There was a time in Southern Appalachia when Decoration Day was one of the most important days of the year. Families and entire communities would gather at cemeteries to clean and renew the graves, to remember and honor the dead, and to reconnect. It was part family reunion and part homecoming event.
These time-honored customs and traditions are the inspiration for the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area’s first-ever Decoration Day Cemetery Quest, which seeks to raise awareness of the cemeteries found within the national park and the cultural significance they play, while also honoring the early settlers who formed this region and forged its history.
The cemetery quest
The Cemetery Quest is a one-day event, scheduled for Saturday, May 15. Participants who complete the event will earn a copper challenge coin, and will also earn points towards the completion of the Go Big Challenge that the BSF has ongoing throughout the year.
“My staff and I have really put a lot of research effort into the information in the cemeteries,” said Ranger Mary Grimm, Big South Fork’s supervisor of interpretation. “I really want it to be a success.”
At 8 a.m. on the morning of May 15, the National Park Service will release a list of eight cemeteries on the Kentucky side of the Big South Fork and in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Participants can meet at the Kentucky ranger station, located on Ky. Hwy. 92 just off U.S. 27 in Stearns, to pick up a packet. The packet can also be downloaded from the BSF’s Facebook page, @BigSouthForkNPS, beginning at 8 a.m. on the morning of May 15.
There will be no need to exit one’s vehicle at the ranger station; the Cemetery Quest pamphlets and awards will be delivered directly to the vehicle.
Participants will then have eight hours to tour the region and locate the eight cemeteries, collecting answers to specific questions at each location. Participants can complete the quest individually or in teams, though teams must stay together.
“It’s a site-specific quest,” explained Grimm. “For example, at one of the cemeteries we’ll go to in Bell Farm, there’s a question about the sign at the gate. Then we’ll go to one of the graves and get information about how the person was the postmaster and the local barber and ran the general store. So they’ll be learning about his life and the impact he had on the local community from the information on the tombstone.”
The Cemetery Quest is self-guided, in that participants can determine for themselves the best routes to the cemeteries and the order in which they should be visited. A map will be provided.
The quest is about honoring the people who made the Big South Fork region what it is.
“We tried, in every cemetery, to be sure that participants are getting information about the people who formed the Big South Fork and this whole region, and how important they were to the community,” Grimm said.
There will be a 4 p.m. deadline to complete the quest. That should be ample time; Grimm said that trial runs have seen people complete the challenge in four-to-five hours. At 4 o’clock, participants will return to the ranger station at Stearns, where they’ll receive a copper challenge coin specifically designed for the event.
“We decided to do a coin and we hope they’ll become little collector items with a unique one every year for the event,” Grimm said.
Participants will also receive 20 points towards the Go Big Challenge, the BSF’s ongoing event that encourages visitors to the park to participate in activities like hiking, mountain biking and exploring the various natural and cultural highlights of the region to earn points. That’s one-fifth of the points needed to earn a patch for completing the challenge. Participants who pick up a bag of trash along their journey can earn five bonus points.
Grimm said that the idea was to focus on the cemeteries in the Kentucky district of the park this year. If the quest goes well, it will expand to include the Tennessee side in 2022.
Decoration Day in Appalachia
Today, Decoration Day is largely known as Memorial Day — a federal holiday on the last Monday of May for honoring America’s military dead. While it didn’t become an official holiday until 1971, Memorial Day has roots that date all the way back to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. On May 30, 1868, Gen. James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.
But Decoration Day practices actually predate the commemoration of the Civil War dead — especially in Southern Appalachia. Here, Decoration Day was not a formal holiday but a grass roots event held each year in various communities and at various cemeteries.
“Traditionally, Decoration Day was formed in the Appalachian region to clean the cemeteries and replace the old flowers with new flowers to honor the loved ones who were buried in those cemeteries,” Grimm said. “They would also put small momentoes on the stones to symbolize something that person loved and enjoyed.”
But decorating the graves was just the start of the festivities.
“There was a religious service where there was a message brought, everyone sang hymns, and there was a dinner on the grounds, so to say, with a huge picnic, potluck-style meal,” Grimm said. “As they were enjoying this meal, they were visiting with family members they hadn’t seen all year. The kids were playing, there were storytellers that were telling stories and reminiscing about events they had and special times they had with their loved ones. It was a way of keeping their memory alive and honoring them as well.”
There was no universal date for these Decoration Day ceremonies, though they were usually held in the spring — typically on a Sunday in May. In some communities, Decoration Day was held later in the summer.
“The traditions of Decoration Day on the Cumberland Plateau actually contributed to the formation of the Memorial Day holiday,” Grimm said.
Cemeteries of the Big South Fork
There are dozens of cemeteries within the boundaries of the 125,000-acre Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area — 58 in all. They range from a solitary grave to a small group of graves to large cemeteries like Terry Cemetery, Chimney Rock Cemetery and Katie Blevins Cemetery on the Tennessee side of the park (see related story, page B4). Some of the cemeteries are easily accessed by vehicle, and among those will be the cemeteries featured in the Decoration Day Cemetery Quest, with a list of the specific cemeteries released on May 15. Others are isolated, located far away from the nearest vehicular access point. Some have completely disappeared into the forest, with headstones that have become illegible or that were never inscribed to begin with. Some of the graves are old (the grave of Richard Harve Slaven near No Business Creek, dated 1848, is believed to be the oldest), and some are much more recent, as burials continue today at some of the privately-owned cemeteries within the BSF’s boundaries.
All of these cemeteries have stories to tell. They tell the stories of the people who settled the region, and also of the geology that makes up the region. Visiting cemeteries can tell stories of the linguistics and the art of the region’s pioneer settlers, and the grave stones tell the history of sickness and epidemics that occurred.
There was a time when Decoration Day was observed at many of these cemeteries.
“It was a big deal,” Grimm said. “It was something I grew up with, and it’s a tradition I think more people need to understand.”
The BSF’s Decoration Day Cemetery Quest grew out of the annual Decoration Day celebration at Blue Heron. The event focused on the historic coal mining community west of Stearns. But, Grimm said, “Decoration Day is in the cemeteries. You can’t do Decoration Day without being where people were laid to rest.”
And, so, the idea for the Big South Fork’s first Decoration Day Cemetery Quest was born.
“This is about the human history of this entire region,” Grimm said. “Hopefully we can bring awareness to it in a respectful manner.”