Now, maybe you are thinking that’s a strange title. Because shouldn’t visiting cemeteries make you sad? Well, if they all made me this sad I’d stop visiting them. Of course I feel sorrowful when I see baby graves. Occasionally poor maintenance distresses me. But these feelings are offset by my excitement over some mystery, or my enjoyment of the beauty of a particular graveyard, or the fun I am having taking pictures or planning out what I am going to write about.
But then I visited Middlebrook Cemetery and every time I think about it I feel sadder.
This was a cemetery I had been making a mental note to visit every time I drove down Middlebrook Pike toward town. It’s located at the corner of Keith and Middlebrook–or what used to be the corner, back when Keith still connected to Middlebrook. I passed that cemetery countless times as a child, when driving over Sanderson Hill was one of our go-to routes from Cumberland Estates to West Knoxville.
It didn’t take me long to realize this wasn’t going to be one of the more picturesque cemeteries I’ve visited. Having to pull right into the cemetery to park–next to the car of some neighborhood resident who is using it as a permanent parking place–was the first clue. The weeds and trash which were the first thing I saw when I got out of the car didn’t help.
Then there’s the location. I know the cemetery was established in 1878, and it can’t help what’s happened to the countryside since. But there’s not even a fence to provide separation from the less-than-pastoral surroundings, and precious little vegetation, except for weeds.
Let’s talk about the weeds, shall we? Someone (the City of Knoxville, I’m sure, and I’ll explain why in a bit) is mowing the cemetery and probably removing at least some trash. But when weeds cover approximately 90% of the graves, that’s going to take a lot of work–or weed killer, anyway–to eradicate. Normally I spend a lot of time taking pretty pictures in graveyards. It was hard to find anything pretty about this one. My best pictures, below, are interesting partly because of the weeds.
Information on the history of this cemetery is hard to come by, at least on the internet where we unpaid lazy types do our historical research. I found an article on the City of Knoxville website detailing plans to clean up this cemetery and, I believe, four others in the West View area, and to connect them via the Greenway system. I suspect that this cemetery HAS been cleaned up and that it once looked much worse. There has been a recent attempt to kill some weeds, which you can see here:
There were a few more plots on the west side of the graveyard that had received this treatment. The article was written in 2012, so I hope that the cleanup efforts are ongoing and have not been abandoned.
If you are a regular reader, you know that I often share pictures of baby graves, like these:
I could have posted SO MANY of these. I stopped taking pictures. I could not figure out what was going on. Yes, old graveyards have lots of infant and child graves. We all know times were hard back then. You might be surprised to know how many baby graves there are even in newer cemeteries. But here it was almost every grave. Of course I wondered why.
The above-mentioned article provided a possible explanation, although even this is steeped in legend as apparently records from the founding of this cemetery are lost. Some say that a home for unwanted children once stood near this spot, and that these are the graves of some of its residents. You will notice that many of the stones above list only the name of the child, so it’s possible.
Now, there are some family plots, or at least husbands and wives buried together, or stones obviously chosen with care, like these below. So what exactly is going on here?
I didn’t find any clues as to why particular people would have chosen this as their final resting place. The earliest online records don’t indicate who owned the property before it was a cemetery, and in any case even though the sign says it was established in 1878, almost all the recorded burials don’t begin until some years later. I’d say the majority of the graves date from 1885 – 1920. While there are a few names that appear more than five times in the Find-a-Grave database (Nelson, Day, Goode, Brown, Smith, Hood, Pressley, Rutherford, Weaver, and Wilson) it’s not obvious that this was ever a family cemetery or even a local cemetery, and as far as I can tell it isn’t associated with the nearby church. While many of the names are still familiar in Knoxville today, none are memorialized by nearby streets to indicate that they were particularly prominent citizens of the area in the past who might have been landowners or founders of churches. In fact, where Find-a-Grave includes death certificates, people buried here appear to have come from all over town. So it’s a mystery.
And there are more mysteries. There are a few recent (relatively) burials here, indicating that (I’m guessing?) there are people still living who feel they have ties to this place. These graves are already in sorry shape:
And here’s the biggest mystery of all: who is responsible for this cemetery? And that’s a question that really has no answer, because NOBODY KNOWS. That’s right, the origin of this cemetery is so lost in time that if you head over to KGIS and look at the owner card for this cemetery, it reads UNKNOWN. Which is why it’s in the shape it’s in, and why the city has stepped in to try to fix it up.
