Mountain Cemetery Customs

Both of my parents died within the past 18 months, which prompted a couple of trips back to East Tennessee for their funeral services. There I began to reflect on differences between mountain cemetery customs and those in the rest of the country. Here are a few:

Cremation. Limited land availability and rising burial costs have made cremation a common practice in much of America, but not in the South. You will rarely see a mortuary offering cremation services here, and if you put the question to locals, you will see them shift uncomfortably in their seats. There seems to be an unspoken taboo about it. Fundamentalist Christian faith and mountain cultural traditions are tightly entwined, so the fact that one’s God-fearing parents and grandparents weren’t cremated makes this practice seem well-nigh heretical.

Family Plots. Extended family members are buried side-by-side in most Southern mountain cemeteries. While American society has become highly mobile, Southern mountain folk expect to be reunited with their families in death. It’s common to see many generations of the same family grouped in the cemetery of a little country church, even though most of them lived in other states and were never members of that congregation. In a certain church graveyard a large section is devoted to my Allison forebears, including one who served in the Revolutionary War. (Although he and his immediate descendants spelled the name with one “L,” we are blood relations.)

Easter Sunrise Services. When I was a boy, my parents took us to a cemetery in the predawn hour of Easter morning. Hundreds of cars were parked there, as people gathered on a knoll to hear a local preacher read the Gospels’ Resurrection accounts, and we sang traditional Easter hymns as sunrise broke over the mountains. I still see Easter sunrise services advertised at many cemeteries in the mountains. Southern folks feel it altogether fitting to greet Easter morning among the tombs of their ancestors, renewing their hope of being raised to meet Christ together when he returns.

Civil War Smuggler

Daniel EllisDaniel Ellis (1827-1908) made his home in the East Tennessee town of Elizabethton, which has a long history of insurgency. (Here a group of colonists had defied a 1770 treaty between England and the Cherokee, which called for them to abandon their homesteads; instead the settlers leased this land from the Cherokee so they could stay. A decade later, “Overmountain Men” rallied here and marched across the Appalachians to the Battle of King’s Mountain.)

In this spirit, Ellis smuggled about four thousand men out of this region to join Federal forces during the Civil War. On return trips, he carried letters from the Union soldiers to their families back in East Tennessee. All the while, he passed information to Union officers about Confederate troop movements around his hometown.

The Confederacy placed a price on his head, burned his home, and intimidated his family, yet Ellis eluded capture to continue his smuggling and spying operation for nearly four years. Confederates called him “The Red Fox.” Eventually, the Union Army commissioned him a captain in the 13th Tennessee Cavalry.

Two years after the war’s end, Harper published his memoirs as a book entitled, The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis. (Overmountain Press reprinted this book in 1989.) Though he may have embellished some of its accounts, there’s no doubt Captain Ellis defied death to slip across the battle front between Knoxville and Johnson’s Station (now Johnson City) again and again.

The Wealthy Tourist

John Wanamaker (1838-1922)

In the nineteenth century, the beauty of North Carolina’s Highlands attracted tourists from throughout the nation, and not a few of them decided to buy a piece of it. Such an investor was John Wanamaker, founder of Philadelphia’s first department store and Postmaster General under the administration of President Benjamin Harrison.

Wanamaker, mining magnate Hugh McRae, and a handful of other businessmen from the Eastern Seaboard formed The Linville Company in 1885 to buy more than 15,000 acres of craggy mountains and rolling meadows along the Linville River in western North Carolina. They bought Grandfather Mountain, Grandmother Mountain, and the sites of several future resort towns such as Linville and Lenoir.

Some of the investors built splendid homes for themselves on the Linville tract. It seems Wanamaker already had so many homes that he didn’t feel this necessity. Besides, he could vacation at any of the resorts that sprang upon on the Linville land, such as the Eseeola Lodge, which Harvard Professor William James called “one of the most poetic places I have ever been in.”

Throughout the Gilded Age, Wanamaker and other millionaires such as George Vanderbilt found solace in the spectacular Carolina mountains. The Highlands’ thriving tourist industry today owes much to the love of these first wealthy tourists.

Lost Mountain Towns

Abandoned home in Elkmont, TN.
Abandoned home in Elkmont, TN.
Wonderland Hotel
Wonderland Hotel

A hiker in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was surprised to find a ghost town in the Tennessee wilderness named Elkmont, including a small hotel called the Wonderland.

When vast tracts of land were incorporated into the park decades years ago, several towns went with them. Park developers seldom had the time or money to tear them down, so these lost mountain towns remained standing to be overgrown by the forest. They serve as gaunt reminders of days gone by.

