a good place to live, a good place to bring up your children," Hopkins added. "But if I was looking for a place to move, I don't know, just reading and knowing a little bit about it, I might change my mind."

USF researchers, who on Wednesday received a $423,528 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help excavate graves and identify remains at the former reform school, will be at the site Saturday through Tuesday. They will work just outside an area known as Boot Hill on the one-time 1,400-acre campus.

CNN will provide on-site video coverage of the USF work for other media, with the Tampa Bay Times providing still photography. All other media will have to remain outside the fenced-in compound.

The university researchers, led by Erin Kimmerle and Christian Wells, have a one-year window to search the grounds for reportedly unaccounted-for bodies of boys who died between 1900 and 1952. Questions have arisen about whether boys --- who reportedly died of pneumonia and other natural causes --- were killed at the school.

"The lady (researcher) had the best of intentions, that's my gut feeling, but she probably didn't know the lay of the land before she got into it," said Jesse Smallwood a retiree who moved from Melbourne to Marianna two years ago as a less-expensive place to take care of his wife. "They'll do a lot of digging but not get much done from it."