McClusky Cemetery in Clay County

Coffin shaped graves at the McClusky cemetery in Clay County become visible only in the fall of the year and after the lake has dropped.  Photograph courtsey of Ronald Dishman.


The day of November 4, 2005, began with a beautiful sunrise, but in a short while, clouds moved in, and windy conditions, which began the night before, continued to make the day a blustery one. There was some concern that the strong winds might cancel plans members of the Overton County Historical Society and their invited guests had for a trip to Clark Bottom in Clay County. But as departure time neared, the wind cooperated enough to give a green light for the trip. The group gathered on the dock of Willow Grove Marina where they were escorted by way of a pontoon boat to the location of a graveyard that normally is underwater for most of the time, and becomes visible only when the lake is really low, usually around this time of year. Those present for the trip were: Ronald Dishman; Jean Norrod; Louise Stover; Roy and Elaine Pennington; Kelly and Emily Sells; Larry and Sheryl Shell; and Darren Shell. The Shells, owners of Willow Grove Marina, had provided an earlier trip for some members of the Historical Society, and were kind enough to do the same for an additional trip on this particular day. Darren Shell had been guest speaker at a meeting of the Historical Society earlier in the week. At that meeting, he shared information about the town of Willow Grove, and how he came upon the startling discovery of the cemetery located in Clark Bottom, and his relentless search to determine its name.

As we crossed the lake heading toward our destination, we were able to look down upon the foundation and steps of the Willow Grove high school. It was an eerie feeling to see quite clearly these remains, especially after hearing the story of how the grave of a son of Edward Irons, for whom Irons creek is named, an early settler in the 1700's, had been discovered beneath the steps of the school. The young man died tragically at the age of 18 after hitting his head on a limb of a walnut tree while riding horseback. He was buried on top of a shale hill where his casket was discovered in 1936 when the Willow Grove High school was built on the site. Edward Irons was so distraught over his sonís death, that not only did he kill the horse his son had been riding, but he also cut down the walnut tree that caused the injuries and death of his beloved son. With the wood from the tree, he fashioned his sonís casket that was many, many years later disturbed with the building of the Willow Grove high school. After its discovery, it was put back where it had been found, and cement steps for the high school were placed on top of the burial site. Those very steps are still visible just beneath of waters of the lake today.

As we continued on our journey, I couldnít help but wonder about the many people whose homes and farms had once stood where we were traveling across by water. What hardships they endured having to give up their property and homes because of the building of the dam. Stories have been told that there were some folks who stuck it out until the bitter end, refusing to leave their homes, and were forced out at the very last minute when the men and machinery arrived to take everything down. Itís hard to even imagine how they must have felt.

It wasnít long until our destination could be seen, and even at some distance from the shore, the outline of graves in the red clay soil of Clark Bottom were very evident. I had seen pictures of the graves prior to this trip showing the perfect outline of homemade caskets, but for the life of me, I couldnít begin to figure out how this could be. Darrenís explanation is as follows: "If you were to dig a grave in Tennessee, you would probably encounter different layers of soil. You would dig through top soil and then into clay, if you didnít hit rock first. Once something is buried in clay, the clay settles in around it and forms a bit of a shell or casting. If the buried item was a pine box, it would eventually decay and the soil above would sink into the hole filling it over the years. The clay would hold the exact shape of the buried casket, even if the casket was gone. Now imagine the red clay soil of Clark Bottom. As the water rises and falls throughout the year, the top soil is gently and slowly washed away. If there was only three feet of soil above the slate rock, and a casket measuring over a foot deep was buried there, then after two feet of erosion, those casket shaped holes would emerge from the clay revealing the soft silty contents of long ago graves. This is precisely what happened in Clark Bottom. Six months of the year those open holes that should have never seen the light of day again are warmed by the autumn sun and again seen by human eyes."

A total of 30 graves can be seen, although a book by Walter E. Webb written in the late 1960's and early Ď70's lists 15 names of those buried there and goes on to say that there were 68 unknown graves, making a total of 83.The remains from these graves were supposedly moved to the St. John Cemetery near Lily Dale. The names and dates Mr. Webb listed are: Benjamin F. Johnson - 1846-1877; A.W. Smith - 1847- 1905; M.C. McClusky, inf. - 1892 - 1893; W.P. McClusky - 1892-1895; J.B. McClusky - 1818-1880; Mary Walthall - 1838-1877; Elizabeth Willis - no date; Paulina Davis - no date; Mary E. Draper - 1871-1876; Ortman M. McClusky - 1899-1900; Catherine McClusky - d: 1849; W.J. McClusky 1890-1892; Fanny Wendell - 1835-1862; Elisza D. Davis - 1861-1879; Julia Jones - 1876 - 1877. As was the tradition many years ago when burying the dead, all bodies were placed heads westward and feet eastward. It is said that the reason for this was that the coming of the Lord would be in the east, and thus those who had died would witness that event by facing the east. Itís quite obvious that a lot of the graves were those of infants or small children. The exact outline of handmade caskets still remain in the soil today. This is one of the examples of something that just has to be seen to be believed.

Darren Shellís quest to determine the name of this cemetery was quite lengthy and involved, but finally after much frustration and endless hours of searching, he made an inquiry by email that resulted in the answer. McClusky cemetery was the name he searched so long and hard to find. Since his startling discovery, he, along with the entire Shell family, have done their best to see that the "place would now be documented in a way that is respectful and historical. That the almost forgotten names of long ago would be spoken and remembered, that the mothers and children and entire families that died would all be remembered." In an earlier story I did about Dale Hollow lake, I quoted James Hunter, a well known local historian, who said: "Much has been written about Willow Grove, the town that drowned. One early historian of this area stated that Willow Grove was the first permanent white settlement in the Upper Cumberland." Itís good to know that through the efforts of Darren Shell and his family, the rich history of Willow Grove will not be lost and discarded, but will be preserved and passed on for future generations. Without his diligence search, a task that involved many dead ends and more than enough reasons just to give up, the cemetery that still has many unanswered questions, at least is known by its rightful name. Fictional books written by Darren are available at the Antique Market and the Paper Place. He is presently compiling a book of Dale Hollow history, but it is not yet available.