Valley of Bones. Bradshaw. Higdon. Prosecutor. Hall. These are just a few of the names that adorn more than 20 Great Smoky Mountains National Park cemeteries that are only accessible by boat. Today, pilgrims from this region and across the country are transported to these special burial sites – some extremely remote – thanks to an unparalleled partnership.
“We began decorating cemeteries on the north side of Fontana Lake in 1978 and we continue to do so today,” said Lee Vance Woods, one of the main organizers of the North Shore Decorating Days. “It’s thanks to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park staff providing transportation to each cemetery for us.”
How and why did this unique transport partnership for pilgrims begin?
In the 1930s, more than a thousand families had to relocate before the Little Tennessee River was dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1944. Driven from the north shore of Lake Fontana, they also left behind their family cemeteries , often located near their homes. For a time, the creation of the lake made it impossible to continue the sacred ritual of decorating days – when people gathered to clean and tidy graveyards, bring flowers to decorate the graves of their ancestors, and offer a prayer before a family style. having dinner.
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To continue their tradition, families needed access to boats. To reach some of the more distant burial sites, they also had to be transported in vehicles for several miles.
Woods’ mother, Helen Cable Vance, worked with other families to form the North Shore Cemetery Association to partner with the park to provide regular access to these remote cemeteries. After nearly three decades of outdated decorations, the park pledged in the late 1970s to support these visits.
Today, between April and November each year, pilgrims are transported by pontoon boat across Lake Fontana to Hazel Creek. Writer Courtney Lix made the trip for a story that appears in the Spring 2019 issue of the Smokies Life newspaper.
“As we get off the boat, we are greeted by a park service team with vans,” she wrote. “We move slowly along the muddy road and go deeper into the mountains. … The cemetery is tidy, thanks to the work of the park service team. Headstones – often called monuments – are straight and well maintained. »
This year’s reunion has been particularly poignant because, with a pandemic on the wane, descendants can once again gather in large numbers for traditional services and share the stories of the people who once called the mountains home.
“Of course we missed 2020 due to COVID and were only able to complete some of the cemeteries last year as restrictions changed,” said Karen Marcus of Maggie Valley, North Carolina, an active member of the North Shore Cemetery Association. “Decorating is an opportunity to perpetuate a tradition started by our ancestors. For them, it was time to take care of the cemetery and to have contact with relatives and neighbours.
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On July 3, Marcus went with a group to Proctor and Bradshaw cemeteries. Among the pilgrims was a man who had come from New Hampshire in search of the grave of his ancestor.
“He had seen a picture of the headstone and said his grandfather was buried in Proctor, although at first we weren’t sure due to conflicting information,” Marcus said. “The expression on his face when he walked over to the grave and touched his grandfather’s headstone was something to behold. He knelt down in awe and wonder as if meeting his grandfather whom he had never had the opportunity to meet. Just being in the area where his ancestors lived – where his father was born, the land of his roots – was a religious experience.
Nearly 100 people gathered for Bone Valley Decoration Day on June 26, with some Burlingame family members traveling from as far away as California. About a third of the pilgrims then proceeded to Hall Cemetery.
Dana Soehn, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s assistant manager, was present. “It is an incredible gift to see these traditions continue and be passed on to the next generation of descendants to help ensure that the history of the people is not forgotten,” she said.
“Unfortunately, a rumor recently circulated that the National Park Service was planning to stop transporting descendants to cemeteries and had also banned traditional church services,” Soehn continued. “I can assure you this is untrue, and it is disappointing that this irresponsible misinformation has been released.”
Woods and Vance also heard the rumor and were appalled.
“We contacted the park and were told that this rumor was not true,” Woods said. “The decorations will continue as usual since our families started them in the mid-1800s and continue today in accordance with our agreement with the park service.”
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Marcus hopes that other descendants of the people of the North Shore will not miss this opportunity and will come on pilgrimage to visit the graves of their ancestors.
“For a little while, when we visit a cemetery on the North Shore, we reconnect with our roots,” she says. “When we sing the old hymns in the most beautiful cathedral that can exist and the coyotes join in the song, we visualize the houses, the fields, how our ancestors lived, worked and played. It is sacred ground, and it leaves a sense of awe and reverence.
For a calendar of all decoration dates, please see the North Shore Cemetery Historical Association and North Shore Cemetery Decorations Facebook pages.
Frances Figart is editor-in-chief of Smokies Life and director of creative services for the 29,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit educational partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Contact her at [email protected]