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New generation needed to preserve North Shore cemeteries

It’s a crisp fall day in Swain County. As the sun finally peaks over the trees around lunch time, the cars fill up the parking lot at the Deep Creek Campground and visitors are ready for a day of hiking and exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

At the same time, a smaller group of people who can trace their families back to the North Shore are gathering at the nearby picnic shelter for food and fellowship. They stand huddled up in the sunshine for warmth. You can see their breath in the air as they hold their hymnals singing “Amazing Grace” before recognizing their eldest and youngest members present, honoring those they’ve lost this year and saying a prayer over the meal they’re about to share. While there’s a few first-timers, most of them have been coming to the Hazel Creek-Fontana Basin Area Family Reunion for decades. 

Helen Vance of Sylva turned 91 this year and represents the eldest member at the reunion — closely followed by her sister Mildred who is 89. Vance has spent the last 40-plus years making sure the history and heritage of the North Shore families is remembered and preserved. She established the Hazel Creek-Fontana Basin Area Family Reunion in 1975 and has served on the North Shore Cemeteries Association board, which was formed in 1978. The first reunion was held at Deep Creek in 1976 and continues to be held there every year.

“This place ties us to our homeland so we have it here every year,” Vance said. “The first year we had over 400 people here from about eight different states.”

Like many others at the reunion, Vance can trace her family back generations to the North Shore and even back to the Revolutionary War. 

 

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Descendants of the North Shore communities gather at Deep Creek Oct. 21 for the Hazel Creek-Fontana Basin Area Family Reunion to sing hymns and share a meal. Jessi Stone photo

 

“My ties to North Shore go way back — my third great grandparents came from Germany during the Revolutionary War. My great great-great grandfather came here as a Hessian soldier fighting for the British. He was captured by George Washington when they crossed the Delaware and sent to an island off South Carolina,” Vance said. “Then he started fighting for the Americans so that’s how our family got here. They moved to settle in middle North Carolina — Watauga County and then to East Tennessee. His three sons went from there to Cades Cove, so my great grandfather was born in Cades Cove and then he came across the mountain to Proctor and settled there about 1835. My family was still living on the same parcel he bought when we left in 1944.”

Vance’s family was one of thousands — an estimated 700 on the Swain County side and another 600 from the Graham County side — that had to relocate from their North Shore communities when the federal government flooded the area in the 1940s to create Fontana Lake and Fontana Dam. Some were paid for their land, some say they were forced off, but all gave up everything they knew for what they believed was the greater good. 

“They told big fibs to be honest with you because they promised paradise saying you people need to move — you can have better electricity, which we didn’t have down there. Of course we didn’t care. We gave and we gave and we gave,” said Christine Cole Proctor, president of the Lauada Cemetery, which includes gravesites that were moved off the North Shore to the Almond community in Swain County. 

Henry Chambers, a member of the North Shore Cemeteries Association, said it’s a complicated history that many recall differently depending on where they were located. The national park was established in 1934. Chambers said the original park maps show that they wanted the river to be the natural border of the park but they weren’t able to attain all the land. 

“But when the government saw the opportunity to get the rest of it they took it,” he said. 

After the U.S. got involved in World War II, there was a greater need for electricity to aid the war effort and the people of Appalachia sacrificed to make that happen. 

“Most people in Western North Carolina were very patriotic,” Chambers said. “Part of them had already volunteered to enter into the service and they were gone. WWII needed more aluminum and more power to generate it. The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) was designated to do this for the federal government so they came to the people here who didn’t have much money but felt it was their patriotic duty to help the war effort. Some land they paid for and some they didn’t. If you owed back taxes they took the land for what you owed.”

For many who are old enough to remember it’s still a sore subject. Their families had to uproot their simple lives and leave everything they knew behind. 

“I was only 18 months old when we had to leave Hazel Creek so I don’t remember, but mom and dad (Woodrow Calhoun and Myrtle Crisp Calhoun) took us back many times and told us stories,” said Vivian Cook, who still lives in Bryson City along with her sister Ellen Monteith. “It was real sad. Mama talked about her gardens she had down there and how she didn’t ever have to use anything to kill bugs and made wonderful gardens. They had a good life — they didn’t have everything we have these days but they were happy.” 

