In all of the areas in Knoxville full of rich history, one of the most solemn locations is found just a mile north of downtown on Broadway Street. There you will find two separate cemeteries that share a stone wall.
On one side of the wall is the Knoxville National Cemetery on Tyson Street with the graves of veterans from as far back as the Civil War. All of its headstones are of similar designs and form concentric circles around a flagpole.
On the other side of the wall sits an older and more ornate collection of hand-carved headstones at Old Gray Cemetery. Old Gray was founded in 1850 and is Knoxville's first planned cemetery. At the time the nation was going through a cemetery revolution of sorts with people beginning to design burial sites in rural park settings shared by the community rather than placing graves at churches or private homes.
"Isn't it just amazing? It is 13 acres and we consider ourselves the most notable outdoor art museum in Knoxville. The artwork on these headstones is breath-taking," said Alix Dempster, executive director of Old Gray Cemetery.
Dempster has worked part-time to operate the cemetery for 20 years. Old Gray is on the National Register of Historic Places and also a stop on the Civil War Trails.
"We are unique in that most cemeteries or communities have folks who fought for one side or the other. We have an equal distribution of folks who fought for the Union and folks who fought for the South. So in death, we're all equal because we're buried side-by-side," said Dempster.
The side-by-side historic cemeteries are not equal in terms of funding. The National Cemetery receives federal support as a burial site for veterans. A visitor to the National Cemetery looked over the wall into Old Gray and emailed 10News photographs of extremely tall grass, toppled headstones, and other maintenance concerns. The message asked whether the city was neglecting the historic site or if public money was not being used for its intended purpose.
In fact, although Old Gray Cemetery welcomes the public at all times, the property is entire private. Old Gray does not receive funds from the city. A private non-profit manages the plot and relies on the efforts of volunteers and donations.
"It's like keeping up an old house. We try to make our budget go as far as it can," said Dempster. "We have a contract with a good group of guys and they cut the grass every two weeks in the spring and every three weeks in the summertime. But this year has been exceptional with our grass and all the rain this summer, so the grass would get a lot taller than usual in three weeks. I wouldn't want my front yard to look like Old Gray did."
Dempster said Old Gray has a long wish-list of improvements it would like to fund. It is in the process of installing concrete lamp posts that help shed light on Knoxville's history after sunset. The paved road through the cemetery is cracked with several potholes. Old Gray is also in the process of recovering from violent storms in April 2011 that toppled large trees and knocked over historic headstones. Some of the headstones were broken by the downed trees.
Despite the financial challenges of maintaining the city's oldest and arguably most beautiful cemetery, Old Gray keeps going with day-to-day maintenance and community events. Later this month, Old Gray hosts its 12th annual Lantern and Carriage Tour featuring volunteer re-enactors who tell stories about those who chose the cemetery as their final resting place.
"It is just a wonderful time and a beautiful time of year to visit," said Dempster. "You have all of these great volunteers and these beautiful old trees that set the scene for so much interesting history."
For Dempster, the upkeep to Old Gray is worth the effort to keep Knoxville's history alive for everyone.
"It's a walking history lesson. It's a family place to come. It's amazing," said Dempster.
The website oldgraycemetery.org features a lot more information about the cemetery and ways to contribute. It also includes full details about the Lantern and Carriage Tour scheduled for September 30.