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Friday, February 12, 2010

The Chilhowee Grave Robbery

          Before I moved to Tennessee and my family lived in Northern Indiana in the mid 1960s, my father began taking us on "camping trips".  He called it camping but it was really staying in a commercial campground in our 17 foot travel trailer.  We basically had most of the comforts of home shrunken down to a cramped area smaller than our living room.   My parents and four brothers and sisters would pile in the trailer to sleep at night, but eating and recreation was all outdoors.  Voila!  We were camping.

        Then in the summer of 1966 the family headed down to Maryville, Tennessee to see if we wanted my father to accept an offer to relocate with the company for which he worked.  We settled our trailer in a semi-rural mobile home park, looking to all of the permanent residents of the park like itinerant gypsies emerging and re-entering a clown car at a circus.  Having fallen in love with East Tennessee, we lived in this park until September when we finally bought a house.  We still kind of thought ourselves as having been camping during that summer, but since East Tennessee is a sort of mecca of camping and other outdoor activities I eventually discovered real camping.

       Toward the end of my senior year of high school, I went on my first camping trip where I slept in a tent.  It was 1969.  I was invited by my friend Bob, who was a member of the football team.  Bob and I had met during that summer of 1966 when my family was living in the mobile park.  Bob's family lived in a house near the park and as things would turn out, he would be attending the same school where I would be going even though our new house was several miles from where his family lived.  In high school, Bob and I remained friends, though we did not really hang out together much.  For that matter I was a loner and didn't hang out much with anyone.

         In the last month of our senior year, Bob invited me to go camping out at Chilhowee Lake.  He was going with Don, another member of the football team, and George, the sole male member of the cheerleading squad--probably one of the few male high school cheerleaders in East Tennessee at that time.  I did not really know Don, but George was one of my sister's best friends so I knew him through her.  I eagerly accepted Bob's invitation and on that weekend he picked me up in his black '65 Mustang and we met up with Don and George out at Chilhowee Lake.

        Chilhowee lake is formed by Chilhowee Dam, which is part of the Tennessee Valley Authority flood control system.   The dam was built and is operated by Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) to generate hydroelectric power for the company which is located next to Maryville in the city of Alcoa.  The lake is situated between the Great Smoky National Park and Cherokee National Forest. There were not really official campgrounds along the Maryville side of the lake, but many people would set up campsites in the parking pull-offs along the lake.  I don't believe camping is allowed now, but back in the 60s no one said anything about it.  The lake was a popular place to go to camp, party, and drink beer at night, and swim, fish, boat, and water-ski in the daytime.  Once the weather started warming up, weekends at the lake were hopping.

          We set up camp next to the bridge crossing Abram's Creek where it empties into the lake.  There were no other campers nearby as apparently the really busy summer season had not yet commenced.  None of us were beer drinkers so we were there for good clean fun--an evening of sitting around a fire and joking and telling stories.  Once darkness settled upon us we began gravitating toward ghost tales and other scary stories.  Back then I used to like to say that I wished I would see something so scary that it would turn my hair permanently white.  Of course now I can no longer say that because what little hair I have left is already white and that didn't happen in one sudden scary moment.

           On previous visits, Bob and I had found a trail near our campsite that led a short distance up the side of the mountain to an old graveyard.  The trail was unmarked and probably few visitors went to this graveyard even though it was probably less than a hundred yards from the highway.  The crudely handmade grave markers had dates from the mid 1800's and were undoubtedly the resting places of some of the first white settlers of that area, which had once been the site of  large Creek and, later, Cherokee Indian towns.  It is a very historical area which lends itself well to ghost stories.

          Our conversations eventually came around to this graveyard.  We began to speculate what one could find digging up the old graves.  The bodies would have been long gone except for some skeletal remains, but there was the prospect of finding old buttons, coins, or other items that would survive that long.  We didn't have shovels or any digging tools so we weren't about to go dig up any graves, but the eerie thrill of walking up in the darkness to where the graves were began to entice us.  We decided to take our flashlights and walk up to the site just in case we might see something truly terrifying.

          There was enough night light to see as we walked the short distance up the highway to where the trail began.  We did not want to call attention to ourselves by using the flashlights. Our quiet chatter might have carried across the span of the lake, but no one would be able to tell what we were up to.   Once we got onto the trail and entered the trees, the almost absolute darkness required using our lights.  We stayed close together as we made our way up the trail.  Then we came to the old stones.