So what with all the babies, and the lost history, and the weeds, I guess it’s no surprise that I still feel melancholy when I think about this place. I promise to share a happier cemetery with you next time.
For more (and much nicer) cemetery adventures, check out THIS POST.
I remember going up at the back of it as a kid. There was a lil small park back there. My husband as a teenager did community service for juvinile. The city had these kids clean all trash and weeds. The process took a couple years. U couldn’t see it was a grave yard back then. Once it was done it looked great! That was 20 years ago. So I guess the growing over has since started growing again. Very sad.
Someone needs to take it on again, but it sounds like it is at least in better shape now than it was back then.
The person who mows the cemetery lives in the house next to it
Good for him–this place would look a lot worse if were not mowed. I just assumed the city was doing it.
I grew up near this cemetery- my childhood home is visible in a few of these pictures. Sadly, it was in pretty bad condition back then, too. It’s never been clear who owned it, or is responsible for maintaining it. The last burial there was in the 70s – I remember being a bystander. The person who lives next door does try to keep it up some
Thanks for sharing this, Stephanie. It warms my heart to hear that the neighbor has tried to keep it up. We need more people like that!
I lived close to this cemetery as a child. I remember a gentleman named Pressley who used to tend to a plot which was fenced in and contained the graves of probably his wife and children. He was elderly at the time. I don’t remember anyone maintaining the whole cemetery, just families taking care of their plots.
And now when the families are gone there is no one left to take care of them. 🙁 There are several Pressleys in the cemetery. Thanks for sharing that story.
How sad! The one redeeming thing is that at least the graves are still marked. There are many places where the graveyard has gone into such disrepair that the spaces are no longer marked.
Looking for the parents of a lady in a nursing home, she had told me “It is the Jarnigan Cemetery.” They passed in the 1960’s. I asked Robert Booker about it. He said that it is actually 4 cemeteries which merged. I was unable to locate these people even though the lady remembered a mutual stone being set.
I remember it covering a larger piece of land many years ago. Have you seen Longview, Southern Chain, and Crestview? The 3 are merged on 24 acres of land. A few years ago the Sheriff sent men in and had it cleared and cleaned. It was notoriously a dumping ground and drug haven. My husband and myself spent several afternoons helping and photographing it. The weeds and trees are already taking over.
No, I don’t know where those are. It’s amazing though how quickly places get grown over without regular care. Nature just comes in and takes over.
Longview, Crestview, and Southern Chain Cemeteries are in Lonsdale. I have included a link below. The photos were made shortly after JJ Jones, Sheriff, and crew cleaned. Today Longview is being encroached by suburban wilderness. I posted a few “before” photos of Southern Chain and Longview on FAG. Thank you for your interest in these vanishing memories. Tommie Nichols, Powell
I just moved down the street at the beginning of Sept. I explored this graveyard this morning and it was a mess! Many graves are broken in half, and several are hurried under weeds, vegetation, and piles of sticks and other lawn debris (seriously!?!). Just heart-breaking. I kept feeling like there was something weird going on there, too. And some babies were clearly siblings buried together. I was toying with the idea of going down there to do some cleaning as my daily exercise some days. I was afraid that I would get in trouble by the owner, but now there seems to be NO owner so I guess I’m in the clear.
I am a huge sucker for a mystery, so I will be totally obsessed now. If it belonged to home for unwanted babies, then who was paying for the gravestones, and carving things like “our beloved angel” on them? Or buried siblings together? The one grave was a thirteen year old kid who died in an industrial school. There was a rope hanging from a tree. Lambs on stones everywhere. What is up with tne burial there from 2007? Or the bright white, clearly brand new, silk poinsettias that were just placed on a baby’s grave…from the 1920s? Surely that mom can’t be younger than 100-105.
Anyone in the area interested in doing clean-up or getting their Nancy Drew on email me at email@example.com.
Want to find more out about this cemetery my great great grandparents are buried in unmarked graves would like to be able to place a marker i visited there yesterday and was very sadden by it