Some years ago, my husband and I discovered a bed and breakfast in Monterey, Tenn. called the Garden Inn at Bee Rock. The first time we stayed there was after enjoying Jazz Fest in Murfreesboro, something we used to do quite often.
Monterey is located about 94 miles east of Nashville on what’s called the Cumberland Plateau. If you’ve ever driven I-40 to or from Nashville to Knoxville, you’ve driven across the Plateau.
Once called Standing Stone, Monterey was renamed (and incorporated) in 1893 when the newly formed Cumberland Mountain Coal Company turned the town into a center of development for the coal and lumber industries coming to life in the area. A contest held to rename the town resulted in it be changed to Monterey, Spanish for “King of the Mountain”.
Bee Rock is a mountain outcropping next to the Garden Inn that people have been visiting for decades. Some take a picnic to enjoy while scanning the gorgeous mountain views. New brides get their pictures taken against the beautiful natural backdrop.
Chris and I have enjoyed visiting the inn several times since that first visit and talking to owner, Mike Kopec. A Long Island native that still holds onto his accent and gift for story telling, Mike knows how to make his guests feel at home.
In October 2016, we decided to return to the inn after a (too) long hiatus. It was a relaxing weekend and we enjoyed catching up with Mike. More important, my husband sweetly offered to take me to any nearby cemetery I wanted to visit!
Whittaker Cemetery’s first official burial was in 1832, with the death of Vina Jackson Whittaker. Vina was the mother of Thomas Jefferson Whittaker, an important figure in Monterey history that I’ll get to a bit later.
Whittaker Cemetery has about 1,700 memorials on Find a Grave, but I suspect there are hundreds more buried here in unmarked graves. A number of field stones can be found throughout the cemetery.
What you’ll notice after you start wandering about is a handful of a very unusual kind of grave that I’d only seen photos of in the past.
The first time I saw one of these online I was baffled because they look like a small tent resting on top of the ground.
I’ve since learned that this style, often called a tent or comb-style grave, is unique to the Cumberland Plateau and a few other areas. Hundreds of them exist near Albany, Ky. and across Tennessee, mainly in the counties of Fentress, Overton, Putnam, White, Warren , Van Buren and Coffee. They’re found in limited numbers in northern Alabama and Arkansas. Whittaker Cemetery is in Putnam County.
The principal material is sandstone from the Hartselle Formation, which occurs in outcroppings in the area and in Northern Albama. Other materials used to a lesser degree are limestone, tin or metal, concrete, and on rare occasions marble. The word “comb” is an old architectural term that refers to part of a roof.
Variations can be seen depending on the area. In Overton County, the sides are often supported by an iron rod while in White County, they’re supported by a triangular end section of stone inserted underneath. While some are not inscribed, others may have a separate grave marker or inscription on side of the slab rock. You can see that the two graves in the picture above have a separate grave marker, but they’re not easy to read.
So why would anyone mark a grave like this? There’s a theory that as old wooden coffins deteriorated, the earth on top of the grave sunk. Today, we have cement vaults to prevent that. A stone tent over the sunken grave would have kept animals (who grazed in cemeteries to keep them from getting overgrown) from falling into a sunken grave, and prevented plants from growing in the soil. In the days before power mowers, the easiest way to keep a cemetery mowed was to allow livestock to graze it.
Dr. Richard Finch of Tennessee Tech’s research on tent graves is quite extensive and can explain them far better than I can. You can learn more about that here and see pictures of more of them here. Finch took note of 3,158 tent graves in 404 cemeteries along the western front of the Cumberland Plateau.
The time period for tent graves generally is between the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, but it can vary a little. Unfortunately, time and nature can be unkind to this style of marker. This tent grave for S.D.L. Young is coming apart at the top.
By contrast, I found out quite a bit about the brief life of Meekel E. France Watson. Born in 1915, she was the daughter of Tennessee natives Wade France and Mary Verbel France. She and her future husband, Herschel, both grew up in the Monterey area. They married on April 7, 1930 in Lake County, Ind. at the age of 15. Herschel was 21.
According to the 1930 Census, Meekel and Herschel were living in Chicago, Ill. where Herschel was working for the railroad.
Sadly, Meekel died on Dec. 9, 1935 for unknown reasons. The 1940 Census indicates Herschel stayed in Chicago, working as a switchman for the railroad. He remarried a woman named Lucille who had a son of her own. Herschel’s marker lays in front of Meekel’s upright one.
Earlier, I mentioned Thomas Jefferson “T.J.” Whittaker. I counted about 50 Whittakers as being buried at Whittaker Cemetery on Find a Grave, but I’m sure there are plenty more.
T.J. was the son of John Whittaker III, whose father John Whittaker Jr. was born around 1761 in Pitt County, N.C., and served in the Revolutionary War. John Jr. and John III came to Putnam County early and were both there for a couple of years. What happened after that is questionable because I’ve seen various versions from different family members. Some of the Whittakers moved to Madison County, Ala.
But T.J. stayed in Monterey. In 1842, he married Nancy Dillard Clark and they had several children. He must have done fairly well there because he amassed quite a bit of land over the years.
In the 1890s, the Cumberland Mountain Coal Company arrived in Putnam County. It was T.J. Whittaker who sold several hundreds of acres of his land to the Company. I don’t know how much money he got from the deal but I’m sure it was a handsome sum at the time.
One of the more unusual tent graves I saw at Whittaker Cemetery is a bit of a puzzle because I’m not sure who it belongs to. The temporary marker in front of it indicates it belongs to Arthur Pippin, who died in 1982. That’s awfully recent for a tent grave.
Arthur does have a military marker memorializing his service in World War I. He and his wife, Viola, had moved out to California by 1940. He died in 1982 in Idaho but his family had his remains brought back to Monterey for burial in Whittaker Cemetery.
Next week, I’ll be back at Whittaker Cemetery to share some of the more traditional gravestones and explore more about this part of the Cumberland Plateau.
Loren Rhoads said:
Wow, that’s fascinating! I’ve never seen tent grave monuments before.
Kristyl Martinez said:
Thank you for sharing. T.J. Whittaker is my 4th great grandfather.
Kristyl Kimes-Martinez said:
Thomas Jefferson Whittaker is my fourth great grandfather. Thank you sharing so many details of the cemetery.
Hello, Kristyl! That’s awesome about T.J. Whitaker being your fourth great-grandfather! He definitely made an impact on that community that lasted beyond his lifetime. It’s a lovely cemetery and a true gem. I enjoyed visiting it.
Kristyl Martinez said:
Thank you. I really enjoy learning about his life and the history of the area. My maiden name is Kimes, and I’m hoping to find some of the Kimes cemeteries. I also have ancestors in the woodcliff cemetery. One of them is Bartheny Swafford, she was called the witch of woodcliff.
Blake E Robinson said:
What a great story T.J. Whittaker is my 3rd great grandfather. My Mother Lula Faye Henry Robinson is buried right there in Whittaker Cemetary.
Thank you, Blake! I’m so glad you liked what I wrote. Mr. Whitaker lived quite a life, didn’t he? I actually returned to Monterey just a few weeks ago and visited several more cemeteries in the area. It’s a beautiful part of Tennessee.
T. J. Whitaker is my 2nd great granduncle, my great great grandmother’s brother. My great great grandmother was Permelia Emmaline (Emma) Whitaker Henry, so John Hancock Whitaker III and his wife Delilah Vina Jackson Whitaker (first buried in the Whitaker Cemetery in 1832), are my great-great-great grandparents. They are one of the very first settlers of that area of Standing Stone. His picture use to be displayed in the library there in Monterey, not sure if it still is or not but I have seen it.