published Monday, November 4th, 2013

Mystery graveyard emerges in Coffee County man's yard

Ricky Greene shows the spot where he recently discovered 19th-century graves, now marked by wooden stakes, on his property in Normandy, Tenn.
Ricky Greene shows the spot where he recently discovered 19th-century graves, now marked by wooden stakes, on his property in Normandy, Tenn.
Photo by Maura Friedman.
HOW TO HELP

Anyone with information that might help identify the cemetery or those buried in it is asked to call the Coffee County Historical Society at 931-728-0145. If no one answers, leave a message noting the type of information offered and a phone number where the caller can be reached.

NORMANDY, Tenn. -- It was like a scene from a horror movie as Ricky Greene slipped his hand into the darkness under a concrete slab that had been pried up from his yard in Coffee County.

Reaching into the space beneath, he felt what he thought were the wooden contours of a casket.

Rising to look around, he realized he was surrounded by rectangular impressions, all in neat rows.

They were almost certainly graves.

Lots of summer rain had kept Greene from mowing as often as he wanted, so the grass was getting high last month when he got out his mower and started cutting for the last time before fall. He planned to build a pond in the front yard this winter.

But as he mowed, the 55-year-old Greene noticed his once-level yard was strangely deformed. His mower was grinding across humps in the ground -- humps he never noticed in four years of living on Emmett Stone Lane.

"It was just like a roller coaster. I thought I was getting a sinkhole," Greene said Wednesday as he stepped gingerly around the rectangles with his dog, Lucy.

Greene started calling county and state offices, his neighbors, even a local funeral home, for ideas about the name of the cemetery or the people buried there.

He said his neighbor to the rear of the property once owned the land his home is on, and she told him she'd never noticed the neat rows of graves under a huge oak tree in 30 years of mowing.

"It was like they were popping up, saying, 'Here we are,'" he said.

Records in the property assessor's office show Greene's lot had been subdivided from that neighbor's property and there had been several owners through the years. But early in the last century, around 1907, a woman named Alice Arnold consolidated several parcels belonging to a number of people.

Families who owned those lots had names like Puryear, McMurray, Cotton. Even earlier, there were Smiths and Hoovers. And sometime during this period, Emmett Stone, for whom the road Greene lives on is named, owned a large farm in the area. But it's unclear whether Greene's land was ever part of it.

Coffee County Property Assessor Ellen Vaughn said the jumble of names in the handwritten pages describing how the properties were assembled makes it hard to decide where to start looking. In any case, none of the records mentions a cemetery.

The Coffee County Historical Society has no information on the cemetery in its records, and Greene's property lies in an area that has little history on file, society Vice President Joanna Lewis said. Lewis and fellow society member Pat Berges say members of the historical group are anxious to get more information.

Lewis said members want to build on research started by Dr. Michael Bradley, a local Civil War historian and longtime American history professor at Motlow State Community College.

Bradley recently examined the 20-plus gravesites in Greene's yard.

The "wooden" casket Greene felt under the slab was actually a clay mold of a rotted-away coffin that had lain in a grave alongside a capped well shaft, Bradley said. The men used lights and mirrors to see inside about 18 inches or so.

Initial suspicions that the unmarked graves were those of slaves or Civil War soldiers don't jibe with what is known of local history. Bradley said there were no large slave-holding agricultural operations in that part of Coffee County, and there already is a Confederate cemetery established after the Tullahoma Campaign of 1863.

"It's still something of a mystery," Bradley said. "We have determined that there are impressions in the ground and they're laid out at regular intervals."

The impressions are about an inch different than the surrounding ground, 32 inches wide and 7 feet long, separated at regular intervals and all oriented east to west. Bradley said the precision of the grave sites shows the cemetery was built by someone who knew how they were traditionally constructed.

The well beneath the concrete slab that Greene discovered was drilled around 1930 for a home now long gone, but "the cemetery already was obliterated before 1930," Bradley said. When Bradley and Greene returned to the well the next day, dirt had collapsed into the grave opening, hiding the interior from view once more.

Bradley said those who drilled the well probably had no idea there were at least 20 of the dearly departed lying quietly, anonymously beneath them.

"But there's too much care taken in laying out these spots in a regular fashion for it to be just chance," he said.

The cemetery could date sometime between the Civil War in the 1860s and the earliest settlers in the 1840s.

"We have found one instance of a person asking to be buried on that farm," Bradley said.

A local woman in her 80s told Bradley that she had an uncle -- John Tobbit -- who wanted to be buried on the "old Emmett Stone place," he said. Still, nothing known about the Tobbit family connects to the graves, he said.

Another name associated with the property is Ferral, or O'Ferral, Bradley said, but surviving family members have no memories of a cemetery.

Bradley and Greene both wonder if a frontier-bound family or group came down with something like yellow fever and stopped to bury their dead before continuing west.

With the most obvious links accounted for, "we're working on the assumption that it's a family burial plot," Bradley said.

"And as families sometimes did, they packed up and moved to Texas maybe," he speculated. That might be why no one knows who is in the graves.

"So, we've got a good idea of what it is not," Bradley said, a little wistfully.

What historians need now is a clue from the burial ground's past.

"The county historical society has no leads on this," Bradley said. "If we ever had a name, we might do something through genealogical circles, but so far we have no name of anyone known to be buried there."

Greene said he has no intention of building the pond or disturbing the graves any more.

He wants to erect a marker -- complete with all the names, if possible -- to give those anonymous departed their identities and protect them as the winds of time sweep the landscape around their resting place beneath the oaks.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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