Donations are dwindling, but owner has high hopes for Oak Hill Cemetery

David Floyd • Jun 21, 2016 at 1:52 PM

Oak Hill Cemetery serves as the final resting place for some of the region’s most revered citizens, including Johnson City founder Henry Johnson and Col. LeRoy Reeves, the designer of the Tennessee flag.

But when Timothy McKinney, the caretaker of the premises, assumed ownership of Oak Hill Cemetery seven years ago, the property was in a state of disrepair.

“It used to be a mess in here,” McKinney said. “There was homeless people living in here, a lot of drug activity.” 

The cemetery was sparsely visited, and very few people would stop by to decorate the graves. So McKinney decided to take matters into his own hands.

“I started keeping it mowed and weeded and looking real good,” McKinney said, “and I started noticing more people in the cemetery.”

McKinney’s father, Samuel McKinney, purchased the property in 2007 and invested $150,000 into maintaining and beautifying the premises. Samuel and his friend Chester Willis dedicated the last year of their lives to improving the cemetery, fixing fences, installing walkways, purchasing a gate and building a road through the property. 

Now, Timothy is continuing his father’s work, and he hopes that the community will become more involved in the improvement process as well.

On Saturday, the cemetery hosted its annual decoration day, attracting a handful of local citizens who showed up to plant flags and flowers before the graves of servicemen who died in combat.

Allen Jackson, a historian with the Johnson City/Washington County Veterans Memorial Foundation, visited the cemetery Saturday to pay his respects to some of the war dead.

“A lot of these gentlemen, they’re buried in our cemeteries all over the world,” Jackson said, “and a lot of them are forgotten because a lot of them die out or they move on, and there’s nothing left here for them except for this marker and no one remembers them.”

The cemetery is home to seven soldiers who died during World War I, four who died during World War II, 14 Union veterans and 68 Confederate veterans.

Jackson, who served for 26 years in the U.S. armed forces, has made it his mission to identify the burial sites of soldiers who died during various conflicts throughout the past century.

“You can see how nice we keep it, and the only way for me to do that is with people donating to help,” McKinney said, “so decoration day is all about the almighty dollar, if you want to know the truth. That and taking care of people’s families’ graves and beautifying them.”

Tom Manning, the chairman of Oak Hill Cemetery Friends and Volunteers, helps manage the cemetery’s finances, and said the facility needs at least $10,000 annually to run at a functional level.

The money is used to hire labor and maintain equipment like lawn mowers, which require regular repairs and are deteriorating in quality because of constant use. Recently, McKinney said he and Manning have witnessed a lull in donations, with the cemetery only taking in about $7,500 this year. 

“It’s expensive,” McKinney said. “It’s an 8 1/2 acre cemetery, and if you know anything about maintaining something like that, it gets expensive.”

McKinney, a former construction worker, performs a variety of regular chores on the property, including mowing the grass, weeding around the tombstones, picking up trash, trimming trees and planting flower bulbs during the spring.

In the future, McKinney would like to replace the rusty, chain-link fence that currently surrounds the property with an iron one, and said he asked the city whether it would pay for the replacement. McKinney said a fence company estimated a new fence would cost $100,000.

Ultimately, McKinney is proud of what he has accomplished at the cemetery, but he believes there’s plenty more to be done, especially considering the sheer magnitude of history that resides beneath the surface of the property. 

“Basically, the history of Johnson City is here,” McKinney said. “The history of the whole city is laying here.”

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