Time has taken a toll on "Uncle Nick" Grindstaff's final resting place on Iron Mountain (Contributed by Lisa Mann Germaine).
ELIZABETHTON — Nick Grindstaff was a hermit who died 90 years ago, but he is not forgotten. Now, a family member, some local historians and the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoe Club may soon be at work to repair his landmark gravestone so future generations may continue to tell his sad and lonely tale.
The epitaph on Grindstaff’s tombstone has a lot to do with preserving his memory. It reads that the hermit “lived alone, suffered alone, died alone.” It is carved in granite along with the name “Uncle Nick Grindstaff” and giving his birth as Dec. 26, 1851 and death on July 22, 1923. The stone is encased in a chimney-like structure made of mountain stones standing more than 6 feet tall. A pamphlet written about Grindstaff by his friends Asa Shoun and R.B. Wilson reports that the gravestone was purchased shortly after Grindstaff’s death. They paid $208.07 for the stone to honor their friend.
It is a quiet monument to a man who chose to live alone on top of Iron Mountain, far from the beaten path. It is reported that 200 people attended his funeral on top of the 4,000 foot mountain, nearly four miles from the nearest road. But the funeral and the monument did not guarantee he would be remembered well into the next century. What did preserve his memory was the Appalachian Trail, which was being created at the time of his death.
There were several routes considered for the trail, but eventually the trail was routed on top of Uncle Nick’s mountain, the trail runs along the high ridge all the way from Watauga Lake to Cross Mountain. The trail would run just a handful of yards from the monument with the sad epitaph. As the trail became more and more popular each year, it funneled far more people to Grindstaff’s grave than ever visited him when he was alive on the mountaintop. In recent years, more than 2,000 through hikers visit his grave each spring on their way to Mt. Kathahdin in Maine. Many record their visit in their trail journals and blogs. It is one of the final landmarks in Tennessee before they cross into Virginia. Some camp at the grave on their last night in Tennessee, providing Grindstaff with more overnight guests than he could have imagined.
As the grave became well known and publicized, the mystery grew about why he chose to live the last 45 years of his life alone on the mountaintop.
Grindstaff had known loneliness since his earliest days. His mother died before he was 2 years old. His father died the next year. He and his three siblings were raised by relatives and when he was 21, they divided up his parent’s farm in Doe Valley near Bethel Doe. He got a quarter of the property.
Grindstaff worked his farm for about five years, when he sold the farm and decided to go to the West. What happened to him on his trip is the stuff of legend, with everything from a lost love to a stolen treasure, but whatever happened to him, Grindstaff returned to East Tennessee and sought refuge on Iron Mountain.
Granville Taylor is a keeper of Grindstaff’s memory. He is a nephew of Uncle Nick, who is separated by four generations. Taylor, 70, said he has been going to Uncle Nick’s grave all of his life. When he was a child, he said his father took him there. As a boy, he remembered Uncle Nick’s cabin still stood. He said it burned down in a forest fire in the 1950s.
Taylor is worried Uncle Nick’s monument might go the way of his cabin. The stone now has several cracks in it. He said it has gotten so bad that a hiker recently took some green rope he was carrying and tied it around the top section of the stone to keep it from falling out.
“Whoever that hiker was, I really appreciate him doing that,” Taylor said.
Taylor recently approached the Watauga Historical Association and Carter County Historian Scott Bowers in an effort to seek help in restoring the monument. They took his concerns to Carl Fritz of the Eastman hiking club.
Fritz said he hasn’t been to the monument in a few years, but said he hopes to assess the damage and see what kind of repairs can be done.
“We can usually get the volunteer labor needed,” Fritz said. “Our club made some repairs to it about 20 years ago, when we took the monument out and put some pins in it and cemented it.”
Anyone who would like to assist in preserving the monument can reach Taylor at 474-2010.