Barbara Fortner can trace her North Shore roots back four generations and knows how hard it was for her relatives to leave. 

“That was their life — their livelihood. My great grandparents moved up to Bryson City and within six months he died and she died a month later. A lot of elderly people never got over it; my parents never got over it,” Fortner said. “It was a hard life, yes, but they had what they wanted — they had food and family. And they had money — my grandpa did horse trading and all of them made liquor and you didn’t leave their house unless you had a shot. That was just common practice back then, but our society now is a different world than it was in the ‘20s and ‘30s — some for the good and some for the bad.”

 

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Members of the Lauada Cemetery Association (above) receive a $2,000 check from the Tennessee Valley Authority to put toward perpetual care. Pictured are Bert Robinson with TVA, Lillian Hyatt, Vivian Cook, Barbara Fortner, Christine Proctor and Rep. Mike Clampitt. Jessi Stone photo

 

North Shore Road

When the North Shore families left their homesteads, the TVA and the federal government promised that a road would be built that would allow them access back to their family cemeteries, but that road never came. 

The battle over getting the road built raged on for more than 50 years. Swain County fought long and hard to get the government to make good on its promise, but the cost to construct the road just was no longer feasible. In 2010, county commissioners finally saw the writing on the wall and gave up efforts to get the road in exchange for a $52 million settlement from the federal government.

“We fought and fought for the road — we really wanted the road to be built, but we had to give in finally to be able to get anything,” said Cook.

Many people were disappointed the effort to get the road built was abandoned and there was little faith the federal government would honor its latest promise for a cash settlement. The government made one $12.8 million payment when the settlement was made in 2010, but it would be another eight years before the county would see another dime. Swain County ended up suing the U.S. Department of Interior in 2016 claiming breach of contract in hopes of recouping the money before the settlement agreement was set to expire in 2020.

The suit was dismissed in a federal court but it did seem to get the process moving again. With a push from U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis, Richard Burr and Rep. Mark Meadows, President Trump allocated the remaining money in his budget proposal. The county received another $4 million check in September 2017 and then a check for the remaining $35.2 million this July. It was a major win for the county and the people of Swain County, but for others no amount of money could bring them closure. 

“It’s nice it was settled but the promise of rebuilding the road will never be kept,” said Karen Marcus, a member of the North Shore Cemeteries Association. “There’s no way there could be compensation for what was taken and what the county has lost if you think about the revenue we’ve lost from taxes — that can’t be replaced.”

On the other hand, Vance said she’s more worried about the future than she is the past. She hopes the settlement money will be used to help preserve the cemeteries on the North Shore. 

“I hope it gives us closure — it does for me. I hope the money goes to help the cemeteries and to keep them open for generations ahead,” she said.

 

Cemetery decorations

There are 26 cemeteries along the North Shore of Fontana Lake that can only be accessed by boat and then foot. Each year from April to October, the cemetery association plans decoration days for all the cemeteries they are able to reach. It’s a ceremony steeped in Appalachian tradition that carries immense importance for the descendants.

“It’s a traditional Appalachian decoration — we designate a day to go and clean the cemetery off and put fresh flowers on the graves and hold a small service,” Chamber said.

It’s a huge undertaking with many obstacles along the way. 

“It takes an hour to an hour and a half to walk to some of those cemeteries. Before Swain County made the settlement agreement in exchange for the road being rebuilt, we had as many as 300 people come out to Bone Valley (cemetery),” Chambers said. “When they saw the road would never be built attendance dropped to 100 to 120. And also a lot of our people are dying — this year we lost 12 people, and seven people the year before.”

Vance remembers when the process was much harder. When the association started in 1978, the park service did not assist with transportation to the cemeteries on the North Shore. Once across the lake, they had to walk to the cemeteries. 

“We had to take our own boats over there — no one helped us across the lake,” she recalled. “People came from all over and brought their boats to get people across the lake so it was really a hard fight for the first eight to 10 years.”

Then the park service got involved by providing some transportation across the lake. Chambers said the park pays to rent several pontoon boats at the marina to get the decoration groups across Fontana and a park trail crew assists people to some of the harder to reach cemeteries with ATVs. 

“It’s been an uphill battle all the way but the park has been good to us and they’ve been good about taking care of the cemeteries,” Vance said. “We really appreciate what the park has done and what they’re still doing. It’s been a group effort and it took all of us working together.” 

