Murfreesboro resident Kenneth Sawyer is raising money to restore the neglected resting place of two Rutherford County families from the Antebellum era buried near his home.
Sawyer, an independent truck driver, bought his home in Murfreesboro last August. The day of the sale’s closing, he discovered that there was a cemetery near his property hidden beneath a massive amount of overgrowth that he described as a “jungle.”
Sawyer received a call from the Building and Codes Department about the designated property setbacks for the installation of a carport, which came with an odd stipulation.
“They said, ‘Make sure you stay 15 feet off your back fence and five feet from the cemetery,’ said Sawyer. “I was like, ‘Excuse me? The what?’ ”
Sawyer said he reached out to city and county officials about the cemetery, but there weren’t any details about who owned it. He pitched the idea of starting a clean-up project and the plans were approved.
Sawyer, who hails from Connecticut, said he doesn’t “have a dog in this hunt” regarding familial ties to the families buried near his home, but he thought it was “disgraceful” to leave the area neglected.
“I hope that when I’m dead somewhere, you know at some point in time, that I won’t be forgotten, and that’s what these people are,” said Sawyer. “I just think it’s wrong.”
The project kicked off in November with him cleaning up mostly on Sunday mornings, the time he has away from work.
Sawyer, who said he has degenerative joint disease, said he knew tackling a physically laborious project like this was not a feat he could take on alone. He paid a few homeless people living in a nearby motel $500 to help out.
Experts join the project
Winter weather slowed progress down for a bit, but when James Allen Gooch of the Rutherford County Historical Society got involved, the ball started rolling again.
Gooch has made restoring cemeteries a full-time hobby over the last five years since retiring from his job with the postal service. He said he started noticing small family cemeteries while traveling the backroads of Middle Tennessee from one post office to the next.
“As I explain to a lot of people, it’s my going fishing, going hunting, going to play golf,” said Gooch with a laugh. “I don’t do any of those, so whenever I need an outlet to get away from the house for a while, I just go to the cemetery and start working on it.”
Sawyer had made a great deal of progress in cutting down about 200 saplings, but Gooch was able to clear the branches and stumps closer to the soil.
“My goal is to put a cemetery in a condition so that a loved one or someone doing genealogy research or whatever can go into that cemetery safely and not have to worry about getting into poison oak, poison ivy, or having to trample through a thicket,” said Gooch, who has worked on a number of cemeteries in the county.
The only aspect of these clean-up projects he doesn’t handle is the headstone restorations, which will be made by Michael Passmore, president of the New England Historic Cemetery Restoration Project, Inc. based in Connecticut.
Passmore has visited the site about three times and is scheduled to return on April 17 in hopes of unearthing other graves and repairing the headstone of Martha Fletcher Carothers’ son, James F. Carothers.
He said he hopes to gain access to ground-penetrating radar through a grant that will allow for easier detection of potential graves. If not, he’ll continue to dig manually with trowels.
“It’s not hard to do the stone work,” said Passmore, who has done cemetery work in 10 states, “It just takes people who want to put the time in.”
Secrets from the graves
Little is known about the families buried at this site, other than the fact that Martha, born in 1829, was a Fletcher who married into the Carothers family via her husband R.B. Carothers. R.B. is likely not buried in this cemetery, but the headstone of their son was located near Martha’s grave.
“It goes way back, and that’s why I love what I do,” said Passmore. “Same for history. Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean we have to forget about them.”
Michael Fletcher, a cemetery specialist and adjunct history professor at MTSU, took on an advisory role with this project, providing some historical context for the small plot.
He visited the site for the first time between 2014 and 2015 while conducting field research for a county-wide cemetery survey. The Carothers Cemetery, listed on the Historic Cemetery Survey’s GIS Map, was one of about 800 that he visited at the time.
Fletcher said it’s common for most family burial grounds to contain no more than 10 bodies.
“That comes from the time where Rutherford County was very much agricultural. Before industry, people had their farms, family members would pass away, and they would be buried in a corner of the family land,” said Fletcher.
People would often lose track of cemeteries over the years, as family members relocated and land was inherited or purchased.
In his opinion, cemeteries are the “last stand” in terms of historical preservation.
“These are places that are historic. They contain the remains of our history,” said Fletcher. “So, they deserve to be preserved in their own right.”
The money collected in the virtual fundraiser will cover Passmore’s time and restoration expenses. The clean-up team has plans to plant grass and repair the damaged wrought-iron fence circling Martha and James’ graves. Sawyer has agreed to maintain the property when the project is complete.
As of April 1, the GoFundMe account has $750, plus a $25 cash donation, of the $5,000 goal. Sawyer plans to pay the percentage the site keeps in payment-processing fees and make up the difference of funds up to $1,000.
Updates on the site’s progress can be found here: https://bit.ly/2PJz2Aq.
Parks and recreation departments in the county are cleaning up and assessing damage after recent flooding.
