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Home Opinion Out My Way: A cemetery's million words, Part II

Out My Way: A cemetery’s million words, Part II

Several months ago, I wrote at length about finding a random headstone deep in the Big South Fork backcountry and the history it portrayed.

On Friday, about 18 miles southeast — as the crow flies — from the Elijah Smith headstone that I wrote about previously, I found myself standing among knee-high undergrowth in another graveyard that has been largely forgotten, again marveling at the stories that the stones could tell.

The headstones at Hughett Cemetery are largely hidden by undergrowth. Many have fallen or been overturned; some are broken. The cemetery is no longer marked and there’s no road or path leading to it.

This was Hughett Cemetery on Brimstone, close to Indian Fork. Unlike the Elijah Smith grave — which I stumbled across completely by accident — I was intentionally searching for the Hughett Cemetery with a purpose in mind. But the two cemeteries have quite a bit in common: unkept resting places that don’t have any paths leading to them and are seldom visited, mostly out-of-sight and out-of-mind . . . but lots of stories to tell.

It was a quest to find the grave of Etta Tennessee Goad Lee that led me to Hughett Cemetery. I’m preparing a feature story on some of her descendants for a future edition of the Independent Herald. Ettie died when she was just 23, but she was the wife of a Scott County superintendent of schools (William F. Lee), the sister of a Scott County sheriff (John Goad), and the grandmother of the future mayor of Knoxville and a congressman (John Duncan). Her great-grandson, Jimmy Duncan, was also a congressman, having just retired in January.

Finding the cemetery wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d imagined it would be; it is located on a mountain bench just off Brimstone Road. The ease by which I found it was somewhat by chance when I decided to leave an old roadbed and follow a game trail up the hill, and it led directly through the old headstones.

To say Hughett Cemetery is today unkempt would be quite an understatement. It has been many years since it was maintained. There is no road leading to it, nor a path — except for the game trail. The underbrush has taken over. Many of the stones have fallen and some are broken, suggesting the possibility of long-ago vandalism.

But I found Ettie Lee’s grave . . . and then I found the graves of several of her siblings and cousins, with headstones that told the stories of tragedy and tough times — stories that were theretofore unknown to me. When I got home, I researched into the wee hours of Saturday morning, trying to discover the untold story of each person buried in that forgotten cemetery. And, as is the case with many of these old, forgotten cemeteries, the resulting story is one of tragedy and heartache. We tend to romanticize the past, referring to it as “simpler times.” But if there was ever a time to live in rural Appalachia that is more ideal than the present, it certainly wasn’t before the arrival of modern medicine. Illness that is merely an annoyance today was often fatal then, and the cemeteries tell these stories.

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The headstone of Etta Tennessee Goad Lee, who died in 1890 at the age of 23, is nearly illegible today.

Etta Tennessee Goad was the daughter of Joshua Goad and Elizabeth Robbins Goad. The Goads had 10 children and several of them lived long and fruitful lives — including John, who would serve as sheriff — as well as circuit court clerk and trustee — around the turn of the century. But, as the old cemetery on the hill stands witness to, many did not.

Ettie died when she was just 23. She had a couple of daughters. One of them, Cassie Lee — who was raised by her grandparents — was the mother of Congressman John Duncan. And when they carried her up the hill to bury her in 1890, she was laid to rest beside several of her siblings who had died before her.

In fact, the very first grave at Hughett Cemetery was Mandy Goad, Ettie’s sister who died four years before Ettie was born. Mandy was just nine months old when she died in October 1863. In 1870, Ettie’s sister, Phoebe, died and was buried by Mandy. She was just 13. The following year, another sister — Vicie, or Lavina — died and was buried there. She was just 15.

Another sister, Pharozina, died in 1879 at the age of 25, and a brother, William, died in 1900 at the age of 36. Both are buried by Ettie and the other siblings.

Etta Tennessee Goad Lee’s headstone is one of those at Hughett Cemetery that was broken years ago. The top half of the stone has laid against the bottom half over the years and prevented it from weathering. The difference between the two is stark.

One of Ettie’s siblings who did survive to adulthood was Almira Goad. She married Daniel Walker, and they were the grandparents of long-time Scott County commissioner Lawrence Walker (who died in 2013) and former Robbins Elementary School principal James Walker. Lawrence and James are brothers, the sons of Thomas Walker — who married Zida Kline, the aunt of Dr. George Kline.

