published Monday, March 25th, 2013

Old cemeteries yield wealth of secrets to dogged researcher

Jim Holcomb, 63, walks through Montgomery Cemetery on Mahan Gap Road, near Snow Hill.  The cemetery is the final resting place for Revolutionary War Hero, James Davis.
Jim Holcomb, 63, walks through Montgomery Cemetery on Mahan Gap Road, near Snow Hill. The cemetery is the final resting place for Revolutionary War Hero, James Davis.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Most historians spend their time in libraries, poring through old texts. Jim Holcomb does his work in fields and forests, logging forgotten graves.

Holcomb, 63, researches genealogy. Specifically, he transcribes cemeteries -- cataloging graves, tombstones and who's under them. When it comes to piecing together distant relations in large, old family trees, Holcomb says a well-preserved cemetery is a wellspring of information.

Holcomb has been transcribing cemeteries for 20 years. He started in 1993, when his niece approached him about creating a family tree. Now that chart includes tens of thousands of names.

Pages rip, ink fades and memories disappear. Cemeteries are better about standing the test of time -- but they don't last forever, Holcomb said.

Hamilton County tax assessor records count 167 documented cemeteries in the county. Some are well kept, many are overgrown and some are tucked away in unlikely places. Holcomb has been to all the ones he can find.

"Everywhere in town, you're going to find old cemeteries. You just have to go looking," Holcomb said.

The last full survey of cemeteries in Hamilton County was done in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration, a work program created during the New Deal to battle Depression-era unemployment.

Suzette Raney, an archivist with the Chattanooga Public Library, said no other large-scale surveys have been done, because they take time and money.

Cataloging the dead can be tricky, Raney said, particularly if cemeteries have been neglected for many years.

"It's just a very slow process to do. Whether or not [surveyors] find everybody is a question, because some markers have been removed," Raney said.

Large cemeteries, such as Citizen Cemetery on Fifth Street in Chattanooga -- the oldest in the city, according to library records -- and cemeteries owned by churches are typically well cared for and well documented.

But small cemeteries, started by long-dead families, are the resources Holcomb says he seeks to preserve.

When property containing a family cemetery changes hands, new property owners have no obligation to keep up the graveyard. If the remaining family doesn't have the inclination or resources to maintain it, the cemetery is forgotten.

"When you lose the familial connection with the cemetery, who cares? That's how they fall into disrepair," Holcomb said.

Sometimes, cemeteries disappear for more nefarious reasons, he said.

"Builders -- particularly uncouth ones -- will destroy them if nobody knows about it, because the property is so valuable," Holcomb said.

Along with keeping information important for genealogical research, cemeteries have valuable histories themselves, Holcomb said.

Cemeteries often tell a lot about the community around them, Holcomb said.

"Usually, when you go though an old cemetery, especially small ones, and you see all the surnames, you can see the same surnames when you drive down the road [in the area] on the mailboxes and business signs," Holcomb said.

Cemeteries in the Harrison area have their own stories, because many were relocated in 1939, Holcomb said. When the Tennessee Valley Authority flooded the river to make Harrison Bay, everything, including the cemeteries, had to be moved.

"The old town of Harrison is actually at the bottom of the lake. All the old [grave]stones there, they just dug up the bodies and moved them," Holcomb said.

Many Civil War veterans are buried throughout Hamilton County, but so are veterans of much older frays.

James Davis, who was born in 1761 and died in 1843, fought at age 15 in the American Revolution, Holcomb said. His and 66 other marked graves dot the small Montgomery Cemetery off Mahan Gap Road.

After recording more than 55,000 names while transcribing tombstones, Holcomb says he's got plenty of work ahead of him.

"When I started this, I would just [transcribe] people I had relation to. Then, I'd get home and realize 'those two Guinns were married in ...' Then I'd have to go back and get them. I realized, you really have to get the whole cemetery."

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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