“Ouch!” I exclaimed as I tried to extract myself from a thicket of hawthorns. I had been climbing up a steep hill when I lost my balance and fell backwards.
When I noticed the specks of blood where thorns had pierced the skin of my arm, I wanted to turn around and go back down the hill. I was not sure that visiting the cemetery at the top of the hill was worth the effort. It was still a considerable distance to the top, and it looked like an area of rough climbing was ahead. I was tempted to give up.
The date was October 29, 1979. It was late in the afternoon, an afternoon very warm for autumn, making it an ideal day for cemetery hunting, a hobby I had begun just a few months earlier. Actually, it was more than a hobby; It was an important project.
On July 2 of that year, I had spent more than an hour in the old Donnelly Cemetery on North Church Street, just beyond the city limits of Mountain City, Tennessee. In my hand was a stack of index cards and as I stopped at each grave stone, I wrote down the name, date and epitaph. Later at home, I alphabetized the cards, pulled my father’s old manual typewriter out of the closet and typed up the information. I was determined to make a record of every tombstone in every cemetery in the county. It was my father’s idea.
He was not only a preacher but also an amateur historian, and he had discovered how important old cemeteries are as records of people who were long gone. In 1975, when he was writing his masters thesis about the history of Baptists in Upper East Tennessee, he spent a lot of time researching the early years of the Mountain City First Baptist Church, where he was pastor. It had been founded in 1794 and the first meeting house was on the north fork of Roan Creek at the foot of Rainbow Mountain. Dad found references in old records to a cemetery next to the church and he was determined to find it.
He finally located an elderly man who lived near the site of that first church building who remembered seeing tombstones.
“I’ll be glad to take you to the spot,” he told my father. “I haven’t been over there in a long time, but the stones are still standing and you can even read some of the names.”
It was on a Saturday morning when my father went looking for the old cemetery. He took me along and even though I was just a kid, I was well aware of my father’s excitement. He was especially hoping to find the grave of the church’s first pastor, James Tompkins.
The old man met us in front of his small house and led us on foot across the road and into a field. He used a cane made out of an old hickory limb, but maintained a steady pace as we traipsed through the tall weeds still damp with the morning dew. We passed a thick grove of trees and then he suddenly stopped. A large swath of the field had been scraped and scarred by the sharp blade of a bulldozer, which was still parked at the edge of the woods. The land was obviously being prepared for a house.
The stones were right over there,” the old man said, pointing his cane toward one edge of the bulldozed area. “I’m positive they were right there, two short rows of them.”
There was no sign of them, and my father’s disappointment weighed heavily on him. As we walked slowly back to the car, his head was bowed and he did not speak. “How could that happen?” he kept saying as we drove home. “How could someone destroy those graves?”
A few years later, in the summer of 1979, no doubt still smarting over the destruction of that ancient cemetery, he told me that the older grave yards in the county would one day disappear and if no one made a record of the names, that information would be lost forever.
“I think it would be a good thing for you to do,” he said. “Go to every cemetery you can find and write down everything… every name, every date and even the epitaphs. You will be making a valuable contribution to the history of this county. And this is the perfect time for you to do it, while you are young and have the time and energy.”
Perhaps my father was worried that I had reached an age where I might get into trouble and wanted to keep me occupied. I had just turned 16, and spending hours in cemeteries is not something teenagers like to do, but for some strange reason, the project did appeal to me.
Beginning on that summer day in 1979, I spent the next six years visiting the cemeteries and grave yards of Johnson County, Tennessee. And on a chilly March day in 1985, when I finished gathering information from several graves in the Forge Creek area of the county, near Nelson Chapel, I had been to more than 300 burial sites and recorded 8,928 names. A fascinating project had come to an end.
During the first couple of years, not many people knew what I was doing. I was a little embarrassed to talk about the hours I was spending among the departed. If someone asked about weekend plans, I’d offer some quip about working on a book. “It has numerous plots,” I’d say with a smile. “And everyone dies at the end!”
The first time I received any attention was in June of 1981 when a reporter from the Johnson City Press Chronicle named Paul Mays called me. He had heard that a teenager was making a record of cemeteries and was curious. “Is that true?” he asked. When I admitted that it was, he drove two hours to our house and interviewed me. I was thrilled! I didn’t ask how he had learned of my unusual pastime, but I suspect my father was responsible.
