Buncombe adopts an abandoned cemetery, and the dead are heard
Revered patriarchs and matriarchs lay with unfortunate babes and unidentified souls in a one hundred yard hump of land that comprises the Old Broad River cemetery in southeast Buncombe County. In the wake of state legislation that preserves grave sites, county commissioners have made the place its first adopted abandoned public cemetery.
As development, neglect, and vandalism rage like a storm in the 21st century, 1770s pioneer John Ownbey and several dozen others huddle like passengers on a ship in what has come to survive as a public cemetery. They now may receive new protection.
In 1938, Thomas Ledbetter had deeded the graveyard, which had sat on property he’d bought years before, to Mitchell Ownbey, Ben Ownbey (Mitchell’s nephew), and Losier Warren, acting as trustees, “for the purpose of a burying place only and it shall be a public burying ground.”
When the last surviving trustee, Ben, passed away, there was no legal entity or individual to serve as caretaker, though family members live nearby and visit. A home built at the base of the cemetery removed the public access. The current private homeowner is welcoming.
Lorraine Wheeler, Ben’s daughter, has done extensive family history research, and is concerned about protecting the trees and shrubs that prevent erosion. She’d like to see gravestones lifted, grass planted, and stones repositioned, but is afraid that the stones might break.
On January 6, county-appointed cemetery committee members became the trustees of the Old Broad River Cemetery, also called the Old Field Cemetery by locals. They represent a resurrection of public interest in ancestors.
Ruth Dilling, abandoned cemetery trustee, reported to the county that she “found more than 75 named markers on graves…(and) at least that many or more graves marked only with field stones” in the Old Broad River cemetery. Regulations stipulate the creation of a public trust fund for cemetery care.
To some, the unnamed dead cry loudest. When the Tennessee Valley Authority had proceeded with plans to build the Tellico Dam, it hadn’t been only protectors of the snail darter who had protested. The Eastern Band of Cherokee made an outcry, for the dam’s lake would inundate the Overhill Cherokees’ sacred burial ground.
Ultimately, the University of Tennessee went in, opened graves, and recovered a portion of the remains. The reclamation became a controversial subject. The TVA contributed money and land toward the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. “A short distance from the museum, near the lake's edge,” Wilma Dykeman wrote in the New York Times in 1987, “stands a newly made burial mound that contains the bones of 191 Cherokee dug up during the dam's construction.”
Author Gary Carden of Sylva wonders about “the nameless dead who were buried on the hill behind the old Jackson County Home for the Aged.” Recently, a dowser went up there and found forty unmarked graves. It has given folks pause, as they remember having forgotten.