If these stones could talk: Friends work to restore Bryson City Cemetery
It’s quiet and peaceful on the hillside of Bryson City Cemetery. Overlooking the hustle and bustle of downtown, all you can hear are birds chirping and the freshly cut grass crunching underneath your feet, but if those old stones could talk they’d have some stories to tell.
With gravesites dating back to the early 1800s, walking through the cemetery is like walking back through time. A who’s who of Swain County’s past, the grounds encompass a vast amount of local history and the sorted tales that connect bootleggers, lawyers, judges, doctors, soldiers, teachers, farmers, writers and other pioneers of Western North Carolina.
Swain County native and local history buff Don Casada has spent a lot of time up on that hill in the last five years as he’s been working with other community members to ensure the cemetery is well maintained. While keeping the grass mowed, restoring headstones and planting flowers, he’s also learned more about the people buried six feet deep.
His research into local newspapers and history books has made him well versed in the folks buried there — families, friends and foes — proving no matter what our social standing is during life on earth, we all end up in the same place for eternal rest.
As far back as 1866, the area now known as Bryson City Cemetery was owned by the Cline family and used as a family burial ground. The gravesite of Alfred Cline, a Civil War veteran, is the earliest documented burial, but with dozens of fieldstone-marked graves in the cemetery, some could very well have predated Cline.
The Cline family sold the central portion of the cemetery in 1884 for $62.50 to trustees of the three main denominations in Bryson City — Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian — and the churches sold family plots in fee simple. Casada said some plot sales were never recorded with the Register of Deeds, but the first recorded sale of a plot was to M. A. McCauley in November 1909. Many family plots have been passed on through the generations, which makes ownership a difficult thing to track.
“An overwhelming majority of people who own property here don’t know they own it,” he said.
The Bryson City Cemetery of today is thus a combination of the original Cline property with the addition of property given from adjacent landowners — the Franklins and the DeHarts.
The Franklins also used their property for a family burying ground and sold tracts to other families as well, including the Coburns and Orrs in the 1920s and early 1930s. Those family plots are the ones located at the bottom of the hill near the cemetery sign.
In 1952, the Franklins and DeHarts decided to deed a right of way and road easement over their lands to the three church trustees. The state then obtained easements to encircle the cemetery with a road.
Not long after that, the town of Bryson City began maintaining the property, which cost about 1 percent of the town’s budget at the time.
Casada said Kelly Bennett was the mayor at the time and could have had a vested interest in maintaining the cemetery since he had family buried there.
“I didn’t know I had any relatives up here until I started doing more research — I have cousins, some of my school teachers, a next door neighbor and others I knew for a long time,” he said.
Today the cemetery property is about 2.5 acres and has about 1,000 grave markers, though Casada said there could still be a few unmarked graves that haven’t been discovered yet.
The stone on Horace Kephart’s grave was moved to Bryson City Cemetery in the early 1930s.
Hailed as the father of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Horace Kephart is undoubtedly the most notable resident of Bryson City Cemetery. As an author and an outdoorsman, Kephart was an active member of the local community. He was killed in a car accident east of Bryson City on April 2, 1931. After his death, CCC and park officials moved a large boulder from the Smokemont area of GSMNP to the cemetery to serve as Kephart’s gravestone.
Then there is the tallest gravestone on the hill with a picturesque angel pointing up to the sky. The grave belongs to Fannie Everett Clancy. While it’s never been confirmed, some scholars think the angel is the statue described in Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.” The angel tombstone was indeed one imported from Carrara, Italy and sold at the Asheville tombstone shop owned by Wolfe’s father in the early 1900s, but Casada doubts it’s the one the author describes in his book.
“I don’t think so. Everett died in childbirth in 1904 — Thomas Wolfe would have been 6 years old when that happened. It’s hard to believe he would have known about this stone,” he said.
Another notable woman buried on the hill is Ellen Black Winston, who was Casada’s neighbor growing up.
“She’s probably the most important person in Swain County buried here,” he said. “She also took me under her wing when I was young and inspired me to pursue a career in engineering.”
Born in 1903, Ellen was the daughter of Stanley Warren and Marianna Fischer Black — the namesake of Bryson City’s public library.
Ellen graduated from Converse College and received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in sociology from the University of Chicago and would go on to teach social sciences, serve as the dean of girls, and as the director of guidance in the Raleigh high schools from 1928 to 1934. She was chairman of the department of sociology and economics at Meredith College from 1940 to 1944, when she was appointed North Carolina Commissioner of Public Welfare, a position she held until 1963.