Other towns were covered by the impoundment waters of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s hydroelectric reservoirs. Perhaps the largest of these was the town of Butler, Tennessee (pop. 430), covered by Watauga Lake in 1948. Residents moved to higher ground and built the present-day town of Butler, but their descendants still gather on the second Sunday of August to celebrate Old Butler Days and reminisce about life in the submerged town.

Old Butler, TN
Old Butler, TN

In 1983, TVA authorities drained the lake to make repairs on the dam and the abandoned town became visible again. Many of the old structures were still standing, though the streets were deep with mud. This prompted one tourist periodical to dub Old Butler “The Town That Wouldn’t Drown.”

Abandoned mountain towns are much like their former residents in that respect: Time and natural elements may alter their visage, but their spirit lives on.

August Fog = 1′ Snowfall

Mountain people have developed a rich lore of winter weather prognostication. They compare the black and brown bands on woolly worms, which are supposed to portend the length and severity of winter. They observe how plentiful the summer’s yield of pine cones, how shaggy their horses’ winter coats, and how much foliage tops their root crops such as sweet potatoes. In each case, mountaineers take their cue from how generously Nature prepares for the winter ahead. If a cold, snowy winter appears to be coming, they can more vegetables for the pantry and split more wood for the hearth.

My dad used to keep count of the number of foggy mornings in the month of August, because “the old people” had told him each fog predicted a snowfall of a foot or more in the following winter. I don’t know whether that pattern was supposed to hold true in other parts of the country or only in Appalachia, but Indiana had a lot of foggy mornings this year. (Perhaps I’d better stock our pantry a bit more generously!)

Contrary to popular belief, the Old Farmer’s Almanac does not use nature signs on earth to predict the coming seasons, but rather a “secret formula” devised by their publisher in 1792, based on the sunspot cycle. Mountain folk have kept an eye on the Almanac for more than two hundred years, but they lay more store (literally) by what they observe in the world around them.


The Homeplace

Dad celebrated his 90th birthday at the beginning of June, so family gathered at our hometown in East Tennessee to mark the occasion. Imagine my surprise when my sister Debbie drove us to a neat little ranch-style house in town and announced that Dad had purchased it just a few days earlier. For years, we’ve been trying to convince him to move out of “the homeplace,” a drafty two-story farm house where he lived most of his life, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Earl Hamner, Jr. Homestead Schuyler, Virginia
Earl Hamner, Jr. Homestead
Schuyler, Virginia

Dad’s arthritis made his nightly ascent to the second-floor bedroom an ordeal. Conceding the decision had been difficult, he said his new house was “better than a nursing home,” but he still spends his days at “the homeplace.”

The homestead of Earl Hamner, Jr. (whose stories inspired the TV series, “The Waltons”) reminds me a lot of Dad’s house. These plain white clapboard houses popped up on Appalachian hills in the 1910s and 1920s as plentiful as mushrooms after an April rain. Most of them are still standing, and many of them still inhabited–a tribute to the close bond between mountain people and their homes, no matter the state of repair.

I suppose we natives of Appalachia will carry the image of our “homeplaces” in memory as long as we live. Places of comfort, security, and love, they remind us of a way of life we will always cherish.

Jonesborough Storytellers

Storytellers come to Jonesborough, TN, every October for the International Storytelling Festival. This little town in northeast Tennessee has many claims to fame:  It’s the oldest continuously inhabited town west of the Allegheny Mountains, capital of the short-lived State of Franklin, and now (thanks to the festival promoters) the Storytelling Capital of the World.

42nd Annual Storytelling Festival
42nd Annual Storytelling Festival

Far be it from me to dispute that claim. My first job was as a cub reporter for the Jonesborough Herald & Tribune, and the town’s native story-tellers were some of my best sources. The city treasurer let me leaf through his book of ordinances to find outdated laws that were literally “still on the books.” At that time (the late 1960s) it was still illegal to drive a flock of geese down Main Street.

Paul Fink

Jonesborough’s chief storyteller was Paul M. Fink, the county historian, whose office was a cramped cellar room beneath the courthouse. Mr. Fink was my official source on more than one occasion, and he didn’t mind being named. He could embellish the facts as well as any other denizen of the courthouse, but he always took care to raise a finger, draw my eye to his, and intone that this part of his account was “off the record.” (I’ll never know how much of his “off the record” stories were factual and how much imaginary.)

Then there was Gerald A. Squibb, sometime columnist for the Herald & Tribune, a rural mail carrier and irascible political pundit. Gerald understood human foibles very well (having plenty of them himself) and his quirky sense of humor punctured many an inflated ego. I recently discovered that he self-published a book entitled A Day Late and a Dollar Short; sounds like it could have been his autobiography.

You won’t hear Paul or Gerald at this year’s Storytelling Festival; they both passed from the scene more than 30 years ago. But I’m glad to know their tradition lives on.