Just down the road from Knoxville’s Lebanon in the Fork Cemetery is another gem worth visiting. Although its tucked away among a mix of warehouses and industrial parks, Asbury Cemetery has a lot to offer.
The history of Asbury Cemetery is hard to find but I cobbled together a few facts. Up until the 1920s, Asbury Cemetery was more often called Pickle’s Cemetery or the Pickle Burying Ground. You can find it in the obituaries in the local newspapers written as such. That’s probably because many of the first people buried there had the last name of Pickle or Pickel.
The first burial recorded is for an infant, R.J.L. Wilson, born and died on Aug. 28, 1832. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Wilson, who are not buried there. But the second oldest burial was Jesse Pickle, who died at the age of 28 in 1848. There are a total of 41 Pickles and 42 Pickels buried in the cemetery, which has a total of about 4,200 memorials recorded on Find a Grave. In many cases, Pickle and Pickel were used interchangeably on some markers. For whatever reason, the burial ground began to be called Asbury Cemetery in the 1930s and the sign (and arch) reflect that.
A Knoxville Dynasty
I plan to dive into more stories from the Pickle/Pickel family in Part II. But this week, I’m going to explore the Kreis family. When I arrived at Asbury, one of the first monuments I saw was for race car driver A.J. “Pete” Kreis and it literally blew my socks off. Some of the Kreis markers are impactful because the family had deep roots in the local monument trade.
Born on Jan. 19, 1900, Pete Kreis was the son of John Abby Kreis and Ida Jane Mays Kreis. His Swiss immigrant grandfather, Harmon Kreis, was among the estimated 31,000 Union soldiers that came from East Tennessee. Afterward, Harmon worked at the Knoxville Marble Company before he going into the quarry business for himself.
After developing several quarries, Harmon and a partner established the Appalachian Marble Quarry Company, which floated huge blocks of marble on rafts down the Tennessee River to Knoxville mills, known then as “Marble City.” Harmon would later serve two years as the reformist sheriff of Knox County, dying in 1937 at age 91. On the back of his marker are the words, “Last Survivor of Troop L, 9th Tenn Cavalry, Civil War.“
Pete’s father, John A. Kreis, owned one of the area’s largest dairy farms, Riverside Dairy and Hatchery. He also owned a national engineering and contracting company, which specialized in large railroad, levee and bridge jobs. His list of customers included the Southern, L&N and Missouri Pacific railroads. Pete would later work with his father and older brothers in construction when he wasn’t tearing up the racetrack.
Having raced since he was 15, Pete was known around Knoxville for his skill behind the wheel and flirting with disaster. On Feb. 22, 1924, Pete had an accident while on a test drive which killed his passenger, 23-year-old car salesman Carroll McCall. The roadster missed a curve and hit a bridge abutment, rolling over and pinning Pete and McCall. The steering wheel had to be removed to free Pete, who went to the hospital with cuts and a shoulder injury.
Pete made his first Indianapolis 500 field in 1925. Driving a Duesenberg, he finished eighth. He didn’t actually complete the race, suffering from exhaustion and being replaced on lap 136. The pace car that year was driven by World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker (whose grave I visited last week in Columbus, Ohio). At the race’s end, Kreis was congratulated for his prowess by Henry Ford.
The following year, Kreis had to back out of the race due to pneumonia. But he lent his car (a Miller Special) to friend Frank Lockhart, who won the race. Kreis continued racing but the Depression forced him to cut back in the 1930s and help his father in his contracting business. He finished 15th at Indy in 1932.
Pete eluded death yet again in June 1933 when the airplane he was flying in faltered after takeoff and crashed into the Tennessee River. He pulled his friend and fellow passenger Carl “Sonny” Rissing, Jr. from the water. Rissing broke several bones and lost part of a finger.
Pete’s Luck Runs Out
On May 25, 1934, Pete and his mechanic, Robert Hahn, were practicing for the Indianapolis 500. The pair was coming around the turn when in front of them a car went into a broadside skid. Kreis made an abrupt maneuver to avoid the collision, which sent his car up on to the wall and over the top. The “Miller-Hartz 2” fell off the south wall and tumbled down the 16-foot banking, hitting a tree and breaking in half. Pete was killed instantly and Hahn died before the ambulance arrived.
