Federal Oversight

© 2008 Ginger Manley

Smith Cemetery 2008. Photograph by Keith Harding, used with permission.
Smith Cemetery 2008. Photograph by Keith Harding, used with permission.

If it had been a wild turkey that had taken up roost in the dead upper branches of the tree, then it might have gone almost completely unnoticed. But it wasn’t a wild turkey. It was a bald eagle, and eagles are pretty scarce in eastern Tennessee. The first sightings of these majestic birds in the wild were reported here in about 2005 and news of a sighting is always accompanied by expressions of awe at the grandeur that a single eagle or, more wonderfully a nesting pair, evokes in the viewer.

Bald eagles are one of the largest predatory birds in North America. Their habitat includes every continental state where there is abundant water and tall trees. They mate for life and build their nests, called eyries, atop these tall trees or in some cases on platforms constructed by humans who prefer them to not nest on top of power or telephone poles. A nesting pair will hatch one to three eaglets a year. In 1972 bald eagles were listed on the endangered species list after DDT pesticides and rampant hunting almost drove them to extinction. Since then, the eagles have recovered through intense private and public efforts. When they were removed from the list in 2007 the number of pairs throughout North America had increased to over 10,000. Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, TN, has helped re-populate the Smoky Mountain area through its hatching program. In April 2008, Dolly Parton released eagle number ninety, which she named Liberty in commemoration of the eagle’s role as a symbol of the United States.

The story goes that Ben Franklin was much opposed to making the eagle the representative image of the new federal government. He lobbied for the wild turkey as a symbol, having much more admiration for its character traits than he had for those of the eagle. But Ben’s opponents won out and for over 200 years the eagle has staunchly—or some might argue menacingly—stood guard over the Union.

At first I didn’t believe what I was told about the eagle roosting in the dead tree, but then I received an e-mail jpeg from the man who had seen it. It was clearly a bald eagle, with the well-defined white head and neck and white tips on its wings marking it as a mature eagle of at least six years of age. Silhouetted as it was, sitting on the stark grasping branches against the brazen blue sky, the eagle clearly had staked its turf right next to my family’s ancestral cemetery.

The Smith/Smyth Cemetery is located on one/tenth of an acre of high ground in the middle of a peninsula known as Bay Pointe near the southeastern edge of Loudon County, Tennessee. The cemetery overlooks the remaining deep channel of the Little Tennessee River on one side and the Tellico Lake on the other side. From the ground above the cemetery one can look eastward through the early morning fog and see rising about thirty miles away the Great Smoky Mountains.

At one time the Smith cemetery and its adjacent now-underwater land had been a 400 or more acre farm where my maternal ancestors had settled after migrating from Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina—homesteading, birthing, dying, planting, prospering, and floundering. My great-grandfather, James Garland Smith III, was the last Smith farmer to be buried there, in 1903. Altogether five Smiths, seven Johnsons who were neighbors, three Cooks who may have been Smith relatives and three unknown persons were buried in this little graveyard, one of about thirty family cemeteries in Loudon County. Many of these similar family burial places were left behind or forgotten when the families moved away from the farms. Today these family cemeteries in Tennessee and elsewhere are permanently catalogued using GPS tracking technology and the information is available to everyone through an Internet connection.

Until the mid-1990’s the land on which the Smith cemetery sits had been virtually inaccessible to outside exploration for fifty years except by logging trucks which harvested its timber and by teenagers in ATV’s who breached its wilderness in search of Saturday night thrills. When the Tennessee Valley Authority began construction in the 1970’s on the Tellico Dam, this entire area began to be transformed from a network of mostly isolated single family red-dirt farms to the most-sought after real estate in the region. Droves of retirees from California, the midwest and the northeast, who might have in an earlier generation migrated to Florida, now eagerly bought land and built their dream homes in this most beautiful of places, playing golf, soaking up opportunities to enjoy the ample waterways, and embracing a lifestyle envied by their left-behind friends.

Many of the families I knew while growing up in the forties and fifties in nearby Maryville had a hatred for TVA. I could never quite understand this enmity as a child, since it seemed to me like a good thing for the government to facilitate the electrification of the rural south. I did not then know or understand that in order for TVA to generate that power to all those rural outposts they had to build dams on the rivers through whose turbines the water would pass and in passage the water would transfer its energy to the power lines strung from community to community. When dams back up rivers they flood all the low land behind the dams where all those single-family red-dirt farms are located. When people are forced off their hard-wrought land at prices that are way below the market value and when the forcing is done by an arm of the federal government, the taste that is left in the mouths of those forced out is rancid.

