Oak Hill Cemetery faces uncertain future

Jonathan Roberts • Jul 7, 2019 at 7:49 PM

Oak Hill Cemetery has been a part of Johnson City’s history since 1870, but now, 149 years later, the cemetery faces an uncertain future.

In 2016, Oak Hill — which is the final resting place for Johnson City founder Henry Johnson, and Col. LeRoy Reeves, who designed the Tennessee State Flag — was named as one of the state’s 10 most endangered historic properties, and was denied placement on the National Register of Historic Places, which could have gone a long way in preserving the cemetery.

The cemetery needs to be preserved so “that generations ahead of us will be able to know what happened years ago,” said Oak Hill Cemetery owner Timothy Clay McKinney. “Something needs to be done.”

McKinney says that “something,” would be a myriad of upgrades and maintenance work around the cemetery, including a new fence that he’s been trying to secure funding for since at least 2016, when he told the Press that initial estimates for a new fence would cost about $100,000.

Perhaps the most important work that needs to be is the repair of several headstones, which are in various states of disrepair across the cemetery. In nearly every row of the 8½-acre cemetery, you’ll find several toppled headstones, some with large cracks going through them and other missing entirely, something McKinney called a “heartache.”

“When I was younger, I never would have let these (head)stones get as bad as they are right now, because there are several of them that need repairs,” McKinney said. “It used to break my heart to see them turned over and lying around broken … but now just to get the money — we can’t afford that.”

Naturally, nearly all of the cemetery’s issues can be traced back to funding difficulties, which have plagued Oak Hill since McKinney’s father purchased it in 2007, spending $150,000 of his own money to maintain and beautify the grounds.

Now, the cemetery’s finances are dire, with donations “way down” and just $1,000 remaining in the budget to maintain Oak Hill for the rest of the year — well short of the $10,000 to $15,000 mark McKinney estimated it would cost to operate the cemetery smoothly for a year.

McKinney had hoped to secure more funding by getting the cemetery registered as a historic site by the National Register of Historic Places, but when that didn’t happen, it left him with few options to secure more funding to maintain a cemetery that has more than 3,500 people interred there.

He has pursued one other avenue, however, selling it to the city — though there has yet to be “serious discussions” about it or having the cemetery register as a nonprofit.

“We can’t provide support to a private (cemetery),” Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock said. “There’s just been some discussions about what we can do moving forward, but we’ve had no serious discussions about it all.”

“It’s just one of those things to say ‘well, if you were a nonprofit it might make some difference where we could help,’ or if there’s an interest on his part of approaching the city that he might want to donate or sell it at a nominal cost,” Brock continued.

McKinney, however, says he’d like to at least get $150,000 from the city to sell, but he’s approaching a point where there’s “no telling” what will happen to the cemetery.

“I can do the work most of the time, but when I don't have the financial capabilities to do what I need to do here, then I get frustrated and I don't want to do it anymore,” he said. “I’m to that point right now, so if something doesn't change, there's no telling what I'll do with it.”

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