About a year ago, Scott Railey, the pastor at Hillabee Campground Methodist Church, was approached by a member of his congregation about the state of the church's graveyard.
They agreed that the graveyard was worse for wear and began a cleanup effort. The 150 or so graves had become overgrown and they knew there were some graves with missing headstones.
The church hired a group out of Nashville to locate the lost graves. What they found surprised everyone.
“We had reasoned that there were about thirty missing graves,” Railey said. “I noticed that in the center of the cemetery there were no markers at all.”
The group started on the western treeline of the cemetery and worked east.
“The first row we hit, it was one unmarked grave after another,” Railey said. “By the end of the day it was almost a spiritual experience.”
They found 171 unmarked graves.
They found so many graves that they ran out of stakes to mark them with. They had to send someone to get more as they resorted to marking the sites with spray paint.
The oldest of the marked graves date back to the early 1800’s. The unmarked graves are assumed to be younger.
Forgotten to history, there is no way to tell who is buried in the unmarked graves. The church sits along an old wagon trail, and it was common for those who died while traveling to be buried at the nearest church down the road.
“Many times while they were searching, they would say ‘here are the bodies of two children,” Railey said.
The radar operators look for trench marks where the soil has been removed by a shovel. Two small trenches next to each other tell a disconsolate tale.
The church plans to purchase granite markers for all of the once forgotten graves.
The graveyard holds many more mysteries as well. West of the graveyard is a wooded area. Rocks among the trees mark what is believed to be the places where slaves and others were buried.
Railey plans to clear the overgrown vegetation around the assumed slave graves and ask the group from Nashville to return to find the remaining lost graves of Hillabee.