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.