HISTORY OF THE BEECH CREEK CEMETERY

 

By: Vietta Jones Richardson

 

Beginnings:

 

            According to the Jones family oral history, the first person buried in the Beech Creek Cemetery was Milton Blalock Jones who died in the early 1870’s and was buried on the family farm. Milton’s father, John, died around the same time, and his wife Malinda Sasser Jones died in the early 1880’s. Their graves, all marked with unlettered creek stones, lie just below the present day flag pole. It seems likely that the farm actually was owned by Milton’s son-in-law and close friend George Washington Hounchell, who was married to Milton & Malinda’s daughter Catherine. Wash’s grave is the oldest one marked in the Cemetery. His marker is a pointed hand-carved creek stone with a death date of 1-6-1890. Until the middle of the 20th century, this grave was covered by a small white wooden structure kept meticulously maintained by Wash’s descendents.

            Through the years, the cemetery was simultaneously referred to by different names. It began as the Jones family graveyard, and has always been called that by some people. Later, it was also called the Hubbard graveyard because it was next door to the home of Millard Hubbard. It was also often referred to as the Upper Beech Creek graveyard. In 1995, when it was incorporated, it was officially designated The Beech Creek Cemetery.

            By the middle of the 20th century, the cemetery, which had grown to cover the flat area at the top of the rise, was enclosed by an ordinary field fence nailed to trees around the perimeter, and a simple podium had been constructed near the top of the rise for use during Memorial Day services. The entrance gate, located in the northeast corner of the fence,was approached by a path across the flat area leading from the road and up the hill.

At that time there were no concrete steps.

 

Organization and Expansion:

 

During the 1940’s, the cemetery began to undergo a series of significant changes that began when several individual Jones families purchased a strip of land for grave sites from Millard Hubbard. They were outside the fence along the east side. Shortly thereafter, Omer Jones and Bill Lyttle talked with some families about improvements and changes that needed to be made. Bruce Dezarn and Cap Holland later joined Omer and Bill to form a leadership group that brought about those changes. The men began their work by proposing to upgrade the existing method for care and maintenance.

            In the early days, each family of those deceased  was responsible for taking care of  the graves of their ancestors. Every Spring, they brought rakes, hoes, and axes and grubbed away the previous year’s growth of honeysuckle and blackberry vines, poison ivy and weeds. However, during WWII, whole families moved away from the community, so the hands-on method of maintaining the cemetery became problematic.

            At one of the Memorial Day services, Omer Jones, speaking for the leadership group, proposed an alternative method of maintenance to families and friends of those buried at Beech Creek. He recommended that a fund be established to which people would contribute when they attended the Memorial Day observance each year.            The money would be used to purchase a lawn mower and grass seed to help keep the weeds under control. A local man would be hired to keep the grass mowed. That maintenance strategy was adopted and has been used ever since.

            In 1963, the leaders saw a need to increase the size of the cemetery, and, with the further purchase of land from Millard Hubbard and from Charlie ‘Peahead’ Goins, its size was more than doubled. A chain link fence was also installed around the grounds, encompassing both the new purchase and the earlier individual purchases. The entrance gate was moved to the middle of the south fence, and a set of concrete steps was installed inside the fence. That entrance gate, still in use, is approached by an automobile lane from the main road.

            The original group of leaders continued to take primary responsibility for the cemetery from the 1940’s until late in the 1980’s, by which time they had all either passed away(Bill Lyttle) or become incapacitated by age and/or poor health. The only other major structural change made to the cemetery during those years was the addition of a flag pole by the local DAV. In 1986, the surviving members of the 1940’s leadership team turned over responsibility for the care of the cemetery to Ishmael Hibbard who carried it alone for 9 years.

            In 1989, four Jones cousins purchased the half-acre plot lying between the cemetery and the Beech Creek road from the Millard Hubbard heirs in order to remove the large barn and construct a parking lot. However, although this land was purchased for use of the cemetery, ownership could not be transferred to the cemetery proper, because it had never been organized as a legal entity.