           Our lights passed over the faces of the grave markers as we read the names and studied the dates. Trees towered all around us and we were surrounded by an intense darkness.  Although the night was warm, one could not help feeling a chill here.  We pondered about the inhabitants of these graves and took a special interest in one grave of a very young child.  Then someone made the suggestion--I swear it wasn't I--to remove one of the markers and take it with us.  I tried to dissuade them from doing it, but then George wriggled the marker from the ground and took it.  The stone was fairly thin and was not too heavy-- maybe forty pounds or so.   George carried his trophy back to camp and I was sure we would get arrested that night.

         George, Don, and Bob had the coolest teacher of senior English, Mr. Williams.  He was apparently fascinated by the supernatural and the other guys thought it would be a great prank to leave the grave marker outside Mr. Williams' apartment door to freak him out.  After our camping weekend, George and Don made a stop on their way home and followed through with that plan.  Mr. Williams was not scared or amused, but he was very angry.  He undoubtedly was aware that what they had done was probably criminal in nature.  It did not take long for Mr. Williams to find out who was responsible.  He let George and Don know that if the grave marker wasn't returned immediately they might not pass senior English and would not be able to graduate.

         I was not with George and Don when they returned the marker so I can't say for sure if they did put it exactly where they found it.   A few times over the next few years I went back to revisit the graveyard.  Each time it looked like there were less stones or some had been broken. It even looked like some graves had been tampered with--perhaps by someone looking for artifacts.  I have not been back to that graveyard in about thirty five years.

        Bob and I remain friends to this day.  I talk to him on the phone every few months and usually see him when I visit Maryville at Christmas.   Don eventually moved to Nashville, but it seems I heard recently that he was back in Maryville.   Either way, I never saw him again after graduation.   Likewise it was several years before I saw George again.  The last time I saw George was at my wedding to my second wife in 1982.  George, the one who took the grave marker, had moved to California where he had come out of the closet and was leading quite the gay lifestyle.  None of us ever suspected, although the cheerleading thing might have been a suggestion.  To us George was just a fun guy who was just a tad effeminate, but we really didn't think too much about it.  When he came to the wedding he was dressed in a tight fitting leather outfit that looked rather stylish for what it was.  I didn't talk to him.   I actually didn't even know who he was.  My sister told me later on that it was George and she filled me in on all of the history that she had learned about him.   A few years later I learned that George had died from AIDS.

         Have you ever been to Chilhowee Lake?   Do you like to go camping?   Do you have any graveyard prank stories to relate?




  1. You are a very good story teller and even though I'm rushed for time I read all the way through. Yes I've done some real camping in places like Zambia, the Congo, Botswana and of course all over South Africa but I think the camping that I've done is a bit different from the camping done in the U.S. God bless you and keep on camping.

  2. Well, nothing on that grand a scale!
    We have an old VW bus that we took camping, and my father never selected real campgrounds. We were always out in the boonies somewhere. Once I grew up and moved to humid Arkansas, I realized I never wanted to go camping again!

  3. Omigosh, I read every word of this story and found it fascinating, from the way your dad camped to George dying of Aids. I have nothing to add. This was so interesting.

  4. I really enjoyed this story! I currently live in Knoxville where my Husband is a grad student at UT. Before moving into Knoxville, we spent a couple years in Louisville, right between Alcoa and Knoxville. I have never actually been to Chilhowee Lake, but will definitely visit at some point this summer. Your story here almost makes me want to go visit this graveyard, see what it is like today!

  5. I read this with some nostalgia as my late husband and I used to have a touring trailer (Called Caravans here in the UK).
    We had it on a permament campsite where we would visit most week-ends
    or perhaps stay for as long as three weeks.Along with our cat who we had to take with us as she was diabetic and needed insulin shots daily we would tour around Devon, Kent and Surrey.
    I loved your coverage of your adventures and pleased you have kept in touch with Bob, you mentioned Nashville.......well God Willing I am going to Nashville in June to see my favourite Irish singer make his debut at the Grand Ole Oprey.
    Have a grand week-end.

  6. >>[Have you ever been to Chilhowee Lake? Do you like to go camping? Do you have any graveyard prank stories to relate?]<<

    Well, once in my very early twenties I was in a graveyard at night with a good friend and his younger brother. There was a freshly opened gravesite waiting for someone the following day to meet their final resting place. I climbed down into it, stretched out on my back and closed my eyes to test it. "This one is just right."

    I think the sight of me playing dead and deep-sixed kind of freaked out my buddy and his bro.