Several hundred people attended the funeral at Mann’s Chapel with more than 100 floral offerings that included a 12-foot diameter floral steering wheel. The funeral procession to Asbury Cemetery included more than 100 cars.
An Italian Craftsman
The Kreis family wanted a special monument for Pete that matched the person he was. It took an entire year for them to find the right stone. The block of grey Tennessee marble came from the Kreis family’s Appalachian Marble Quarry Co. When it was completed, the entire monument (including the concrete base) would weigh about nine tons.
The job of carving the monument fell to Italian carver Albert Milani, who came to America at age four to join his father, who was working for the Blue Ridge Marble Company of Georgia. Upon returning to Italy, Milani attended the Art Academy of Carrara, training in design and sculpture from age 9 to 14.
In 1906, he came back to America and traveled the country with his father, conducting on-site sculpturing. Eventually, he settled in Knoxville, where he married Lurley Lee Hickman in 1911 and had four children before her death in 1931. Milani received U.S. citizenship in 1931. He married again in 1934 to Thelma Margaret Hodges and raised two more children.
Milani spent the rest of his life working primarily for Craig Day Marble Company and Candoro Marble Company as a foreman. He made numerous decorative statues for buildings across the country, often in a modern Art Deco style. In Knoxville, you can find his work on the Tennessee Supreme Court on Main Street and the 1912 Holston Building, among others.
Milani worked non-stop for nine weeks to complete Pete’s monument. One article I found said the figure on the left side strongly resembles AAA steward Eddie Edenburn as he displays the checkered flag.
More Tragedy to Come
Tragedy would continue to haunt the Kreis family over the next several years. Pete’s older brother, John E. Kreis, died in the early hours of Feb. 11 1936 in a car crash that occurred near Knoxville’s Central Street underpass. The driver, his friend Robert Simpson, was jailed on a manslaughter charge but I wasn’t able to find out what happened to him. John, 37, left behind a widow and a young son.
Eldest Kreis son Roy Harmon Kreis (I have seen “Ray” used in some instances) would die the following year. His cause of death is spelled out in detail on his marker. While serving in France with the U.S. Army’s 31st Division during World War I, Roy showed strong leadership abilities. But during fighting in October 1918, Roy was severely gassed. After being treated in hospitals in France and England, he returned home for further convalescence in March 1919. He married a woman named Kate and worked with his father as first vice president of J.A. Kreis & Son, Inc. from 1926 to 1931. But he was never the same after the war.
On July 28, 1937, after years of declining health and a heart ailment, Roy died in his sleep. He was buried in the Kreis plot with his brothers Pete and John, and his grandparents.
I cannot fathom the agony Ida Jane Kreis endured over the passage of the 1930s. Daughter Edith Kreis Williams was her only surviving child now. Ida’s health was already poor at the time. She died on Feb. 11, 1939 at age 65.
Kreis family head John A. Kreis carried on as best he could after Ida’s death. His farm fell victim to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Fort Loudoun Dam project. When the dam was built during 1941, it claimed half of a nearby state-owned farm and the Riverside farms fell under imminent domain. Kreis managed to strike a deal with the state. In addition to receiving payment for his farm, he acquired some land off what is now Pellissippi Parkway. He got out of the diary business and started a successful turkey hatchery.
John was also a champion skeet shooter, dominating the Tennessee competition and winning the Kentucky Open title so many times that he was awarded a permanent trophy. He and Pete had often competed together.
John Kreis died in 1945 at age 72. While inspecting the loft of a large turkey barn, he stumbled through an open trap door and fell 10 feet onto a concrete floor. He died from his injuries.
The last Kreis family member, Edith, married Ernest Ralph Williams. They moved to Florida where she died on Jan. 25, 1990 at age 93. She is buried at Woodlawn Park Cemetery South in Miami, Fla.
Next time, I’ll bring more stories from Asbury Cemetery.