            In 1995, the cemetery was incorporated as The Beech Creek Cemetery, Inc. ,and registered with the State of Kentucky as a non-profit corporation. This action was taken so that ownership of the land purchased in 1989 could be transferred to the cemetery, and also to allow contributors to the maintenance fund to claim their gifts as deductions with the IRS. Original trustees were Reverend Merritt Don Penner, Chairman; Ishmael Hibbard, Financial Secretary and Treasurer; Dr. Vietta Jones Keith(later Richardson), Secretary; Harold O. Goins, Historian; and Judge Sara Walter Combs, Trustee. In 2002, Britta Gray was elected to replace Judge Combs who resigned as an active member of the Board. In 2007, Rev. Don Penner passed away, and Harold Goins was elected to fill the chair. Charles William Goins also elected to the board of trustees at that time.

            The most dramatic change ever made to the cemetery’s appearance took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the development of a new front entrance. The name    Beech Creek Cemetery ” was inscribed on a large archway facing the main road, and a wide concrete stairway was installed that leads through the double-gate, under the arch, and up into the cemetery. A large patio with benches was installed  at the top of the stairway. The half-acre plot in front of the new entrance is presently used for parking.

 

The Memorial Day Service:

 

            No one can say when the first Memorial Service was held at the Beech Creek Cemetery, but it is likely that such services have been held from the beginning. In the Kentucky mountains, the custom of having a springtime service in the family goes back to pioneer times. In the early days, the religious needs of most communities were taken care of by circuit riding clergymen. However,they were not always readily available when someone died. Those who died during the wintertime might well be buried without a formal funeral service. Sometime during the spring, the cemetery would be cleaned and arrangements would be made for a preacher to come and hold a memorial service for all community residents who had died during the previous year. When May30th was officially designated Decoration Day (later called Memorial Day) after the Civil War, residents of Beech Creek simply adopted that date for their memorial service. However, not all Clay County communities have their memorial services in May. Others may choose to memorialize their loved ones in the fall, with August being a popular month.

            The Beech Creek Memorial Day ritual has changed little during the past 75 years. At sometime during the weekend of Memorial Day(observed), loved ones decorate the graves with flowers. Then on Sunday morning they gather for a service that is as comforting for its familiarity as it is for its content. It begins with the list of contributions for maintaining the cemetery being read aloud, then “Amazing Grace” and at least one other hymn is sung by all, followed by a short sermon. Recently, a military ritual that includes the Pledge of Allegiance, a 21-gun salute, the folding of the flag, and the playing of “Taps” has been added. After the benediction, those congregated are invited to share a reunion which includes a meal.

            During the early years of the 20th century, several preachers might be invited to speak during a service, although in later years only one speaker has been invited. Those who are known to have preached include Al Hacker, whose family lived in the “Steve Combs house nearby, and Carlyle Hounchell. Henry Campbell, a minister with the Christian Church, preached for several years during the 1940s and 1950s. In the mid 1950s, Reverend Merritt Don Penner, the pastor of the Beech Creek United Brethren Church (later United Methodist), became the regular speaker. Sunday services at the church, less than a half mile away, were moved to the cemetery for the day, and if inclement weather prevented an outdoor gathering, the service was held in the church. The reunion meal took place in several different locations until the Beech Creek Recreation community building was erected. Nowadays, the reunion is held there, and also the service if rain threatens.

            Brother Don Penner, much beloved by local residents and visitors alike, continued his tradition ( with the exception of 2 years ) of preaching the Memorial Day sermon until 2001, when his health began to fail and he asked to be relieved. John Richardson (2002), a minister with the Christian Church, and Doug MacIntosh (2003 and 2004), pastor of the Stone Mountain, Georgia Community Church, filled in until Brother Penner was able to preach once again in 2005. He passed away in January 2007, and is buried in the Beech Creek Cemetery. John Richardson assumed responsibility for the Memorial Day sermons in 2006 and 2007.