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The North Shore Cemetery Decoration Project: A Memoir and Reflections

Alan Jabbour
Independent Folklorist and Director (retired), American Folklife Center


Executive Summary

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.


Project Background

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.

Boarding the boat to cross Fontana Lake for the Cable Branch Cemetery Decoration. Photo
by Karen Singer Jabbour, August 1, 2004.

 Annual cemetery decorations were their cultural tradition, the local people insisted. But was this Decoration Day a real tradition, or was it an idea cooked up to prod the Park Service into building a road, as some environmentalists opposing the road speculated? The study for which we were commissioned explored and analyzed the tradition—or the traditionality—of Decoration Day. It was part of a major multidisciplinary initiative to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed North Shore Road. The idea of doing a cultural study of Decoration Day as a regional tradition seems to have come late in the game with the Environmental Impact Statement, after studies of the ecology, endangered species, impacts on the water supply, and archaeological and historical studies had already been launched. Yet this particular cultural tradition lay at the very heart of the whole fifty-year tug-of-war over building the road. As far as I can determine, the idea for this particular study arose in conversations among three archaeologists: the archaeologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Erik Kreusch; the manager of the cultural resources contract for the Environmental Impact Statement, Paul Webb; and my friend Bennie Keel. It was an idea from the archaeological community. Of course, they were aware of the Cultural Conservation policy study; they were also aware of the unhappy outcome of the Tennessee-Tombigbee project. But they reached out to folklorists as a professional network.


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.

Jack Cable decorates a Cable family grave, Cable Branch Cemetery Decoration, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour, August 1, 2004.

 By late 2004, Karen and I were back in Washington DC, amplifying our field research with lots of library research into the history and geography of Decoration Day as a cultural tradition and its relationship with Memorial Day, the All Saints Day/All Souls Day/Day of the Dead complex of traditions, and other comparable traditions. I was the chief drafter of the final report. Ted Coyle drafted the chapter considering the complex of North Shore cemeteries and the traditions associated with them as a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) and the people related to those cemeteries as a Traditionally Associated People. Paul Webb contributed an extensive appendix providing in-depth information on each of the 27 cemeteries. The report contained recommendations to the Park Service for managing the 27 cemeteries—whether or not the North Shore Road is built. All the team members contributed to the final report, which was published in 2005 and incorporated in the final Environmental Impact Statement (as Appendix G) in 2006.

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.

Gary Jones offers a religious message, Cable Branch Cemetery Decoration, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Singer Jabbour, August 1, 2004.


Preparing for "dinner on the ground,” Cable Cemetery Decoration, Great Smoky
Mountains National Park. Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour, May 20, 2007.

Lessons Learned

  • If folklorists want to participate in the realm of cultural resource management, they must devote time and energy to cultivating professional connections with the existing networks of historians, archaeologists, preservationists, and federal and state agencies already doing it. My account highlights the importance of working with these professional networks and publishing in venues they read.
  • Our field needs to do more team field projects. The virtue of teamwork is not simply accomplishing more in the same time span. Teamwork is a fertile and intellectually stimulating form of field research, capable of producing symbiosis and synergy that makes it more than the sum of its parts. The American Folklife Center’s field projects from the late 1970s through the late 1990s demonstrated the virtues of this approach to fieldwork. It offers the potential of including fieldworkers with different skills on a team. Going a step farther, it invites the use of interdisciplinary teams, which the American Folklife Center did effectively in the Paradise Valley Folklife Project, the Pine Barrens Folklife Project, and notably the Grouse Creek Survey, which demonstrated that an interdisciplinary team could provide cultural insights not available to fieldworkers from the same disciplines working separately. Solo fieldwork is not inferior to collaborative teamwork, but they are complementary components in our armory of professional skills. In the Cultural Conservation policy study, we argued strongly for a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to the protection of cultural heritage, and team fieldwork is the perfect tool for exemplifying that holistic vision.
  • Even when it has a specific mission, folklore field research needs to be open-eyed and open-ended. The North Shore Cemetery Decoration Project was greatly improved by being broadened when I realized the importance of looking at cemeteries beyond the area specified in the original instructions. Similarly, I was originally cautioned not to get involved with the topic of Cherokee burial practices in the study area. But we quickly found that regional Cherokee and African American communities also participated in the Decoration Day custom. Public folklorists have sometimes hired folklorists to undertake specific missions, such as identifying participants for a festival, and the American Folklife Center has sometimes undertaken focused fieldwork. But it is a folkloristic obligation to look and listen beyond our narrow immediate mission in order to understand the cultural resources of communities more broadly.
  • We need more collective discussion about our ethnographic procedures in field research. I do extensive fieldnotes, written in diary style and including, as much as is feasible, not only all we were looking for but all we saw. Indeed, one full chapter and some other sections of our Decoration Day in the Mountains book are actually taken (with revision) from my fieldnotes. We also use still photography and sound recordings, and we organize the documentary materials so that they are keyed to the fieldnotes, which comprise the intellectual heart of the multimedia collection. It is of course impossible to have everyone writing fieldnotes in exactly the same way, but it is worth talking more about establishing goals and standards of fieldnotes in our professional research. Good ethnographic writing may be the solution to the problem discussed in point #3 above – to help balance fieldwork with specific goals by maintaining standards for fieldnotes that encourage looking beyond specific field goals to the ethnographic horizon.
  • It should not be necessary to argue for the need for accessible and attractive public products derived from our research, but it is. The American Folklife Center’s experience with collaborative projects and our more recent experience with Decoration Day in the Mountains point to the importance of planning from the beginning for public products, not just for wider public circulation but as a powerful form of cultural feedback to the communities being documented. Government reports rank low in both attractiveness and accessibility, and many reports arising out of cultural resource management projects are dry and inaccessible. The experience and knowhow of folklorists in generating a wide range of public products – handsome and readable books, exhibitions, films, recordings, radio shows, and the like – can be the envy of some of our allied disciplines and an asset we can use in negotiating a collaborative role with them.
  • At the policy level, folklorists should be not only collaborating with cultural professionals in other disciplines, but also joining policy discussions at broader levels of national and international discourse. I mentioned earlier that the Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) concept is in flux now. Our study was among a handful of recent studies that have been broadening the application of the concept, which for many years was applied essentially to Native Americans and other groups identified as "Native.” We should be at the table in these discussions, as we were with the Cultural Conservation policy study and more recently with the international deliberations on "folklore protection” and "intangible cultural resources.” This moment of flux in redefining Traditional Cultural Properties can be our moment, if we can seize it.

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