Some weekends in this city just carry too much action. I wrote about the Hola Festival yesterday. Just a bit outside of downtown Greek Fest has been working their Mediterranean magic for years and the two festivals always go head-to-head in recent years. The last place you might expect to be a center of even more action, Old Gray Cemetery, offers an entirely different kind of fun.
It’s billed as a “lantern and carriage tour,” but it’s held too early for the need of a lantern and, while the carriage (or sometimes wagon) ride is a fun novelty, I don’t usually take advantage of that. Neither lanterns nor carriages are necessary, however, for a splendid late afternoon.
The stories presented by the actors are often riveting, nearly universally well told and offer layers of Knoxville history hard to come by in any other context. The actors dress and speak as persons who are buried in the cemetery. It isn’t intended to be spooky in any kind of ghastly way. It’s simply as if they were able to be unshackled from their time to return and tell us about their lives.
I’ll not remember the details of many of the stories, but Billy Vestal spoke of his time in the civil war. Repeatedly shot, left for dead and ultimately losing half his face in the war, he became known as the man who could not be killed. He lived a very public life in Knoxville for years after the war despite his disfigurement.
Sarah and Jean Love, sisters, were killed in 1937 driving north on Alcoa Highway, which must have been called something else at the time, but was apparently already dangerous. They were driving back to Knoxville after dark with the headlights off so they could listen to their new radio and not run the battery down. Unfortunately, it turned out to be not their best decision, as they missed a curve and plummeted to their deaths. I missed the story of Lillian Stuart, but she was given beautiful voice by the ever-lovely Nancy Brenan Strange.
Joseph Jacque accompanied the party, in 1913, which first successfully climbed Mt. McKinley. John Fletcher Horne came very close to having one of the earliest brands of whiskey, which might have rivaled other makers in our region if things had worked out differently. As it was, his whiskey is forgotten.
William Brownlow held forth in forceful style about his fervent support of the Union. It was, perhaps, the performance of the day, though his over-sized persona lends itself to dramatic presentation.
The McAdoos were also nicely done. The couple had a long history of death, losing children, spouses and all worldly possessions at various stages in their lives as they fled their way through the civil war, ultimately survived and returned to Knoxville to live out their days. Mary was a noted regional author and friend to Mary Boyce Temple and Lizzie Crozzier French and they co-conspired to start Knxoville’s Ossoli Circle and rabble rouse for the vote for women among other crazy ideas.
I missed a few of the others, but I did take some time to wander in some of the front parts of the cemetery where I’d not tuned in before, as far as I can remember. It was a perfect kind of day for looking around the peaceful space. The gray sky hung a little low, mildly threatened rain, but didn’t deliver. A cool breeze blew.
It’s one of the best places for solitude near downtown. I’d encourage you to consider taking the tour next year, but don’t miss the cemetery before then. Pick a part of the day the cemetery sits empty or near empty, walk quietly around the 13 1/2 acres of Knoxville’s second oldest cemetery and lose yourself in thought. Autumn is a perfect time.