In a quiet corner of Hamblen Township, Jim Connor lightly brushed dirt from the face of a tombstone he had just lifted from where it had lain face-down in the earth for years.
Connor is an artist who normally creates stone artwork rather than preserving it.
As he examined the grave markers in Zion Church Cemetery, he talked about designs and motifs, about intricate flowers or depictions of wheat.
“This is some beautiful work,” he said. “There’s some beautiful stones up here.”
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Each design is like an artist’s signature. “Just the stones themselves need to be preserved,” Connor said. “There never will be a time again when they ever make tombstones like this. Once these are gone, they’re gone.”
In for the long haul
Vivian Wolff has been trying for more than a year to get more attention for the one-room churches that dot Brown County and their associated cemeteries. Along with several friends, she assisted in the restoration of Sprunica Christian Church.“It’s not that I have a passion for cemeteries, and I don’t have a passion for one-room churches,” Wolff said. “I just have a desire to get people that come to Brown County to realize that there’s more to Brown County than Nashville.”The Zion Church project is part of her work with local historic preservation group Peaceful Valley Heritage.
Wolff said the county’s historic cemeteries could be included in historic tours — another project the preservation group is working on throughout Brown County. Visitors could even learn about the people buried in them for a more immersive experience, she said.
Hamblen Township Trustee Phil Stephens is responsible for maintaining most of the cemeteries in the township. He is excited about the possibility of immersing visitors further in Brown County’s rich history.
“As this gains traction, I have a feeling this will be very, very popular,” he said, “because the cemeteries have a story to tell. There’s a lot of history behind them: names, places, what life was like back then.
“I know it’s been a big learning experience for me so far.”
A peaceful place
Out on Three Notch Road, Lua Aline is happy to have a cemetery as her neighbor. “I chose this for its silence,” she said.She stood and talked with Connor and his assistant, Emily Daugherty, about the peace of the rural landscape and the Brown County character that old cemeteries speak to.“The history we make now isn’t that substantial, I think,” Daugherty said. “It doesn’t last very long.”
She held up modern life against the ways of people who wrote in diaries and carved headstones by hand from local limestone.
“It’s not tangible,” she said of modern communication. “You can’t touch it. You can’t feel it. You can’t smell it. You can’t see the decay.”
For her part, Aline keeps an eye on the cemetery, turning her lights on to discourage suspicious people she sees there.
A few years back, young people came through “leapfrogging” some of the tombstones, knocking them over in the process, she said.
One large stone had laid in the dirt since she moved in 14 years ago.
Grave markers are ultimately perishable themselves — more quickly if they are not taken care of, Connor said.
“They don’t last forever. Our climate, with the acid rain, is really hard on the stone,” he said.
Even care provided improperly can make things worse, Connor said. Grave markers need to be cleaned in a way that will not damage the polished exterior, which helps to prevent moisture from infiltrating and degrading the stone.
Without volunteers, the scope of work being undertaken at Zion Church Cemetery would be impossible, Stephens said.He is working to restore gravestones around the township as funds allow, but trustee budgets are limited. Much simply goes into regular mowing and maintaining fences around cemeteries.“I have been successful in getting that (budget) increased for 2016, and we’ll look for some more slight increases for following years, but for now we’re heavily reliant on volunteers,” Stephens said.
According to records kept by Don Ford — whose family members are buried at Zion Church Cemetery, including Civil War veteran Uriah Ford — there are about 108 graves in Zion Church Cemetery.
Working on the larger stones for two days, Connor and Daugherty were able to raise or stabilize about six, he said.
To help with cemetery preservation at Zion Church, call Vivian Wolff at 502-295-4412 or Phil Stephens at 317-474-0140.
To learn more about historic preservation efforts in Brown County, attend a Peaceful Valley Heritage Inc. meeting. Peaceful Valley meets the second Tuesday of each month, 6:30 p.m., at the Brown County Community Foundation, lower level.