On a recent bright-but-windy Sunday afternoon, local-history enthusiast Robert Goodson led about 20 people through two of the oldest cemeteries in Black Mountain. Sponsored by the Swannanoa Valley Museum, the tour of Tabernacle and Ingram cemeteries brought to life the pioneers who settled in the area after the Revolutionary War, painting a vivid picture of early 19th-century mountain culture.
A natural storyteller, Goodson — the co-author of North Fork of the Swannanoa River — is a descendant of the Colby/Stepp clan, one of the valley's founding families. They were innkeepers and landowners, and the family home, built in 1831, still stands on Goodson's property in Black Mountain.
"During the stagecoach days, this was a self-supporting community with a church, a school, a justice of the peace, a gristmill where you could grind grain over by the river, and a general store," said Goodson.
Dating back to 1837, the Tabernacle Cemetery rests on two-and-a-half acres of sloping land overlooking the Black and Swannanoa mountain ranges. The original church — which was apparently very tall and poorly built, so that it swayed back and forth in strong winds — is no longer standing, but the lumber from it was incorporated in the present structure.
The original "meeting house" was a multipurpose building that, besides providing spiritual comfort, also served as a school during the warmer months and as a courthouse. Trial records show cases involving such charges as "illegal cohabitation, drinking 'drams' and dancing," Goodson noted with a chuckle. Since the meeting house was such a vital gathering place, the grounds around it became the central burial site for the Black Mountain community through the mid-1920s.
In the atmospheric Tabernacle Cemetery, gray, mossy tombstones line the hillside, tilting eerily. All told, there are 250 unmarked and 550 marked graves. Some gravestones, such as that of local homeopathic doctor Charles Cliff, are small and simple, their uneven, childlike lettering suggesting they were carved by untrained hands. But others stand proud, announcing such prominent figures as T.K. Brown, Black Mountain's first mayor; Fletcher Fortune, the trustee of the Black Mountain Methodist Church; and postmistress Martha Drucilla.
"Remember," said Goodson as we wandered through the site, "this little settlement was [established] before Black Mountain was even a town — that didn't happen until 1880, when the railroad came through — and that had a big influence on these communities, because people began to hustle and move to where they could see the train or get transportation and goods."
It's a familiar story, repeated in rural areas nationwide, as the railroad siphoned off settlers from their small, isolated, self-sustaining communities toward bigger places.
Far removed from Tabernacle's spacious setting, Ingram Cemetery rests on a half-acre plot in a residential cul-de-sac in Black Mountain,
surrounded by modern homes. The oldest unmarked grave, which dates back to 1820, sits just a few feet away from a family's backyard, with its lawn chairs and charcoal grill. The unsettling contrast tells of how dramatically the world has changed.
Established by the Irish-born Bobby Ingram, this was a private burial ground for family and friends. Young Bobby landed in Charleston, S.C., in 1785, port records show. From there, he made his way to Virginia and then, in 1799, to Western North Carolina. Under a state settlement grant, Ingram acquired 1,122 acres of land near Lake Eden.
Although there are more than 100 graves at Ingram, only 15 bear carved headstones; most are merely marked by small fieldstones. The lack of information about the people interred here lends the site a chilling sense of mystery.
A way of life
Few places can rival cemeteries in evoking so powerfully the unrelenting sweep of time — both the individual, now-vanished lives and the ceaseless push of history leading up to the present moment. These early burial sites are particularly moving, stirring feelings of gratitude and reminding us that we, too, are helping shape the history of Western North Carolina.
"Whenever I walk through these old cemeteries, I get this same feeling that these are people who handed us a great deal," noted Goodson. "I don't think the present generation ever pays their due. You and I and anyone else, we take advantage of so many things handed down to us — not necessarily a pot of money, but our way of life."
Jill Jones, director of the Swannanoa Valley Museum, added: "We hope to preserve all of this rich history and pass it on to future generations. When you have an afternoon like this, it gives you pause and time reflect on how deep the history is here. The valley was a gateway, a pathway west [for] a whole migration of early settlers: These graveyards [allow] us to interpret that story."
The Swannanoa Valley Museum is at 223 W. State St. in Black Mountain. For information about upcoming hikes, strolls and guided tours of the town, call the museum at 669-9566, or check the Web site (swannanoavalleymuseum.org).
More local cemeteries
Interested in visiting other historic cemeteries? The Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society recently published a 2010 Calendar of Cemeteries. Each month features photos of a different local site: March spotlights the Cedar Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Alexander, and April highlights Gashes Creek Baptist Church in Asheville.
To order a calendar, call the Genealogical Society at 253-1894, or visit the Web site (obcgs.com).
Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 251-1333, ext. 110.