Decoration Day honors history of Johnson City

Hannah Swayze • Jun 16, 2018 at 11:45 PM

A small group of people made their way out to Oak Hill Cemetery in Johnson City for its annual Decoration Day on Saturday to honor local history and those buried there.

Oak Hill is the oldest public cemetery in Johnson City, with a vague and tumultuous past. Still every year a small group of people, many with a strong interest in genealogy and some of whom have family buried there, attend the yearly event.

Johnson City resident Glen Stroup brought flowers to place on the graves of family buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery. A retired Army veteran, his interest in genealogy is what eventually led him back to the cemetery.

However, flowers and grave decorations were not the only reason for his visit. While the resting place of his family is marked by the graves of other family members, he’s still not quite sure where his aunt and uncle are buried.

With photocopied records in hand from the cemetery from archives at East Tennessee State University of their burial, Stroup enlisted help from Thomas Manning, chairman of the Oak Hill Friends and Volunteers. They set out with a couple of dousing rods to try and figure out where each are buried.

Stroup wished to have headstones placed in the correct spots so their graves can be marked.

"I have memories of all these people," Stroup said. "I would like them to have some sort of record."

This is not an uncommon occurrence in the over 8-acre large cemetery downtown. Stroup's relatives are only 2 of approximately 469 unmarked graves taken note of 10 years ago where the cemetery was surveyed.

Tim McKinney, who was gifted the land from his father over 10 years ago, said this is due to a combination of lack of proper upkeep and maintained records in the cemetery before his father bought it, along with some of the history of the city itself. 

Decoration Day is not only a day for family members to remember their loved ones, but also a fundraising opportunity for the Oak Hill Friends and Volunteers and McKinney.

"I'm not getting rich off this cemetery," McKinney said with a chuckle while lamenting the recent failure of his lawnmower's engine.

The upkeep is funded by private donations, and right now, funds are low. The large plot of land requires funds to keep landscaping equipment working.

Manning said he hopes Decoration Day events will get more people interested in the cemetery and its history.

"The history of Johnson City is buried in here," Manning said.

Henry Johnson, Johnson City's founder, and Col. LeRoy Reeves, the designer of the current Tennessee state flag, are both interred in the cemetery.

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