When the article appeared, the phone rang off the hook, with people asking when the information would be available and to let me know about old and forgotten cemeteries behind barns, on hilltops and in woodland clearings. So many gravestones would have been missed if not for those phone calls.
Perhaps feeling a little annoyed because I had not let her know first, Gladys McCloud, who wrote a column for our local paper, interviewed me for a feature article that appeared a month later.
“Jeff isn’t interested in becoming a grave digger,” Mrs. McCloud wrote, “but he does spend a lot of time in cemeteries. And he isn’t looking for ghosts. He’s making a census of the dead, which does sound like a morbid hobby.”
The older people in the community were very supportive, and I was even invited to become a member of the local historical society, but I did get a lot of kidding from my young friends. “I always knew you were weird,” laughed one of my schoolmates, “but you are even weirder than I thought!”
I spent many hours among the tombstones. Some cemeteries were large and still in use, the grounds well-tended while others were small and forgotten, many at the head of hollers or in thick forests, the gravestones neglected and obscured by vines and weeds. I even discovered some graves that were all alone. I searched for those old cemeteries in all seasons, sometimes on hot days and occasionally on cold winter afternoons with flurries of snow in the air. I didn’t mind the cold and learned that rubbing a little snow in the grooves of the oldest stones made them easier to read.
Occasionally, I did have an unpleasant experience. I once disturbed a yellow jacket nest and had to endure their painful stings as I fled. I did not return to that cemetery until later in the fall, when the bees were sleeping deep in their earthen nest. I also encountered snakes, mostly harmless black snakes who regarded me curiously as I walked by, but once I did see a copperhead, which I chased away by striking it with a rock. Ticks were another nemesis. I did not think about wild animals, but I did once have to sneak past an angry bull as I looked for an old family cemetery in a cow field.
The oldest cemeteries were often a collection of sinkholes, rectangular in shape and sometimes quite deep. The old wooden coffins were not enclosed within a concrete vault as they are today, and had rotted over the decades, the ground sinking as the top of the coffins collapsed. Many of the gravestones had toppled into the holes and I had to crawl down into the deep crevices to read the names. Most of those graves were in isolated cemeteries, far from any road, and I had visions of myself getting trapped in one of those old sunken grave sites and never being found, my bones mixing with the remains of the original occupant.
I learned to appreciate so much about life by visiting the graves of the dead. I was moved whenever I’d find the grave of a child, and there were so many of them. Child mortality was a serious problem in centuries past and there was nothing more tragic than finding a row of small stones marking the resting places of children from the same family. It’s hard to imagine the numbing grief of parents who had to watch their children die, one after the other.
Spending so much time in cemeteries also gave me a philosophical attitude about death. In each cemetery I found the graves of the rich and the poor, often side by side. Death is the great equalizer and people who may have been enemies in life are resting near each other in death. The many differences between people in life are erased when they die. And I was reminded over and over how short life can be, each moment being an opportunity to learn and love and make a difference. Time is too precious to be wasted.
My exploration of the county cemeteries also helped my father fill in a missing branch of his family tree. He knew that the first wife of David Alvin Carrier, his great uncle, was from Johnson County and had died young, but he did not know her name or where she had been buried. One afternoon when I was pushing away the weeds from some badly worn stones in a very old cemetery near Dug Hill Road in the community of Cracker’s Neck, I saw the name “Carrier.” There she was, my father’s great aunt. Sarah H., daughter of A.S. and C.M. Snyder, had died on December 7, 1912 at the age of 36. And next to her was the grave of a child, Sallie, daughter of D.A. and S.H. Carrier, who was born on November 5, 1912 and died on October 15, 1914, before she was two years old. My father knew that his great uncle and aunt had three sons, but he did not know they also had a daughter, and that Sarah had died only a month after the little girl was born.
The stones of my distant relatives were simple, with only the names and dates listed, but so many others from that era were etched with flowery epitaphs. One of them made a great impression on me. “Our mournful years fly quickly past. Our joyful days and hours are few. We must all slumber here at last. O may our God our hearts renew.”
