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Man fights to protect historical cemetery

11:54 PM, Feb 23, 2013   |    comments
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A Knoxville man is working to preserve an old cemetery in East Knoxville that he believes has been neglected. 

Joe Stephens wants the people buried Knox County Potter's Field off South Kyle Street to be remembered and respected. 

"I think of the unrealized potential that rests beneath this soil, and the dreams that were never fulfilled, and the people that never had the chance to bloom," Stephens said.

Shattered gravestones are scattered across the burial ground that date as far back as the 1860s.  In general, people who were laid to rest in the cemetery lacked the family, friends and funds for a proper burial. 

Stephens estimates burials continued on the grounds until the 1930s.  At that time, the county began burying the poor in a newer cemetery off Maloneyville Road, near the site of the current county jail.

On Saturday, he gave a tour of the historic cemetery to a small group of history enthusiasts.  Stephens says roughly 20,000 people are buried within the six acres, including five Civil War soldiers.

Calvin Chappelle, executive director of the Mabry-Hazen House Museum, was among the group.

"It's kind of saddening and disheartening...  so many people were buried here and so many people were forgotten in many ways," he said.

The site is not without controversy, according to one piece of century-old history Stephens shared Saturday.

"William McCoy had a contract with Knox County to bury the indigent dead, and he apparently observed that nobody was watching him very closely and he started burying garbage in coffins,' Stephens explained.  "He had buried nearly 200 coffins filled with garbage before anybody really suspected anything."

Stephens feels more precautionary measures should be taken to properly preserve the memory of those laid to rest in the cemetery. Although the land is well groomed, Stephens believes the heavy equipment used to maintain the historical burial site is damaging the gravestones.

"I think it should be done with people using hand tools or something that's not so large that they don't even notice what they're doing," said Stephens.

Right now, Stephens is working to compile a list of the people buried in the cemetery.

This is the second year Stephens has given the tour of the cemetery.  Next year, he's hoping to have reenactments.

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