Tent Graves

Two weeks ago I shared Highland Cemetery with you and some of the pictures prompted further research and comments from readers.  (You can’t imagine how happy that makes me!) The comments are always available for everyone to read but I thought today I’d share with you some of the research it led me to.

Shawna asked me what are the graves that are covered with large slabs of stone.  Believing I knew the answer, I confidently explained these tend to be among the oldest graves in the cemetery and were certainly placed before the availability of airtight coffins and vaults.  The stones would secure the burial site from digging animals.

She kept looking.

Sure enough, a simple Google search revealed a website www.TheGraveWalkers.com which asserts that these types of graves are predominately found along the Highland Rim and especially in Overton County, Tennessee.

I found a blog article at here That shared lots of pictures of these graves and lots of information but no hard and fast conclusions.  The Tennessee Sate Library has a photo collection of these tent graves dating through the 19th century, with a few as late as the 1920’s. 

The Hutchinson blog noted that these graves are more prevalent in family cemeteries and most often represent the first and second generation of immigrants to the area.

Irish Cemetery:  Don't those little houses look a lot like our Tent Graves?

Irish Cemetery:  Don't those little houses look a lot like our Tent Graves?

My first thought on reading these articles was that I knew I’d seen pictures of similar graves in Europe.  We know that the area was predominately settled by Scots Irish so isn’t it logical that this is a tradition that simply immigrated with them?  However, I guess the absence of these graves in North Carolina and Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains precludes the immigration theory since that population was even more directly Scots Irish. 

Plaque Graves near Culross Scotland

Plaque Graves near Culross Scotland

Looking online, I found several pictures of old European cemeteries with covered graves, but one in particular whose coverings look so much like the tents we’re familiar with.  I didn’t actually find examples among Scottish cemeteries which surprised me because I would have thought the Scots Irish would have brought more Scottish traditions than Irish.  However, there are examples of unique approaches to graves in Scotland.  Near Culross are three graves of siblings who died on the same day in the seventeenth century.  They are known as the Plaque Graves and do seem to have a huge plaque atop each one. 

The greater European area has lots of examples of covered graves, although they all seem more ornate or finished than the slabs we have around here.  Could these Appalachian Tent Graves represent a crude, frontier representation of the tradition the people observed in the old country?

These graves always seem to represent a lot of work to me.  Often the cemeteries are far from established quarries and these are big, heavy slabs of stone.  However, in so many cases the names were either never clearly inscribed or never maintained so now we have these very visible grave sites with no idea just who they are memorializing. 

Finally, it occurs to me that the very tradition this blog seeks to celebrate and perpetuate fails in this area.  Our oral tradition has preserved family details carried for centuries.  We’ve learned and continue to use skills that our ancestors brought from their foreign homes.  Yet here is a tradition that no one seems to have explained as the years passed.

Old West Kirk of Culross, Scotland This is professional photo (used with permission)  is representative of work available at www.ghgraham.com

Old West Kirk of Culross, Scotland

This is professional photo (used with permission)  is representative of work available at www.ghgraham.com

What do you think?  Does it seem like these are just a style of burial site?  Or do you think it’s some tradition that came with early immigrants but didn’t last very long on American soil? 


Fried Chicken

I’ve kind of been on a food-thing lately, haven’t I?  I mentioned to you that I’ve been trying to be more disciplined with my food – and that just makes you crave all the good stuff.  But today’s thoughts are more about feeding a large group of people.

You’ll remember from a few weeks ago that I have a full house right now.  It’s a blessing and a challenge.  I’m unaccustomed to regularly cooking for a group of eleven.  Therefore when Fried Chicken rotated up on my menu list, it was a new cooking opportunity.  Something was said about cooking special foods and I thought that fried chicken was just regular country-cooking, albeit maybe Sunday-dinner kind of cooking.

I’m no expert at frying chicken, although I did learn at the feet of my grandmothers.  My finished product doesn’t come close to theirs and whether that’s my skill-level or years of practice I can’t say.  But you can’t buy the stuff.  Sure, deep fried, heavily battered chicken is a fast food treat occasionally but it’s just not the same as the homeade version.

