12-11-2016  5:50 am      •     

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- They dot the area like Easter eggs hidden long ago and forgotten even to those who stashed them, mostly only thought about when stumbled upon in the midst of some high grass or trees.

Perhaps the most neglected part of East Tennessee's history isn't found in its crumbling homes or its tumbling steeples. It's actually buried, like so many of the great stories of the past, in forgotten or ignored cemeteries, the folks with the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance say.

There are literally dozens of cemeteries in Sevier County, ranging from the well-kept ones overseen by churches or funeral homes, to overgrown sites one would have trouble finding without stumbling over a tombstone. For some preservation has been a passion of neighbors or property owners, while others haven't gotten that treatment. That's why the folks with the alliance opted to include neglected historic cemeteries on their list of threatened heritage in the area.

For the graveyards fortunate enough to have been annexed into Great Smoky Mountains National Park when it was created, there is hope. Those include the bones of some of the area's first settlers, from Sugarlands to Little Greenbrier. They've been given the benefit of identification by the park service, which also sends crews out occasionally to maintain them.

At the other end of the spectrum are the cemeteries the alliance is worried about. They include places like the family plots the can be found sprinkled through the hills of East Tennessee and more organized community ones, like the Trundle Crossroads Negro Cemetery in Seymour. It's one of a few African American graveyards in the county and happens, like several of the others of its type, to have been largely neglected over the years.

Though a volunteer work crew headed by County Commissioner Buster Norton did considerable work to improve the site last fall, the signs of its years of being ignored remain, while those the workers covered up have left painful scars.

Gophers traced burrows through the little plot on Boyds Creek Highway, popping up holes under the protection of tombstones that either had already fallen down or were eventually knocked over after having the ground under them eroded by the critters. Trees grew up on other graves, their trunks spreading out and knocking over even more stones.

With the deceased often dying destitute or close to it and families left with little, many of the graves were marked by little more than a rock or a wooden cross, and many of those have disappeared now.

It's unclear how long the plot, which sits now right beside a small parking lot for a neighboring church and at the edge of a wooded area, has been neglected like this. A line in the book, ``In the Shadow of the Smokies,'' a volume on the cemeteries of Sevier County published by the area's historical society, offers some context.

``This cemetery was badly overgrown when rechecked by Sue Parton (in) 1993,'' the note reads.

The efforts by Norton and the others have meant some noticeable improvements, something the commissioner says he was prompted to lead because it ``is the Christian thing to do.''

Still, there are myriad other cemeteries in the area that have not received even this consideration and are at risk of being completely lost or forgotten, East Tennessee Preservation Alliance Cemetery Task Force Chair Pat Garrow warns in information provided by the group.

The group is taking steps to try to prevent that, though. It has been working since the fall of 2009 to find ways to solve cemetery preservation issues by examining state burial laws. It is sharing its work with city and county mayors to get their feedback and suggestions on how best to proceed.

Additionally, it has created a Slave Cemetery Registry project in an effort to document and raise awareness of those final resting places in the area. Like the one at Trundle Crossroads, which holds the remains of some former slaves and their descendants, those properties are often overgrown with vegetation and barely marked, making identification of actual grave sites and who lies in them a serious challenge.

Beyond just being ignored, local cemeteries are also under threat from new development, Garrow says. Regulations allow for graveyards to be moved if new development is planned for an area, provided the remains go along with the stones. However, the alliance has learned some builders aren't following through with the latter part of that directive or are not properly transferring remains, meaning they can be mixed up and put under the wrong stone.

In addition to its own work to identify neglected cemeteries and find ways that they can be preserved, the alliance works to recruit people in the communities of East Tennessee to step up and take responsibility for these forgotten resting places. Those individuals, churches and organizations are called on to facilitate maintenance and long-term adoption of the cemeteries.

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