My family was forced off its land but it happened to them before TVA came along. My grandfather lost the family farm in 1932, when the Bank of Loudon called in his note of about $300, the result of his having mortgaged and re-mortgaged the land through the late 1920’s as his family grew to include a wife, a mother, and five children all living in one house on the land. The bank foreclosed on the land the first Monday of September, 1931, and they gave him three months to be off the property.

Little by little all the farms in the area near my grandfather’s home place were abandoned either by situations like his or as TVA acquired the land. By the 1960’s TVA owned more than 22,000 acres of land including some 1800 acres in the channel of the Little Tennessee River. Most landowners were paid around $200 per acre for their property. When the Tellico Dam was completed much of the bottomland in its path disappeared from view forever as the water rushed in. 

From the time he left the farm until he died in 1974 while hoeing strawberries in the garden behind his new home in the city, my grandfather mourned for the loss of the Smith property. One of his five children, his second daughter, Alice, was a senior in high school when the family left the farm. She graduated and immediately went to work to help support the family, and eventually she married my father. Before the waters covered the farm for good, my grandfather and my father returned to the abandoned farm and removed as many of the boxwoods left standing on the farm as they could. They replanted these shrubs in the backyards of our and my grandparents’ homes in Maryville where some of them remain today.

After the reservoir was filled in 1976 there was no trace left of the Smith farm except for the little cemetery which sat on the highest land and was safe from the flood. Although there were no paved roads in to this wilderness that did not stop the Smith siblings, especially my mother, from periodically visiting the area if they could hire a logging truck and driver to take them in. My first visit to the cemetery was in such a truck on a hot Sunday in August, 1986. The driver first took us to what he thought was the Smith cemetery but on inspection my mother declared it to be an imposter. A half mile further through the dense undergrowth she spotted a copse of three fully leafed oak trees sitting on the side of a hill with a dead tree of unknown origin aligned to the right side of the oaks. “This is it,” my mother said. “I can feel it in my bones.”

It took another ten years for paved roads to be put in by the developer who would eventually build the community now known as Rarity Bay. A few years before she died, I returned again with my mother, now on a walker. Passing the golf course and the multi-thousand square foot homes in my car on our way to the cemetery, she said “Your grandfather would not believe that today people are teeing off where he used to plant his Silver Queen corn.” We made our way up the steep red-clay banks to the little graveyard where the stones were falling over, toppled years before by grazing cows or vandals. The rough iron fence that she recalled from her childhood was nowhere to be found and ground hogs had taken up permanent residence in the soil of the cemetery. Tangles and brush overlay almost everything. She looked at me and said. “Take care of this when I am gone. It’s who you are.”

She died in 2004 and that year I hired an archaeologist who specializes in conserving old cemeteries in the south to begin the process of preserving the Smith cemetery. The job was completed in 2008. 

Some of the new neighbors have taken a special interest in the cemetery and have learned, along with me, a little of its story—the original seizing of the land from the Cherokees by the state of Tennessee who then land-granted it to settlers; the federal re-settlement of the natives to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears which began near the Smith home place; the determination of the Smiths to sire a male heir such that after the second Garland Smith died at age six weeks his parents quickly birthed another son, naming him Garland III, whose father, Garland I,  then died before his son was three months old; the proximity of the Smith farm to the path taken by General Sherman whose men were marching from Chattanooga towards Knoxville to ensure that east Tennessee would remain in Union hands; the pathos of the Johnsons who in 1864 lived near the Smiths with their 12 children, five of whom died within the same 12 months, three in the same week from scarlet fever;  the museum-quality quilt made by my fourth-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Smith, widowed with five children before the start of the Civil War; the almost unknown stories of the two slaves buried in the cemetery; the time in the late 1800’s when the Smiths changed the spelling to Smyth, then returned to Smith; the perseverance of the one Smith male who survived to later adulthood and who remained on the farm, courting my grandmother and becoming father to their five children; the tragic loss of the home place during the Great Depression; the ultimate and permanent disappearance of the farm land under the water.

My bones do belong to this ground and that is where they will go someday after my soul has departed my body.

Federal oversight has not always been a good omen for the inhabitants of this land, but I am hoping that the bald eagle that has chosen with its mate to nest near the Smith cemetery will prove in this instance to be of better character than Ben Franklin believed, keeping watch as the Smith generations rest in peace. I don’t think a wild turkey could do the job.

 Bald eagle in dead tree by Smith Cemetery, 2008. Photo by Dave Polacsek, used with permission.
Bald eagle in dead tree by Smith Cemetery, 2008. Photo by Dave Polacsek, used with permission.

 

This essay originally appeared in Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine. Vol. 26:1, pp. 44-46. Summer 2010.