I don’t have any secrets to my recipe, although one grandma always used garlic salt instead of regular salt and that does add an extra layer of flavor.

I fry in a big iron skillet, just like my grandma did – in fact, she had a special skillet that she callled the chicken fryer.  Whether it was originally produced and named that, I don’t know but it was very deep – you could really have deep fried in it if you’d wanted.  That depth allowed a neater cooking experience because the stuff will pop everywhere. 

Iron seems always to be the cooking medium of choice in these old recipes.   I guess it has long been available and more modern non-stick surfaces are really quite new.  Plus, cooking on wood or coal prohibitted many of the plastic-handled pots we enjoy today.  It provides an even heat and holds the heat well while your cooking.

In feeding nearly a dozen mouths, I did notice the cooking time was pretty long.  I was able to stick the finished product in the oven so everyone got warm chicken.  How would I have done that on a wood stove?  Did you use the oven the same way?  I guess there’s no reason not to, in fact it might be easier because the oven box of a wood stove is always a little warm owing to the proximity to the fire box.

Of course I have chicken in the freezer and I can’t help but think that a whole other layer of complexity would be added if I’d had to ring the neck of the beast, pluck it and clean it before I began frying.

One question I’d like to answer is breading.  Do any of you remember your grandmas frying chicken without flouring it?  We’ve talked many times about the scarcity of flour on the mountain in years gone by.  Were cooks willing to use a little of that precious resource to coat their chicken?  It is certainly a different food if you don’t bread it.

All in all, a meal of homeade fried chicken, gravy, green beans, potato salad and hot biscuits is a pretty nice treat and a welcome reminder of meals at my grandma’s table.

Found: A New Cemetery

Highland Cemetery in Dry Hollow, Tennessee.  Can you see the steeple of the little church peeking up beyond the hill?  

Highland Cemetery in Dry Hollow, Tennessee.  Can you see the steeple of the little church peeking up beyond the hill?

Lorene and Loretta.jpg

Well I had a grand time on Decoration Day last Sunday and I sure hope you can all report the same.  I’m sorry I didn’t get to visit with many of you.  When I arrived at Campground with rain threatening, there were only a handful of people.  I did get to see one neighbor, Lorene, who isn’t able to get out much these days due to an ailing husband, several Atkinson and Miller cousins and a couple of Stepps.

My Uncle Leon made a passing statement about locating some ancestral graves and mentioned a cemetery that I had visited once many years ago.  You know it doesn’t take much to send me on an adventure and he did it!  So, after the traditional visit to The Whittaker Cemetery (and no ice cream this time, I’m afraid), we headed North East off the mountain toward Livingston.

Highland Freewill Baptist Church

Highland Freewill Baptist Church

In 1928, my Great-great Granmdother, Sarah Jane Langford Stepp was staying with her son Wilburn on the mountain bench below Monterey in a community called Dry Hollow.  At seventy-nine years of age, she passed away in her son’s home.  Even on today’s roads and in cars that run the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit, that’s an hour’s drive from the Burrville community where she raised her family.  I can’t quite imagine what it would have been in that day.  We don’t actually know where her husband had been buried thirty-seven years earlier but we believe it to be near Jamestown, which would have been forty-five minutes in another direction – again that’s driving on modern roads – but all of the family had left that area anyway.  So, they did the only thing they could do and buried her in Highland Cemetery.

I don’t know if she saw the end coming and was able to have any input on her final resting place, but I cannot imagine a more beautiful spot to leave your mother.  The cemetery sits atop a low rise amid towering mountains on all sides.  At the foot of the hill is an absolutely picturesque little church, Highland Freewill Baptist Church.  Pastor Derek Parsons was good enough to supply a brief sketch of the church’s history.  While that adorable building only dates to the 1970’s, the congregation was established about 1907.  When their churchouse burned they continued meeting in homes or yards until a new building could be erected using volunteer labor and lumber harvested from the neighboring hillside.  The floor joists were hand hewn. 


