Murray, KY – It's a chilly Saturday morning at Woodson Cemetery in Land Between the Lakes. For most of the year, this spot is a quiet place of peace and reflection, but this morning it's alive with the sounds of chainsaws and rakes. Bundled up volunteers spread out across the lawn and clear the graves of debris left from January's ice storm.
"This is one tangible aspect of our past. So, we just decided to start cleaning. Our thing is to protect the cemeteries and protect them as best we can."
Ray Parish is the president of the Between the Rivers group, a collection of people who lived in LBL before the Tennessee Valley Authority moved in. The group has restored the only remaining church in the area and instigated the creation of a historical display in the Golden Pond Visitor's Center. They also run a magazine that chronicles stories about their heritage and are working to erect more signs in the area to mark historical landmarks. Now, they spend almost every Saturday cleaning the refuge's 250 cemeteries.
"The area had been settled by a lot of our people in the early 1800s and on through the 1800s, and there had been generation after generation here. We want to preserve it, and let people know that there was a lot more here in the past than what they might see now."
As the small group of 15 to 20 former residents saw branches and wrestle with fallen bushes, their close connections become clear in the stories they tell. Simply being together brings back memories of the made up games played between chores or of the times they went sledding down snow-covered hills on car hoods. Malcolm Lane and Margaret Chambers take a break from clearing brush to remember their childhood experiences in church.
"Each church had its own revival every year. That's when you went and had fun. It was a lively time - a lot of converts."
One pastor, they say, led several churches in a region, and the congregations rotated buildings. What Margaret and Malcolm remember most, thoughwas the food. They remember dinners with the pastor after church and huge potlucks with the. Sometimes, the food was so good it got Margaret into trouble.
"My sister and I, my mom and dad went to town on Saturday lots of times, and she had baked this banana pudding and all this stuff. We were going to have the preacher the next day. She and I ate that banana pudding, and when my mother got home, we were both sick. Oh me, till this day, I don't like banana pudding."
As more people take breaks from the graveyard cleaning, more old stories pop up around the cemetery. Stella Barnett talks about her husband and her aunt playing tricks on her mother's cat
"So they got some turpentine and they put it on its tail, and they thought, Oh, the cat's not going to do anything," and about the time they were going to catch it again, the cay went MEOOOW, and away it went. They never seen the cat no more. You talk about having a time! We just done a lot of things like that."
The stories, however, aren't always so carefree. They're almost always tinged with a little bit of pain. As TVA slowly took over parts of the region, the company forced more and more people out of their homes. Sometimes, people from Between the Rivers had to move three or four times. In 1940 when Ruth Watkins Taylor was only a child, TVA took more than 200 acres of her father's land through eminent domain. This left her family a small corner on which to live. Ruth's family was lucky for the time being were able to stay. The company finally took the last of the Watkins settlement when she was a young woman.
"That was heartbreaking for me, and it still is. When I come back to visit, I go to the Home Place quite often and just walk around where I once played and see the flowers that I helped my mom plant, and they're still there. A lot of them are still there and blooming."
One by one, the volunteers pick up their work gloves and their rakes and head back to work. Along with close family ties and a connection to the area, the folk from Between the Rivers have a strong respect for the dead. They say their parents taught them to maintain their family graves, and now they hold on to the task as a means of connecting to their past. Malcolm Lane
"We've got to keep our cemeteries up out of respect to the people who've past. Also, as long as we keep our cemeteries here, it almost guarantees our heritage."
This week, the group is cleaning ice storm debris from their family graves at Woodson. Next week, they might mow the lawn at Lee Cemetery or rake leaves at Nickell. And as they do, they'll talk about how they used to run up and down the hills and play in the creeks. Some might point out where they used to live and laugh about the events that happened there. They're homes might have been taken, but for Between the Rivers folk, their connection to the land is still very much alive.