    I had no way of knowing at that time that in less than a decade I would be attending my friend's funeral. Because of stunts like that and my general recklessness at that time, we always just assumed I would be the first to go.

    ~ Stephen
    <"As a dog returns to his own vomit,
    so a fool repeats his folly."
    ~ Proverbs 26:11>

  7. Geoff -- Thanks for patiently sticking with the story. It's pretty cool to have a reader from your part of the world.

    L. Diane --Well, I'm not sure what would be worse, camping in hot, humidity or in the cold of winter. We used to frequently go in the winter and at night I'd wonder why I had done that and wished I was home in bed. But I kept going back.

    KarenG -- Thank you! That is some real encouragement.

    Mary Beth -- if you're looking for the graveyard, cross the Hwy 129 bridge over Abrams Creek (just past Foothills Parkway) and there at the intersection of Hwy 129 and the little road that goes back into Happy Valley towards Abrams Creek Campground you might see the hint of a trail that goes up the hillside into the forest. The cemetary is just a short distance- Not sure if it's still there or not though.

    Yvonne -- hope you make it to Nashville and if you have any opportunity, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in East Tennessee is well worth your time.

    Stephen -- you, me, and our crazy younger days.

  8. I've never been to Chilhowee Lake nor do I have any graveyard prank stories. But I'll say that you haven't really been camping unless you're camping in a tent on the beach with blowing sand and rising tides . . . and you have to be rescued by the Navy.

  9. I like the voice you convey in your blog. Very engaging.

  10. Good story! I was on to George from the beginning though.

    I do not have any good graveyard stories...except I lived across the street from one once and it was extremely creepy. I have a healthy respect for the dead and would never take a headstone.

    I did date a guy that did. What is it about small towns and graveyards?

  11. I remember the graveyard very well! The largest stone belonged to a gentleman named Pleasant Henry. According to local lore Mr. Henry was well known in area. I can convey a ghost story about the graveyard and Mr. Henry. Sometime between 1969 and 1971 I visited the graveyard with a couple of friends. We had been there many times and thought Mr. Henry might have been buried with things of value or interest. Since none of us were under any strong moral conviction at the time we decided to dig down into the grave. (My humble apology to Mr. Henry and his ancestors, after the fact.) We began to dig into the shale and rock and realized that the grave was probably not very deep. We reach a point where the dirt had a very distinct difference from what we had already moved. It was beginning to get dusky dark and we all were becoming a little spooked. As my friend sank the shovel again we suddenly heard a whistling rushing sound go through the trees above our heads. That was enough! We hastily replaced the dirt we had removed and ran from the darkening woods. We all were in agreement that we had loosed some sort of spirit with our less than honorable deed. In reality it was probably an owl. I have never been back to visit Pleasant Henry.

  12. Carol -- sounds like you've got an engaging story there. Have you told it yet on your blog?

    T.Anne -- it's comments like yours that make me want to keep writing.

    Marsha-- yeah, I guess we just get bored in small towns and have to find something different to do.

    Anon -- so glad you stepped forward with your well written account. I thought I remembered hearing about someone who had tried to rob one of those graves. And how could I have forgotten the name "Pleasant Henry" -- I knew there was an interesting name on one of the stones, but I just couldn't remember.

  13. Debi and Jim -- thanks! Have you all been to that graveyard? Jim, I'm pretty sure you have. You may have heard the Pleasant Henry tale from our mutual friend who wishes to remain anonymous. I really enjoyed that one.

  14. Seeee those are the stories that I love! You never told me that one before. I'm surprised you never took us there to explore... we are definitely going at Christmas though I want to see it....

  15. Remind me, Emilee, I've been wanting to go back there and see it again.

  16. I enjoyed this story very much. I felt a little "shiver" as I read it. I have never had any inclination to visit a graveyard and remove anything! I used to love to go camping with my children. We were all stuffed into a tent but the memories! Oh how we loved to sit up late at night around the campfire and of course make s'mores! And what fun to take a semi-warm shower in the bathhouse-yikes!

  17. Interesting story and equally interesting comments.
    A couple friends and I used to picnic in a graveyard that was out of the way but somewhat near our homes. We'd wander through it and read the headstones. I like to think of the connections we have with these people who obviously passed through the same area of the world that we are in right now. While I am curious about their stories, I am not so curious about their decaying remains. And to remove the headstone, for me, would be disrupting some record of history that seems important.

    As kids we think so differently than adults! I will admit that playing pranks was very high on my agenda at that age, too. I make no judgements about the story, as it so perfectly describes what kids do.


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