Smyrna appears to have received the most issues with parks flooding.
The city closed Sharp Springs Natural Area and Volunteer Park (8th Avenue Ball Fields) until further notice, according to an April 1 flooding update post on the department’s Facebook page.
The Bark Springs Dog Park, Gregory Mill and the Smyrna Elementary School practice area all closed briefly.
Portions of the Greenway, from Sam Ridley Parkway to Sharp Springs Natural Area, remain closed, and the Rotary Soccer Park and Davis Park practice area are set to be reevaluated soon.
The new Rotary Soccer Park Annex practice fields are now open at league discretion.
“We invite citizens to enjoy the recreation spaces that remain open,” said Smyrna Parks and Recreation Director Mike Moss in a news release. “Staff is cleaning impacted areas where it is possible to do so and will continue as the water recedes.”
For questions about facilities impacted by flooding in Smyrna, call (615) 459-9773.
In Murfreesboro, there was little damage along the Greenway, according to an email from Parks and Recreation Marketing Coordinator Melinda Tate.
A few of the fences in the newest section of the Greenway should be repaired soon, in addition to two fences that have been knocked down at the Bark Park on West College Street.
The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has worked to clear most of the large debris scattered in the area. The Greenway is now open, but Hopkins urges visitors to use caution, especially at the Murfree Springs area near the Discovery Center.
Tate said a weekly litter cleanup has been scheduled for every Thursday in the month of April. “Guardians of the Greenway” meets from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. for volunteers who are interested in helping out.
Pickers, gloves and garbage bags will be provided, and the cleanup is open to all ages. Information on meeting locations can be found on the Outdoor Murfreesboro Facebook page under the events tab.
La Vergne reported no issues with park closures or flood-related issues, according to city spokeswoman Anne Smith.
After more than 38 years of service, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Vincent Ferguson, a Murfreesboro native living in Nolensville, retired from the Tennessee National Guard on March 31.
Ferguson was serving as the Senior Maintenance Officer for the Tennessee National Guard, a position he had held since June 2018.
He began his military career in 1982 after graduating from Riverdale High School and enlisting in the Tennessee National Guard as an Optical Instrument Repairer in Murfreesboro’s 777th Maintenance Company. He earned his commission in 1996 as an Armament Repair Technician.
In 2008, he deployed to Q-West, Iraq, as an Equipment Readiness Officer with Humboldt’s 30th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. He served over a year in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he was responsible for all maintenance needs of the battalion, which included a fleet of tactical vehicles from 10 transportation and maintenance companies.
Following his deployment, Ferguson was assigned to Nashville’s Joint Force Headquarters.
“Chief Ferguson has been an integral part of our organization for nearly 40 years,” Lt. Col. Chris Kirkman, Tennessee’s Surface Maintenance Manager, said in a news release. “His technical expertise is unmatched and will be sorely missed, but we’re grateful for his dedicated service and wish him luck on what lies ahead.”
Ferguson is a Bronze Star Medal recipient. He has been married to Resa Denice for 27 years and they have a daughter, Iris Sharice, who lives in Dallas.
The Murfreesboro Police Department, the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department and the Tennessee Highway Patrol teamed up to issue 86 citations in school zones, including 38 when the zone safety lights were flashing, according to a news release from Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Lisa Marchesoni.
The Rutherford County Traffic Safety Task Force sponsored the joint Operation School Zone Safety on Friday, March 26. The law enforcement officers were posted in school zones to look for driving violations like speeding, lack of seatbelts and child restraints, and cell phone use.
During the times when the school safety lights were flashing, officers issued 21 citations for speeding, eight for cell-phone use, four for lack of insurance, four for failing to wear seatbelts and one for driving without a license, according Murfreesboro Police Sgt. Greg Walker.
A sheriff’s deputy issued one warning for texting and driving as well, according to the news release.
MPD officers and THP troopers remained in the area while school was in session to watch for distracted driving. During that three- and half-hour period, 48 more drivers were cited for violating the “Hands Free” law, according to the news release.
Additional citations were issued for simple possession of marijuana, violation of registration law, failing to have insurance and failing to wear a seatbelt. Charges for DUI were also included.
Tennessee’s “Hands Free’’ law, which went into effect in July 2019, prohibits drivers from hand-held use of cell phones to reduce distractions. This includes writing, sending and reading text messages in addition to watching or recording videos.
A first-time offense will be met with a $50 ticket. Three or more violations will be met with a $100 ticket. A hands-free violation that occurs in a school zone with flashers in use will result in a $200 ticket.
MPD Capt. Cary Gensemer emphasized the importance of being alert and cautious while traveling through school zones.
The safety of children is a top concern for the RCTSTF, according to Walker.
“Hopefully the enforcement actions that took place on (March 26) will be a good reminder for everyone to stay buckled up, obey the speed limit, stay off the phone and stay focused on the road,” Walker said in the news release.