PETROS, Tenn. (WATE) — A cemetery outside the old Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary is in disrepair and volunteer caretakers want to see it cleaned up.
Brushy Mountain closed 12 years ago and is now a tourist attraction operated by a private group and directed by the Morgan County Economic Development Authority. The cemetery is still owned by the state.
When an inmate died at Brushy Mountain his family was informed, but if the body was never claimed, it was buried at the prison cemetery. It’s believed the last prisoner buried at the graveyard was in the early 1960s.
Folks who live nearby in Petros want to restore dignity to the cemetery. Tania Jones, Don Cox and Charlie McGhee are concerned and aren’t liking what they’re seeing at the site. There are no marked gravestones and the weeds and grass are practically knee-high.
“The majority of it is all covered up, you can’t even see the stones anymore it’s unbelievable,” Jones said of the cemetery.
Cox grew up next to Brushy Mountain. His father and grandfather worked there. McGhee, who has lived in Petros all his life, once worked at the prison. Since 2019 both men were volunteer caretakers who kept the cemetery spruced up, but at age 85, they can’t do it anymore.
“We worked our butts off,” McGhee said. “Neither one of us is able. We’re too old now. The biggest thing we want is to get it up kept and make it look like a cemetery.”
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“They buried the first man here in 1896, they buried the last one in 1963 down on the south end,” Cox said.
It doesn’t resemble a cemetery anymore, it used to before the historic prison closed in 2009.
“You just look at it, it looks like a trash dump,” McGhee said. “The Department of Corrections ought to hide somewhere. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
About two years ago Cox used the centuries-old method of finding gravestones with his divining rods, two y-shaped copper rods that provide vibrations for dowsers.
“I get a stronger reading as I get over his head and this memorial sitting to the left of me I found about three or four bodies,” Cox said.
It was Cox who located the gravesites, but with no record of more 600 men buried here and no gravestones with names on them he did the next best thing to preserve the dignity of the site.
“I put a headstone up, a field rock headstone because it needed to be done and nobody else would do it.”
From death certificates, Cox identified about 130 men buried at the prison cemetery but that leaves hundreds more unidentified.
“Exactly where they are buried nobody knows,” Jones said. “But there are like 630 graves here that nobody can even get to.”
Leading to the cemetery is a dirt road with huge ruts that only a vehicle with four-wheel drive can navigate.
WATE 6 On Your Side contacted the state Department of Corrections and sent pictures showing the cemetery’s condition. We received no response.
“I want to see it kept mowed, I want to see the road built over here,” Cox said. “There needs to be a flag put up. There is probably a veteran over here.”
“It’s very disrespectful to the people who are buried here, their family members, to any of their family that are still surviving,” Jones said.
On Wednesday, Sept. 29, WATE 6 learned of new developments with the conditions of the cemetery. The private company that operates Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary said it will send work crews to the graveyard. The Morgan County Economic Development Authority tells us the clean-up may begin as soon as Thursday, Sept. 30.
As for that roadway leading to the cemetery, it too will be reconditioned. The prison has become a well-visited tourist attraction with a distillery, restaurant and overnight accommodations in one of the prison cells.