The cemetery is even older, with at least two civil war veterans buried there.  The oldest grave I found was 1873, unfortunately the name was unreadable, however someone clearly knows its occupant for that was one of the graves adorned with a brand new Confederate flag.  The community has continued to utilize the land and new graves with modern granite stones share the space with the very old, covered graves.  A new section seems to have opened with two graves sitting on the opposite side of the driveway.

Not knowing this part of the country very well (if you’re reading this and can enlighten me, by all means please do so in the comments below), I can’t help but wonder where the large slabs of quarried stone came from.  There are several graves completely covered with them, and some are huge.  I couldn’t imagine the effort required to haul those stones to the top of that mountain.  Although it’s not too hard to believe loved ones were more than willing to put that effort into preparing and preserving their family plots. 

As I looked around this quiet little community, my creative brain began to spin with questions.  That same creativity will write the stories if it can’t find any facts – this valley will certainly appear in an upcoming book.

Rock Wall on Bear Hollow Road.  The original Highland Freewill Baptist Church building stood on Bear Hollow Road; it burned in the 1970's.

Rock Wall on Bear Hollow Road.  The original Highland Freewill Baptist Church building stood on Bear Hollow Road; it burned in the 1970's.

Decoration Day Memory


Sunday is Decoration Day at Campground.  We’ve talked about this holiday here before but as I go to place flowers on graves, I am always reminded of a special memory that I wanted to share with you today.  Now, this is not quite so historical as most of my research and writing – especially since I like to consider myself young enough that my childhood isn’t HISTORY.

I have a lot of memories of piling a bunch of people into the cab of a Ford F150 pickup truck.  Both of my grandfathers drove these trucks and whenever they carried the grandkids around that’s what we all hopped into.  We always thought it would be great fun to ride in the back, but they never let us go to town that way, just around home.

My maternal grandfather, Henry Livesay, was a quiet man.  He didn’t have a lot of deep family ties, but he was fiercely loyal to his eight siblings, and of course was dedicated to caring for all us grandkids.  He was also serious about caring for the family’s graves. 

Grandpa wasn’t a church-goer; he wasn’t saved until he was seventy-seven years old.  Each year just before Memorial Day, we all rode out to Monterey to visit the Whittaker Cemetery and attend to his mother’s grave.  He would carry rakes, a shovel and bucket of dirt, and the decoration flowers. 

That old grave, planted without the benefit of modern vaults, continually sank and Grandpa was always adding more dirt.  Buried beside Great Grandma was her brother who had passed away in 1927 presumably unmarried and without children.  There were few people left to attend to that grave.

Most of Grandpa’s siblings had left the plateau in search of work.  Lee, who lived in Ohio, would often make it back home for Decoration Day.  If he wasn’t going to be able to make it, both he and their sister Willie Ann would send money to Grandpa to buy flowers on their behalf.


After the work was finished at the cemetery, we’d stop to visit Tom and Nova (Livesay) Todd who lived right next to Whittaker Cemetery – you simply couldn’t go to the cemetery without stopping at their house.  I still can’t go to that cemetery without thinking I need to visit them.  However, they’ve passed on now too and even their little house is gone.

The final stop on the big annual trip to Monterey was Dairy Queen.  Everyone in the truck got a cone and frankly we kids were probably more eager to get the treat than visit the old aunt or to drop off flowers for the dead.  I don’t know if Grandpa had a great psychological plan in buying us ice cream but it certainly created a tradition that I am now loathe to abandon. 

Because Decoration Day was so important to him, I have pledged to always decorate his people’s graves, if I am at all able.  The flowers are awfully expensive these days, but it’s really not about big boquets.  The important thing is remembering.  I never knew Grandpa Livesay’s parents so my memories about their graves are entirely centered around my Grandpa.  Now I also have to decorate Grandpa Livesay’s grave, as well as my Grandpa and Grandma Stepp’s.  Those three certainly are rich in memories and even though I have tears in my eyes as I type, they are beautiful, precious memories that I choose to enjoy despite the occasional moment’s mourning.