There were also others that moved me.
“Tis hard to break the tender cord when love has bound the heart. Tis hard, so hard, to speak the words, we must forever part.”
“As a fair maid, we shall again behold her, clothed in celestial grace. With all the beauties of her soul expanded, standing before her father’s face.”
“One by one earth’s ties are broken, as we see our love decay. One by one our hopes grow brighter, as we near the shining shore. For we know across the river, wait the loved ones gone before.”
And my favorite: “Remember friends as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you soon shall be. Prepare for death and follow me.”
After I walked out of that cemetery in March of 1985 and typed the final name on the final page, I was faced with the chore of getting that enormous amount of information into print. I thought I had found every tombstone in the county, but I have discovered that I did miss at least one cemetery and perhaps others as well. When my father saw the bundle of pages, he said, “you’ve done well, my son.”
Perhaps I could have submitted the information to a publisher of academic material, but I decided to have it printed myself. My father was not a rich man, and I was a 22-year-old with an anemic bank account, so I had to look for a printer who could produce the book cheaply, as I could not afford good quality paper or a firm binding. I wanted a photo of a cemetery on the cover, but that was too expensive, so I sketched some old tombstones instead.
I chose Upon a Lonely Hill as the title, and it was ready for distribution by the middle of October of 1985. Despite the inexpensive production, it was a very handsome book, which pleased me enormously. Only 1,000 copies were printed, and I had not even finished paying off the bill by the time the print shop closed a few years later. All the copies were eventually sold and I have been grateful for the many comments I have received over the years from people who have found the book helpful as they research their family history. I doubt there are many copies from that original printing still extant, as the pages started coming loose almost immediately. Fortunately, there was a limited re-printing in 2012, with a much sturdier binding.
As I held the first copy in my hand, I thought back to that October day in 1979 when I was tired and scratched by thorns and almost gave up. Fortunately, I didn’t. After taking a few minutes to catch my breath and remove a couple of thorns from my skin, I climbed to the top of that hill. By the time I reached the cemetery, the sun was sinking toward the western horizon, casting deep shadows under the tall white pines and the autumn-tinted beeches and oaks.
It was the kind of graveyard seen in horror movies. The stones were making a valiant effort to stand upright, many of them leaning in various directions. The tombstones were ornate, carved out of fine marble, unlike the simple stones I had found in most other cemeteries. And the graves were contained within a very old and rusted wrought iron fence, with tall pointed posts like upended spears. The forest had invaded the cemetery, with large trees growing next to the graves, their gnarled roots wrapping around many of the stones. An occasional breeze would bring down a shower of red and yellow leaves, creating a very mysterious scene, and a bird was making a mournful sound somewhere close by.
I managed to climb over the fence and start writing down the information. Other than a few stones with names like Hutchinson and Greever and Johnson, the most common name was Wagner. I quickly figured out that it was the family of Matthias M. Wagner and his wife Mary. I also located a few of their children who had died in the late 1800s. Judging by the quality of the stones and the poetic epitaphs, it was obvious that the Wagners were a family of considerable means.
Every time I visited a cemetery, I always stood in silence for a little while, paying respect to all those who were laid to rest there, and as I was spending the last few minutes in that cemetery thinking about the Wagner family and wondering about their lives, a sudden wind whipped along the ground, picking up the freshly-fallen leaves and pushing them against one end of the fence. When the gust had passed and an eerie calm settled in, I noticed that the wind had uncovered a stone that had fallen over and was lying face-down against the hard ground. I had not seen it before as it was hidden under a thick layer of leaves. I turned it over and rubbed off the dirt. The writing slowly became visible.
“Sacred to the memory of James F. Wagner, fourth son and sixth child of M.M. and M.S. Wagner. Born Friday, June 30, 1837. Died Friday, April 13, 1855. Aged 17 years, 9 months, 14 days. Vita amatus, et letho lamentatus.”
I had to smile a little, as it seemed to me that Matthias and Mary Wagner were pleased that I was there, visiting their resting places, and didn’t want me to miss the grave of their son who had died so young.
I often think about that old cemetery and wonder if a sudden wind stirs the autumn leaves, uncovering the names of those buried there so long ago.