Association bringing life into cemetery
A walk at Bryson City Cemetery, where many historically significant figures for both the town and Swain County are buried, includes a posted kiosk with information on the location of graves and family history.
A bulk of the stones have been cleaned and many that were leaning or damaged fixed and reset. Wander in on a weekday morning, and you may even get into a conversation about the history of your ancestors and others buried at the cemetery with Don Casada, president of Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery.
This experience is vastly different from one that would have occurred just a couple of years ago, when the question arose of who was responsible for maintenance when a relative of someone buried there was appalled by the area’s lack of upkeep— with tall grass, broken tombstones and poison ivy left to grow wild.
A series of articles published by Smoky Mountain Times, and hours of research by Casada, revealed that the answer to that question— who is responsible— was more complicated than at first review.
In the first article printed in 2015, SMT found the original deed for the cemetery that granted ownership to the three churches in town, First Baptist Church, Bryson City United Methodist Church and Bryson City Presbyterian Church in 1884.
Casada explains how the cemetery is actually made up of three sections. The original grounds were sold by Lucy Ann Cline, “There’s a sign here saying she donated the cemetery to the town; Lucy Anne was a smart business woman, she sold it,” Casada said. “She’s one of several strong women buried in the cemetery. That’s one of the great stories of the cemetery.”
The Franklin family owned the property on the front side of the cemetery, and had sold a portion of the lot already to Bland Coburn, wife to Jack Coburn, to use as a burial plot in the early 30s or late 20s.
Coburn is among men buried in the cemetery who have a peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in his name.
In the 1950s, when the road was put around the cemetery, a right of way had to be gotten from the Franklin family in the front part of the cemetery and in the back of the cemetery, the DeHart family. Casada explains after that, more cemetery plots were sold off as the road naturally set off the area as the cemetery.
“It’s a bigger cemetery than what it would have been had that road not been put it,” he said.
“There was a lack of understanding of who owned what. The churches didn’t own it because they sold off individual plots, and some are registered; some are not.”
Individual plots were sold to families, and thus with them, the responsibility for maintenance of those plots. The first deed registered was in 1909.
Casada said when the articles revealed the state of the cemetery, it was an embarrassment to him. Although he has no ancestors buried at the cemetery, he takes a lot of pride in local history and can point out the stones of many school teachers from his youth.
As far as Casada can tell, no official organization had ever been established to oversee or maintain the cemetery. He cites one newspaper notice printed in September 1889 requesting volunteers to clean up the cemetery on a Sunday.
In the late 1940s, maintenance of the Bryson City Cemetery became a budget line item for the town, accounting for about one percent of the budget. Casada attributes the town stepping in partly due to Dr. Kelly Bennett, whose parents were already buried in the cemetery, and Bill Moody, who ran Moody Funeral Home. Both served stints as town mayor in the 1940s.
At some time during Larry Callicut’s administration as town manager, maintenance was scaled back to mowing a few times a year.
In 2015, a committee began looking into maintenance for the cemetery and eventually the Friends of The Bryson City Cemetery was formed. Soon, they decided to formalize the organization, incorporated and got 501c3 status. Donations are now tax-deductible.
There are now about 100 members of the association including family members.
Casada, at the request of some whose relatives are buried at the cemetery, started maintenance like mowing and cutting back kudzu.
Maintaining and improving the Bryson City Cemetery has equaled many volunteer hours, and some paid.
Just this summer, the Friends were able to hire Swain graduate Austin Shuler to help out. He’s also a graduate of the Swain High School JROTC program and will attend NC State in January.
“JROTC had helped out, and, at the end of the year, Mr. Casada told Sgt. Major he would be willing to hire a cadet or two, so that’s how I started,” Shuler explained.
He said he’s learned a lot about the history and people who helped found the county and city.
Shuler first learned about the needs at the cemetery when the Swain County High School Air Force JROTC placed flags for Memorial Day on veterans’ graves in 2015. The cadets set goals to volunteer 40 hours at the cemetery and volunteered on three work days the following school year.
“With Austin’s help, we’ve managed to keep things under pretty good control this summer,” Casada said.
It’s not been without its challenges— together, the two have encountered 13 yellow jacket nests this summer.
Casada said the assistance from Shuler has made a big difference. In addition to mowing, landscaping has included planting Dogwood bulbs, yellow bells and raking leaves and mulching along the bank.
Some of the more significant changes are stones that have been repaired or straightened. Casada estimated about 70 stones have been straightened.
Stones, many white marble stones, have been cleaned at the cemetery. Casada estimates about 250-300 stones have been cleaned. Some were unreadable previously.
Pastor of Hillside Baptist Church Al Alemeny assisted by having lawn crew clear the bank along the side of the cemetery beside the church parking.
Casada points out, “The biggest challenge will be dealing with some of the rock walls that are leaning badly.” That will need to be restored, and it’s beyond what they can do by hand.
The association is trying to overcome the challenge that the cemetery could fall into disrepair in the future. It’s a common challenge for similar organizations that often face membership among older members.
One thing they are doing is reaching out to young people, like Shuler and JROTC.
“JROTC has been great to work with. That’s part of the idea of having a community engagement; we want to get the community to feel like they have some ownership of the cemetery the broader village not just some older folks,” Casada said.
Additionally, the organization is raising funds to help maintain the cemetery in the future and make improvements like the recently added maintenance shed, kiosk and benches.
“The long-term goal is not just to get the cemetery in decent shape but to accumulate more and more money so that after a bunch of us are gone there will be funds to provide for maintenance,” Casada said.
For Casada, it seems both a combination of his interest for local history and respect for the community that keeps him volunteering despite the hard work.
“There’s a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, ‘Show me your cemeteries and I’ll tell you what kind of people you have,’” Casada said. “I think that kind of perspective is what a lot of us involved with this have; we want to take some pride in a place but show the pride we have of our forbearers who made this place the place we grew up in.”
Learn more at friendsofthebccemetery.org.