By Dr. Stacey Graham, Research Professor, Center for Historic Preservation
All across Tennessee, rural family cemeteries are gradually succumbing to neglect, development, and vandalism. Because the resources available for saving these cemeteries are few, a solution can seem overwhelming and out of reach. However, no one should underestimate the power of a small group of people to make a big difference. This is what happened for the Templeton Grove Cemetery of Smyrna, Tennessee.
Just a few short months ago, this tiny family cemetery, unused since 1915, was barely visible in the dense underbrush. Many tombstones were fallen, broken, cracked, lost, or in danger of becoming so. Today, the tombstones are restored, the cemetery is cleared, a new fence stands around it, and a sign proclaims its name and importance to all visitors. The story of what happened during those few short months is the subject of this blog, and is meant to encourage other communities out there that are interested in preserving historic graveyards.
From the initial clearing (left) last summer, to the thorough clearing, gravestone restoration, and fence installation this winter and spring (right), the Templeton Grove Cemetery has been transformed into a visitor-friendly space.
The cemetery rests in an overgrown, wooded area beside Florence Road and near the West Fork of the Stones River, on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, adjacent to Nissan property. Templeton Grove contains twenty-four known graves, most of them descendants of John Nash Read and his wife Mary Barksdale Read, both of whom are also buried there. John Nash Read (1763-1826) came to Middle Tennessee from Virginia to claim a Revolutionary War land grant and settled near Jefferson, the original seat of Rutherford County. He established Templeton Grove plantation, one of the largest landholdings in the area; Enon Springs Baptist Church, the predecessor of Smyrna’s First Baptist Church; and a successful tavern in Jefferson. No trace of these sites remains today, leaving the family cemetery as the only site associated with this important early settler.
John Nash Read’s tall, imposing tombstone records his birth in Charlotte County, Virginia, and his migration to Rutherford County, Tennessee, in 1806.
I first heard about the Templeton Grove Cemetery when Frances Victory, a Smyrna citizen, sent information and photographs to the Town of Smyrna, which Dwayne Lawson, environmental technician, then sent to Dr. Carroll Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP). Because I often field inquiries into historic cemeteries, I was keen to find out more information and corresponded with both Ms. Victory and Mr. Lawson. I met with them for the first time on September 27, 2013, when Leigh Ann Gardner, interpretive specialist with the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, and I conducted a site visit to the cemetery. There we also met with Lindsey Houchens of the Army Corps of Engineers and representatives of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Sons of the American Revolution, and Rutherford County Historical Society.
When Ms. Victory formed a committee of interested citizens to focus on the cemetery’s physical preservation, I quickly joined, both as a resident of Smyrna and as a preservationist. Other members are Toby Francis, former president of the Rutherford County Historical Society; Anne Odom of the Stones River chapter of the DAR; and Robert Stevens, a county commissioner and Smyrna attorney. In a few short months, the committee achieved its key goals: raising funds for the cemetery’s restoration; hiring a cemetery restoration specialist, Dan Allen, to survey, repair, and reset the tombstones; working with Mr. Lawson to arrange clearing of underbrush; and reaching out to a local developer, Jeff Hollingshead, to donate funds for a metal fence to protect the newly restored space.
To celebrate the cemetery’s restoration, and to debut its new sign, Ms. Victory and the committee organized a rededication ceremony. On May 9, 2014, about forty people gathered in the rain beneath a tent donated by the Smyrna Fire Department. Ernest Burgess, Rutherford County mayor, and Mary Esther Reed, Smyrna city mayor, made remarks, as did two members of John Nash Read’s family, Hugh Nash and Nathaniel Read. I was thrilled to see so many people in the community rally around a historic site that had previously been unknown to most of them, including myself.
Nat Read, of Pasadena, California, a 3x-great-grandson of John Nash Read, recounts how Ms. Victory (right) brought his ancestors’ cemetery to his attention.
Due to the perseverance of Frances Victory, and the time and effort of the preservation committee, the Templeton Grove Cemetery has been restored–not only to physical stability and proper appearance, but also to its place in the history of Smyrna and Rutherford County. The story, however, does not end there, as the committee is currently planning for the cemetery’s ongoing maintenance, which will require more fundraising and community participation. If you are interested in more information about how you can help support this or other historic cemeteries, please contact me at Stacey.Graham@mtsu.edu.