|The North Shore Cemetery Decoration Project: A Memoir and Reflections|
This essay grows out of a 2004 environmental impact statement prepared for the proposed (and controversial) North Shore Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The study explored and analyzed the tradition—or the traditionality—of Decoration Day, a cultural tradition that lay at the very heart of the whole fifty-year tug-of-war over building the road. The North Shore Road project provides some insights into how to better integrate folklore and historic preservation, among them 1) cultivating professional relationships with colleagues working in preservation and CRM and 2) engaging in more collaborative team projects.
In 2004 I received a telephone call from archaeologist Bennie Keel. Years before, he and I had planned the ill-fated Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Folklife Project, from which the American Folklife Center had to withdraw due to the controversy it stirred in our field. Happily, our friendship survived that turbulence, and we worked together to devise and supervise a study of "intangible elements of culture,” fulfilling a provision in the 1980 Amendments to the Historic Preservation Act and carried out by the American Folklife Center in collaboration with the Department of the Interior. The final report to Congress was published by the American Folklife Center in 1983 under the title Cultural Conservation: The Protection of Cultural Heritage in the United States.
By 2004, when Bennie Keel called me again, a generation had passed since those earlier Federal efforts. He had moved to Atlanta, then to Tallahassee, where he continued to work at a regional archeological center for the National Park Service. I had retired from the American Folklife Center. Bennie said he hoped I might suggest a folklorist to carry out a study. He said, "Have you ever heard of the Road to Nowhere?” I had, but only vaguely, and I confessed I knew little about it. But as he described the project, it sounded fascinating. I had no major commitments for that summer and fall, so I signed up to spend much of the summer doing field research in the Great Smoky Mountains region of western North Carolina, and much of the fall and winter drafting the report on that research.
The research focused on the folk cultural tradition known as Decoration Day. In 1941-42 people from the region had been removed from their homes because of the building of Fontana Dam, the largest dam in the eastern United States and a factor in the war effort during World War II, since it supplied Alcoa with needed electricity for manufacturing aluminum products. Fontana Lake covered the homes of many families in the Little Tennessee River valley, and the removal also included many families in the smaller hollows running down to the Little Tennessee River from the Smokies, because the rising water inundated the only major road providing access to and from those hollows. The only consolation for the displaced people was a promise by federal, state, and local governments to build a new road, after the war was over, to provide access again to the area, which by then would be part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The access would be for park visitors—but also, for the displaced families, the road would provide access to the 27 cemeteries left behind.
In the years following World War Two, several miles of the promised road were built, but by the 1960s the construction stopped, chiefly because of the rise of the environmental movement and the idea of conserving wilderness areas. Since road construction ended oddly just beyond a major tunnel, some wag dubbed it "the road to nowhere,” and the name stuck. By the later 1970s, a cultural movement arose among people removed from what was called "the North Shore” (the area north of Fontana Lake). The movement renewed demands for the promised road, and punctuated the demand by renting boats and arranging a well-publicized crossing of Fontana Lake to decorate a North Shore cemetery. The radical action worked; soon the Park Service was restoring overgrown cemeteries and providing boats for decorations.
Research Team and Methods
When Bennie called and I agreed to take the job, my first effort was to persuade my wife, Karen Singer Jabbour, to join the project as photographer. I had worked as a two-person team with documentarian Carl Fleischhauer for many years, and I am a believer in interdisciplinary teamwork and multimedia documentation. I learned that a cultural anthropologist from the Park Service had wanted a young cultural anthropologist to do the work. His candidate, Ted Coyle, was a colleague at Western Carolina University with whom I was already acquainted. So I called Ted directly and recruited him to join the team. The funds were administered by Paul Webb of TRC Environmental Corporation, a cultural resource management administrator and an archaeologist with professional knowledge about the project and region. So our interdisciplinary team was Karen Singer Jabbour as photographer, Ted Coyle as cultural anthropologist, Paul Webb as archaeologist and cultural resource manager, and myself as principal investigator.
I designed a project that initially included both in-depth recorded interviews with fifty people closely involved with the North Shore cemeteries, and recorded and photographic documentation of decoration events through the summer at North Shore cemeteries. But early on I expanded the design concept. Karen and I in our interviews began including consideration of Decoration Day outside the national park, and we also began to visit and document cemeteries outside the park. It was clear from the outset that Decoration Day was a real and longstanding cultural tradition, not a figment of the imagination of lobbyists for local development. But, in order to take the proper measure of decorations in the national park, it helped enormously to study decorations outside the park’s shaping influence.
Two delicate issues I had to negotiate with the National Park Service had to do with the relationship of the team to the local people and the style of the report’s prose. These turned out to be related issues. Regarding the relationship with local people, there was great anxiety within the Park Service about whether we would encounter opposition or hostility from the locals, and whether they would cooperate with interviews. As it turned out, they were thrilled to have us visit and interview them and were cooperative and hospitable in every way. Our hardest task was getting park rangers to be interviewed—they seemed to fear repercussions. Regarding my writing, I drafted the report in an accessible prose style that occasionally used affective terms and phrases. This drew a number of challenges from the cultural anthropologist from the Park Service who was reviewing the draft and wanted a more scientific, less affective style. When we had a complete draft, we shared it with a group of local people whom we had already interviewed and felt would be helpful consultants. We had an all-day meeting in the Bryson City Fire Department meeting room to review the draft. Our local consultants were delighted with what was emerging and supported our work strongly and enthusiastically.
Part of the intensity of the Park Service oversight derived from their knowledge that the North Shore Road was nationally visible. It received regular features on national media outlets – the whole "Road to Nowhere” or "_______ to Nowhere” formula originated here. The project was also a political "hot potato.” Funding for the Environmental Impact Statement was arranged by the local Congressman, who was a strong supporter of building the road. Further, he had become chair of the Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations in the U.S. House of Representatives and thus had sway over not only this funding but all the funding of the National Park Service. So the Park Service was right to worry, but in fact no problems developed from our work, and local citizens were strong supporters, telling us how much they appreciated that we showed a genuine interest in them, what they knew, and what they thought. They responded with hospitality and friendship.
North Shore Cemeteries as a TCP
A key part of the report was our recommendation that the North Shore cemeteries be designated collectively a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP), and that the families with a direct connection to them be designated a Traditionally Associated People. These categories are newer governmental terms than the National Register of Historic Places, and they lack comparable mechanisms for formal registration, so it is not easy to determine exactly what properties are TCPs. It is my understanding that the state of North Carolina has written a letter certifying the North Shore cemeteries as a collective TCP and certifying the North Shore cemeteries as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. But one could say that the key approval happened earlier. The National Park Service initiated this study, and the TCP recommendation is accompanied by an array of management recommendations to Great Smoky Mountains National Park about administering its responsibilities to these cemeteries and the people connected to them. By approving and authorizing the publication of our report, the management of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the National Park Service accepted the Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) designation and the management responsibilities that status entails.
Decoration Day in the Mountains
After the project was over, Karen and I realized that our research interest in Decoration Day and in rural cemeteries was not yet satisfied, so we began developing plans for a full-length book. We continued to visit cemeteries in western North Carolina, focusing now on the cemeteries and Decoration Day events outside the park, and we extended our research throughout the rural South. Our 2010 book Decoration Day in the Mountains drew upon the report but also included later research. It has been very popular locally—the people it features think of it as "their book.” Though it is much longer, it does not contain the report’s traditional cultural property analysis, final recommendations, or appendix describing the 27 North Shore graves. Though it lies outside the "project,” as we might define it, the book can be seen—and emphatically IS seen by the people we worked with—as the final fruit of the project.