But two of Daniel’s and Almira’s children did not survive to adulthood. Vicy Walker was just 11 months old when she died in January 1872. In November 1884, Flora Walker died when she was just 17 months old. Both were buried on the hillside nearby the Goad farm — today known as the Walker farm — at Indian Fork, next to Almira’s sisters and brother who died at tragically young ages.

Bettie Robbins — the wife of future Scott County Judge Mitt Robbins — died in childbirth in 1893 and is buried at Hughett Cemetery.

The stories get more intriguing.

The year 1890 must have been an unimaginably difficult year for Jasper and Vicie Robbins Hughett. On January 16, their 6-year-old daughter, Ella, died and was buried next to her young cousins in the cemetery (Vicie was the daughter of William Robbins, brother of Elizabeth Robbins Goad, and was a first cousin to Ettie Goad Lee and her siblings). Just 5 months later, Jasper and Vicie’s 9-year-old son, John Sherman, died and was buried next to his 6-year-old sister who had died just months earlier.

Just three years after the Hughett children’s death, Jasper’s sister — Bettie Hughett Robbins — died in childbirth and was buried at the cemetery. She was just 22. Her son was named for Jasper’s son who had died three years earlier — John Sherman Robbins. Tragically, he died two months later and was buried in the cemetery alongside his mother.  Then, in 1894, Vicie fell ill and died in 1894, just sixth days before her 34th birthday, and was buried on the hill next to her children who had died four years earlier.

In a four-year span, two mothers who were sisters-in-law and three of their children had died tragic deaths and were all buried at the Hughett Cemetery.

The husband of Bettie, father of John Sherman Robbins, was Melton James “Mitt” Robbins, a first cousin to Vicie Robbins Hughett (their fathers, William and John, were brothers; John was murdered in 1869). Following Bettie’s death, Mitt married her half-sister, Etta Robbins.

Some backstory: William Robbins, the uncle of Etta Tennessee Goad Lee and the grandfather of young Ella and John Sherman Hughett, was a captain for the Union army during the Civil War. He was in command of Company E of the 7th Tennessee, which encamped briefly at Huntsville. He died of thyroid fever during the war and was buried at Lexington National Cemetery in Kentucky.

Following Capt. Robbins’ death, John Hughett — the father of Jasper and a long-time justice of the peace in Scott County — became close with Robbins’ widow, Lucinda Lewallen Robbins. His wife, Christena, was Lucinda’s sister and had died in 1875 at the age of 46 and is also buried at Hughett Cemetery (as are her parents, Joel and Rachael Taylor Lewallen). According to historical writings, John and Lucinda never married  due to the $25 monthly pension Lucinda received after her husband’s death, which she would’ve lost if she’d ever remarried. But John fathered two children with Lucinda, one of whom was Etta Robbins, who married Mitt Robbins after Bettie died in childbirth.

John Goad, the brother of Etta, Mandy, William, Pharozina, Phoebe and Vicie, went on to be elected Scott County Sheriff in 1902. It has been written that he considered resigning the job when he was forced to hang a man for murdering a school teacher. He also later served as circuit court clerk and trustee.

Mitt Robbins went on to serve as Scott County Judge from 1926 to 1934, and was later elected to the Tennessee state legislature. His children, including MJ “Mitt” Robbins Jr., were among the early members of Robbins First Baptist Church and prominent members of the community.

One interesting note to close: Joshua Goad (1824-1910) and Elizabeth Robbins Goad (1831-1907) are buried side-by-side at Slick Rock Cemetery (also known as Sexton Cemetery), which is located just a short distance from Hughett Cemetery. Their headstones, which can be seen in the carefully-manicured cemetery that is among Scott County’s most well-maintained graveyards, are the exact same style as the headstones of all of their children who are buried in the forgotten cemetery on the hill, with the exception of Etta Tennessee and Mandy. Theirs are the only headstones at Slick Rock that are designed in that fashion.

The headstones of Joshua and Elizabeth Goad (left) in the Slick Rock Cemetery are the same style as the headstones of several of their young children who died years earlier and are buried in the forgotten Hughett Cemetery (including this one, of 15-year-old Vicie, who died in 1871).

Life may well have been simpler in the era of our forefathers, but as these forgotten cemeteries remind us, it was far from ideal.

It’s intriguing to stand in these old cemeteries and let the headstones speak to us, in their own way, of what life was once like for the families who lived here. Yes, they truly do tell a story of a million words. And you can’t help wondering: if they really could talk, how much more could they tell us?

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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