Personal Space


We in the Durham household are very honored to have a missionary family staying with us for a few weeks.  The Lyons have five children aged nine and under, add in my two and that’s a lot of energy.  A home with seven children is pretty out of the ordinary these days – if they stayed very long I’ll bet we could even get our own reality show out of it.  However, a couple of generations ago, this would have been a very normal household.

As we’ve talked about adjusting schedules and feeding the crew, I can’t help but imagine how my great grandmothers managed their own homes.  The families of my four sets of great-grandparents had five, ten, eleven and twelve children.  Even with very high infant mortality rates, they raised five, nine, and two families of eleven of those children. 

The story on The Printed Word two weeks ago prompted some precious reminiscing among my cousins when I posted the picture of my great grandfather’s steamer trunk.  Those cousins remembered it so well because it was in their own homes when he stayed with them.  For you see, just a couple of generations ago aging parents lived with their adult children when they could no longer care for themselves.  That added another person or two to full houses.

The concept of personal space certainly differs around the world.  I’ve heard folks who’ve lived in third world countries where large, extended families sleep on dirt floors in a single, common room.  In the morning, they roll up straw mats and prepare their meals in the same room.  Here, we have kitchens and dining rooms, living rooms and dens, as well as studies and playrooms – and would you believe that on average there are just about two and one-half people living in over two thousand square feet of house?  (The 2010 family size per statista.com was 2.59.  The same year, census.gov reported a median home size of 2,169 – that was the latest year data was available for the home size.)

About a year ago, I wrote a series of articles about historic homes around the area.  As I look back at some of those houses, I realize they seem spacious enough if I think of living there with just a husband and one or two children.  But those houses counted their families in double digits and their square footage in hundreds instead of thousands of feet.  I’ve shared the picture of my Uncle Lester Key’s house with you before.  The house I knew had been significantly enlarged from when the children were all home, and it was still pretty small.  That family of seven children slept in the loft of the house, the only son had a ‘room’ partitioned on one end by a curtain.  My grandmother who was born in the mid 1920’s remembers sleeping at the foot of her parents’ bed.  She doesn’t remember that as, “I had a bad dream and ran to their bed”.  Instead, it was just her place to sleep. 

Shawna with her brother in front of the Lockhart House, home of her great-grandmother.

Shawna with her brother in front of the Lockhart House, home of her great-grandmother.

One home I didn’t mention in that architecture series was the Lockhart house in Clarkrange.  Built in 1926, it was one of the finest homes in the community for many years and still stands proudly near the junction of Highways 62 and 127.  Dr. Joseph Lockhart was a second generation medical professional and I’m sure when he built this stone house he expected to both raise his family in it as well as treat patients.  In fact, his daughter, JoBlan LaRue tells in the 1987 Hitory of Fentress County book that she remembered her mother caring for people who were too sick to go home.  The house had two downstairs bedrooms – one for the Lockharts and a second reserved for patients.  Shawna Sibley, one of their great-granddaughters, remembers the house which had a whopping six bedrooms, but they were tiny rooms.  This house was larger than many of the era but I’m sure when the nine Lockhart children were home it seemed full to overflowing.

I’ve talked about my own grandparents’ home which was often overflowing with family.  For all of our connected-ness and social media we are not a generation that really enjoys each other.  That previous generation would ‘gang up’ every chance they got.  People would sleep on pallets on the floor or with four to a bed.  (John Denver’s “Grandma’s Featherbed is echoing in my head right now.)  We thought little about comfort in those days, we were just happy to be together.  You know there is much about yester-year that I miss and long for and this is certainly one of the biggies.  I’m always sad that we are losing touch with extended family and no longer sharing our stories and history.

As the days pass with my house filled, I’ll no doubt share some of the joys and the struggles.  I’m sure I’ll drive some of my guests absolutely crazy, but in the end, I believe we’ll all be blessed for the experience.