Chambers said he does worry about the park continuing to assist with the decoration days now that the federal government has paid its dues to Swain County. 

“The park could say our obligations to the North Shore are over — you’re paid off,” he said. “This is a line item expense and when someone is tasked with looking for things to cut — things they don’t really get anything in return for — it could be at risk. There’s several trail organizations that complain that we take away trail crew time that could be better spent maintaining trails like they’re supposed to do.”

 

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Members of the Lauada Cemetery Association (above) receive a $2,000 check from the Tennessee Valley Authority to put toward perpetual care. Pictured are Bert Robinson with TVA, Lillian Hyatt, Vivian Cook, Barbara Fortner, Christine Proctor and Rep. Mike Clampitt. Jessi Stone photo

 

 

Keeping history alive

Maybe it was the cold weather or maybe because it had to be rescheduled for a later date due to Hurricane Florence, but only about 30 people showed up at this year’s reunion at Deep Creek. Or it could be a sign that times are changing and interest in the North Shore roots are no longer deep enough to keep the effort going. As the years go by and younger generations are less tied to their North Shore roots, attendance at the reunions has waned and fewer people show a vested interest in keeping the cemeteries maintained. 

“The younger generation just doesn’t care like the older generations did because it’s my family — my aunts, uncles and grandparents buried there but it’s more distant for the younger people,” Fortner said. “The cemeteries in Swain County are in very bad shape, and if people who care about our history don’t step in and come up with some money we’re going to lose a whole lot of heritage.”

Fortner also is vice president of the Lauada Cemetery Association, which was organized about 25 years ago in an effort for better maintenance. The hillside cemetery is located along U.S. 19 in Almond and includes 8 acres of gravesites, many of which were relocated from the North Shore when the lake was formed. 

It costs about $8,000 a year to keep Lauada mowed — more during really wet summers. Donations to keep up with the maintenance have been hard to come by. The association has asked the TVA for donations every year to help with mowing, but they’ve always been turned down until this year. 

Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, was able to secure a $2,000 donation from the TVA to put toward perpetual care of Lauada. Association President Christine Proctor hopes the support continues. 

“It’s so important because it reaches back many generations — to the 1700s when our people settled down on the North Shore. They’re giving us $2,000 now — we hope it’s not a one-time thing,” she said. “Our goal is to maintain the cemetery but we also have a savings account to set up perpetual care through Edward Jones Financial. We want to see that happen before we age on out. We don’t see young people stepping up to the plate.”

Fortner said the association still has a long way to go to reach a point where perpetual care can be set up. They need about $125,000 at least to keep it going. 

Chambers said he hopes the interest in local history will circle back around and a younger generation will pick up the torch to carry it forward.

“Most people when they are kids are made to go to church then the minute they get out of school they stop attending. But then when they start having their own kids they realize the importance of teaching them morals so they go back to church for help,” he said. “When you hit 40 or 45 you start realizing your impact on this earth and start asking where did I come from? What’s my legacy going to be? You become more interested in historical and traditional things.” 

Swain County commissioners have given Lauada $14,000 over the last several years to put toward maintenance costs. Now that the county is collecting interest on the entire $52 million sitting in an account in Raleigh, members hope the county will consider allocating more toward perpetual care for the cemetery. 

“All of us gave up so much on the North Shore, so maybe they’ll allot us some more money next year,” Fortner said. 

Chambers said there have been early discussions about putting some of the interest from the settlement money toward cemetery maintenance. Though the park service maintains the trails and keeps the cemeteries clean, the North Shore Cemeteries Association still has a need for donations to replace old grave markers. 

“A big thing in the 1920s and 1930s was Sears and Roebuck sold concrete tombstones and they’d ship it to you on the railroad. Well every one of those is breaking down now and becoming illegible so we’re replacing them with granite markers,” he said. “Other donations we use to maintain the website and purchase fertilizer and grass to plant, but it’s a never ending battle with grub worms and bears digging it up to get to the grub worms.”

All donations made to the North Shore Cemeteries Association or the Lauada Cemetery Association are tax-deductible. For more information on how to help or the decoration day schedule, visit www.northshorecemeteries.com.

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