Robert Young Sr., the pioneer and Revolutionary War patriot, is resting in peace with family members and others buried in the cemetery bearing his name in the back of the former National Guard Armory property off West Market Street.
Young, the man heralded as the area’s first settler, would likely give Bernie Gray a pat on the back for volunteering his time and equipment to make sure the 120-by-120-foot lot is mowed, trimmed and cleaned on a regular basis for the past five years.
In years past, members of the National Guard tended to the property. Gray, who used to do the maintenance with the help of another volunteer or two, now does the job himself.
“I enjoy doing it,” he said. “I don’t get paid anything for it, and I take care of four or five other small cemeteries.
Gray said his interest in volunteering to clean the site followed his initial foray into the search for his family genealogy.
“I credit Robert Nave,” he said. “He’s in his 80s now, but he’s the one that helped me in my search. I became more and more interested in the historical aspect of it after that.”
The Johnson City Press has received several calls and emails reporting various concerns over the cemetery’s condition. As of Wednesday, there didn’t appear to be anything to worry about. Three large oak trees are standing tall inside the well-kept lot that was free of debris and trash.
“The April storms caused some large trees to fall on the existing chain link fencing,” Gray said. “I told Phil Pindzola (Public Works director) about it. They took the old fence down, and about one week ago they replaced it with a new one — a 4-foot-high chain link that encloses the entire cemetery. They put it back exactly where the old one was.”
Pindzola said the city recognizes it is ultimately responsible for the maintenance and long-term plans for the site.
“Bernie has provided a great service to the Young family and the history of Johnson City by taking it upon himself to keep this cemetery well maintained for the enjoyment of the general public,” Pindzola said. “But long term, and as the trail construction is implemented, the city will incorporate this area into its overall maintenance program. And as the trail is developed in the cemetery area, the city will request public input as to how best to showcase this early history of Johnson City.”
When a master plan for Innovation Park was drawn up, the cemetery was shown as a small park site which incorporated the cemetery into a green space. The planned walking trail would be located adjacent to the cemetery and incorporate it as a stopping point for historical reference, Pindzola added.
The walking trail is part of the system which has been built from Greenline Road in the north to Market Street. The southern leg is along State of Franklin Road in which the segment from downtown to University Parkway has been completed and the segment from University Parkway to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home is under construction. The next segments will be first through the VA and then through the hospital areas.
Meanwhile, Gray said he normally mows and cleans inside the fencing. He also makes a few rounds with the mower around the outside. Meanwhile, a huge pile of debris from the storms has been pushed by city workers about 30 yards away from the fencing. And, the city recently mowed a large swath around the cemetery’s exterior, something Gray said had not been done in years.
There also was a report some of the grave markers had either been disturbed or left outside the fenced area. Gray said he is not aware of this. In fact he said he’s noticed no vandalism at the site during the five years he’s been maintaining it.
The historical headstones lie in the southeastern portion of a 30-acre, city-owned lot. Robert Young, who was born in either 1708 or 1718, and died in 1792, is buried near a monument erected in 1928 by the John Sevier Chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution. The plaque identifying the cemetery that used to be mounted on the old fence is leaning against the monument for now.
“It would be nice to keep it mowed, and I do hope they keep the fence up to mark the boundaries,” said Betty Jane Hylton, Cemetery Survey Team of Northeast Tennessee spokeswoman. “I’d also like to see a historical marker placed out there. Our cemetery team just does not have the manpower to maintain the site. A lot of people think we go out and clean up cemeteries, but there’s more than 300 in Washington County alone.”
Hylton said Washington County Detention Center inmates do a lot of cemetery maintenance, but she could not say whether they might be able to assist Gray’s efforts at the Young Cemetery until Johnson City incorporates it into its maintenance program.
Gray’s preference for the site’s long-term use coincides with the city’s, but he did suggest doing away with the fence and relocating the Robert Young Cabin from Winged Deer Park to a location near the burial ground. He also suggested that until things change, an extra hand would not be turned down.
“I’d certainly like some help,” he said. “I’ll furnish the equipment. It would have to be somebody that could work three or four times a year for six hours at a time.”
To volunteer, call 355-0087.