JOHNSON CITY, Tenn.—Oak Hill Cemetery is for sale.
Just call owner Tim Mc-Kinney, who has kept the old graveyard looking pristine for the past three years, to inquire further.
In the early 2000s, you almost had to beat a path to visit a grave in Oak Hill Cemetery, which was established in 1870. Today, the grass is neatly trimmed and the plots are nicely landscaped in this historic cemetery in downtown Johnson City, thanks to the tireless efforts of McKinney. But recently, the work and cost to maintain the graveyard has become too much of a burden for Mc-Kinney, so he has put the place up for sale.
“It’s an eight-and-a-half acre cemetery that is full of history,” McKinney said. “It’s one of the biggest landmarks in Johnson City.”
Henry Johnson, the founder of Johnson City, is buried in the cemetery. And Col. LeRoy Reeves, the man who designed the Tennessee state flag, is interred at Oak Hill. About 2,700 graves are in the cemetery. At least 1,200 plots still are available.
“You’ve got over 60 Confederate soldiers buried in here,” McKinney said. “You’ve got an 1812 War veteran buried in here. There’s a lot of history in this cemetery.”
McKinney’s father, Sam McKinney, bought the cemetery in 2007 and soon thereafter he put in walkways, repaired the fences and built a storage shed. His father also bought a large iron gate and placed it at the main entrance on Whitney Street.
“He told me at one time that he had spent up to $150,000 on improvements in this cemetery,” McKinney said. “And I feel like that meant a lot to me, that the old man took that good a care of this place, so when I got it from him I was very vigilant in taking care of it for the last three years. I’ve kept it neat as a pin in respect for my father.”
McKinney said during the summer he mows the cemetery three or four days a week for eight or nine hours each day. Then he must trim the grass growing around each headstone with a weed trimmer.
“That’s a killer right there because there’s hundreds of stones in this cemetery,” McKinney said. “There’s a lot to it, you know. I can’t afford it. I need somebody to help me, physically come out here and work and help me keep it up, you know, with all the weeding and chores that need to be done.”
The cemetery does not really make money, so no help can be hired out of operating funds.
McKinney gets money from Oak Hill Cemetery Friends and Volunteers, which solicits donations from as many relatives of those interred in the cemetery as they can locate. Thomas Manning, chairman of the group, said about 150 people are solicited for donations each year. About $4,000 or so is pulled in annually for the cemetery. All but about $300 of that goes to McKinney for maintenance, Manning said.
McKinney said that is nowhere near enough to maintain upkeep, though. In fact, McKinney had documents that stated when the cemetery was maintained by a nonprofit association in the early 1990s the donations to the graveyard were around $20,000 a year.
Manning said it was getting more and more difficult to find descendants to ask for money.
“A lot of the families have moved and we can’t find them,” Manning said. “And unfortunately a lot of the families have died out.”
Manning said he provides McKinney with $300 a month drawn from the donations. If extra can be provided, Manning said it is. This month, though, there is nothing extra to give.
“It is a financial burden,” Manning said. “We barely take in enough in donations to take care of the bare minimum. The funds just aren’t there to maintain it in a sense that it ought to be and needs to be kept up.”