Graveyard Shift

by Cindy Podurgal Chambers

Smith-Trahern Mansion

In 1800, Valentine Sevier, one of Clarksville’s earliest settlers, was buried on a verdant sweep of land overlooking the Cumberland River. In time, its rolling hills would become Riverview Cemetery, ultimately filling with the earthly remains of nearly 6,000 of Clarksville’s citizens.

In 1858, wealthy tobacconist Christopher Smith chose an adjacent hillside on which to build one of the finest residences in the region. Nearly 150 years later, this stately structure would become the home of Montgomery County’s Extension Homemakers — overflowing with tourists, weddings, parties, and countless other special events.

Today the neighbors appear ready to go to war to protect the common ground they share. And when weddings and funerals fight for space, the outcome is literally a matter of life and death.

Clarksville Academy art teacher Kay Drew loves her quiet Anderson Street neighborhood. The historic home she shares with husband Tom and daughter Kaley abuts the back yard of the Smith-Trahern Mansion and overlooks the tranquil green hills of Riverview Cemetery.  But she doesn't find the view quite as peaceful anymore. “When I learned that the cemetery was filling up and there was talk of using the front lawn of the mansion for burials, I was disturbed,” she recalls. “I see such wonderful events down there all the time — weddings and receptions and exhibitions.”  She has watched trolleys pull up and tourists pour out onto a lawn that may one day be dotted with tombstones. “To think that the front yard could become a cemetery... well, it just doesn't seem right to me.”

One of several local artists who have taken an interest in preserving and improving the mansion, Drew has dreams that may die an untimely death if some city fathers have their way. “I have a vision of this glorious Biltmore-like front lawn with a circular driveway—a place where they can throw open the front doors and have wonderful activities out on the lawn.” The expansion of the cemetery into that potentially beautiful space has become a grave issue to Drew and others.

News of the potential expansion may disappoint many, but few were taken by surprise when the subject was brought up for discussion by the City Council several months ago. Riverview Cemetery has been approaching capacity for years, and the Smith-Trahern property was purchased by the city specifically for expansion of the cemetery in the 1970s.  It was the cemetery, not the mansion, that made the land valuable to Clarksville, primarily because cemetery plots generate income, while the mansion generates comparatively little and is expensive to maintain.   “The main problem with the mansion is that the city takes care of the outside, to include the windows, paving, columns —well, a lot of things and a lot of money. And the city gets nothing in return. It’s simply not a revenue generator,” says Chief Administrative Officer Brett Sciotto. “The cemetery needs to expand, because it’s approaching capacity. The sale of those plots will help support the mansion. So at some point, a portion of the lawn will be used in that capacity.” City Councilwoman Mary Jo Dozier explains further. “The city got into an agreement the Home Extension early on not to let the mansion deteriorate,” she says. At that time, few expected the mansion to evolve into a prime tourist attraction. Now Dozier believes that evolution should be taken into account when making a decision regarding expansion. “I think people are too attached to the area to see it become one big graveyard. I would think we’re talking about just a portion of it being used for burials,. and not anytime soon.” For those worried about the proximity of tombstones to tourists, Dozier suggests rethinking the problem. “First, the cemetery itself is historic, and has an interesting history, just like the mansion does,” she says. “Second, the graves aren’t bothering anybody, are they? And if more separation is needed, I should think a wrought-iron fence would do a good job of keeping the cemetery out of view of the house.”

Riverview Cemetery

Cemetery Supervisor David Carpenter, an amateur historian who lives happily on the grounds of Riverview Cemetery, believes the neighbors should be able to coexist as peacefully as ever despite plans to expand.

“How do you run a dividing line between two important places in history?” he asks. “I think it all goes under the category of pride, and presents a whole picture of historic Clarksville. In fact, the whole area is a jewel linking the new Riverwalk with the cemetery and the mansion,” Carpenter continues. “The mansion and the cemetery have been together for years. There’s no way you can come the mansion without noticing the cemetery. Some people may say, ‘Well, I don’t want to be married next to a cemetery.’ But there are others who would never think of it as an intrusion at all.”

One method of lessening that intrusion has been suggested by Tracy Jackson, a member of the Montgomery County Master Gardeners Association. Jackson, a well-known landscape artist, was asked to come up with a design which would provide a reasonable compromise for both the mansion and the cemetery. “The front lawn could use surface markers and similar techniques, rather than traditional tombstones,” he suggests. Strategic plantings, he says, could actually enhance the appearance of the mansion lawn. “It’s a good compromise, I think, for both the cemetery and the mansion.” Several other options were suggested by Wallace Redd, chair of the city’s Internal Services Committee, which oversees both the city and the mansion. “First of all, we could stop burying people at Riverview, and purchase land for another cemetery elsewhere. Or, we could use crypts, which could be built into the sides of’ the hills which are currently too slopey to use for burials. That would increase the space quite a bit.” Finally, he says, the Smith-Trahern lawn could be used for burials. “But only the first half that’s down there by the road. Of course, we would want to leave them right- of-way and plenty of room for events.” The final solution could also help the mansion stay afloat financially. “Plots at the bottom of the hill would really go for a premium,” he says. “And that could offset the cost of mansion maintenance quite a bit.” In answer to concerns regarding the close proximity of funerals and weddings, Redd says it’s a matter of perspective. “My brother was married in a little country church, and when they walked out the door, the old church cemetery was right there to greet them. Sometimes life and death really do coexist like that, and it’s certainly not the worst thing in the world.” Mansion Director Ruth Fitzgerald may not agree. Having helped the edifice regain its former glory, she is committed to seeing it reach its fullest potential. After studying the mansion’s past, present, and future, she helped draft a petition reading: “We the undersigned are opposed to the expansion of Riverview Cemetery to the front lawn of Clarksville’s Smith-Trahern Mansion. The mansion is a popular, historic landmark for many visiting tourists and a host for many activities each year from July 1998 to June1999 approximately 40,000 people enjoyed Smith-Trahern Mansion. Approximately 293 events were held at the mansion, including wedding and anniversary receptions, club and committee meetings, trainings and workshops, Riverfest Art Show, Chamber of Commerce Membership Drive, Hospice Brunch, and the Clarksville Trees of Christmas.”

Scores of volunteers give unnumbered hours of service to our city to beautify and maintain this local source of pride.  So far, an estimated 200 “Friends and Neighbors of Smith-Trahern Mansion” have all signed the petition at the mansion, including Kay Drew. “I realize it may never be necessary to fight the cemetery. A compromise may be reached that will make everybody happy. But if the issue ever comes before the City Council,” Drew says, “we want to be prepared to protect the mansion as well as we can.” It’s hard for Drew and other lovers of local beauty to rest in peace on the issue. “So many of our historic buildings were destroyed by the tornado, and we’ve lost so many others to time. Here is a building that has been well-preserved, that serves our community, and is beautiful,” she says. “Why tamper with it?”

Submitted by Sandra Stacey


The old wooden post is believed to be the original marker for Valentine Sevier's Grave

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