Casada remembers getting to go visit her at her Raleigh home when he was younger, which was a special treat for a country boy from Bryson City. When he told her he was interested in majoring in physics, Ellen encouraged him to look into engineering instead because she knew that’s where the future jobs and money would be.
“She was a classy and gracious lady,” he recalled.
DK Collins is another community pillar buried in Bryson City. He built the first house in the middle of town and owned a store that housed the first post office in town. The store — a two-story brick building — was described as “the handsomest store west of Asheville” in 1890 and was located where the Swain County Chamber of Commerce building is now.
There are 25 Civil War soldiers buried at the cemetery, including 20 confederate soldiers, four union soldiers and one who fought on both sides.
Casada, 68, already has his ideal plot picked out at the cemetery for his final resting place — right next to his third cousin twice removed, Mark Cathey, who was a well known outdoorsman during his time. Casada thinks he has the best epitaph in the entire cemetery after telling the story about how Cathey got saved just days before he passed away.
“Beloved hunter and fisherman was himself caught by the gospel hook just before the season closed for good,” his tombstone reads.
Don Casada stands next to the gravesite of avid fisherman Mark Cathey, where he would also like to be buried some day.
Clean up efforts
Casada likes to get to the cemetery early in the morning, enjoying the quiet and calmness before the fog rises up off the Great Smoky Mountains.
It takes him 12-16 hours to mow and weedeat the entire cemetery and in the summer months — especially with all the rain this year — the mowing has to be done once a week.
“By default, I’ve become the groundskeeper,” he said. “But I’ve been actively trying to recruit younger folks to help.”
While the cemetery property is in nearly pristine condition these days, that hasn’t always been the case. Before Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery formed five years ago the historic cemetery wasn’t being properly maintained. The grass wasn’t being cut regularly, poison ivy was climbing up the trees, kudzu was creeping in on the banks and grave markers were falling over.
“I thought our ancestors would have taken immaculate care of the cemetery but that hasn’t been the case,” Casada said.
Since the cemetery is basically privately owned by the people who purchased plots — many of which don’t live in the area or even know they own cemetery property — the responsibility of maintenance has been a community effort.
Casada said he found an old newspaper article about an annual cemetery clean up inviting the community to help maintain the area before the town took over maintenance in the 1950s;
“When I graduated from Swain High in 1969 I remember the cemetery was being well taken care of,” he said.
However, by the early 1990s the Bryson City town manager recognized that the town probably shouldn’t be maintaining property it didn’t have easements for and didn’t own.
“They had no obligation to maintain it so they backed off significantly and by 2015 when we got involved it was in really bad shape,” Casada said.
Bryson City Cemetery offers a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and downtown Bryson City.
Friends of Bryson City Cemetery started with about a dozen people supporting the cause and chipping in to clean up the property. It was just a loosely organized group during the first year and then they incorporated as a nonprofit in 2016 so they could begin accepting donations. Now the Friends has a list of about 100 families and individuals supporting the group with a $30 annual membership.
In addition to mowing and other maintenance, Casada said the group received a grant that helped him clean and straighten out more than 200 grave markers that were leaning forward and in disrepair.
The nonprofit is also working toward raising enough funds to start a perpetual fund through the Western North Carolina Community Foundation to ensure the cemetery will be taken care of in the future. Casada said they would need at least $100,000 — so far the Friends has raised $15,000.
Friends holds monthly meetings to discuss the cemetery but also to share history lessons about those buried at the cemetery. Casada said they had a packed house for last month’s meeting, which detailed the sordid murder of U.S. Prohibition Agent James Holland “Hol” Rose. Rose was shot and killed by Babe Burnett and both are buried in the Bryson City Cemetery along with the judge who heard the case in court.
Burnett was convicted of the crime but eventually the state ordered a new trial focused on the fact Rose didn’t have a warrant to be on Rose’s property that night out on Brush Creek. Burnett won the appeal but was then arrested and convicted of violating prohibition laws.
“We had descendents of both families there at the meeting,” Casada said. “Babe’s great-granddaughter brought along the shotgun that was supposedly used in the shooting.”
For more history about the cemetery and how to become a member or make a donation, visit www.friendsofthebccemetery.org.