New life for an old Sylva graveyard

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

After decades of neglect, an overgrown hill in Jackson County holding the remains of residents of the old Jackson County Home was nearly forgotten. Thanks to the determination of one man, however, the old cemetery has been saved.

Today, Alvin Fradey serves as the Jackson County Cemetery’s unofficial caretaker, working to identify and preserve the final resting place of dozens of individuals.

Fradey’s interest in old cemeteries dates back to his childhood — he remembers visiting the graves of family members interned at the Jackson County Cemetery when he was young. When Fradey grew up, he joined the military, an experience that would keep him away from home until 1987. By the time he returned, the cemetery had completely overgrown and was little more than a distant recollection in the minds of a few locals.

Fradey returned to Sylva just in time to be informed of plans to build a recreation center on top of the burial site. It was at this point, Fradey says, that his childhood hobby “turned into an obsession.” With the help of family and friends, including the old manager of the Jackson County Home, Johnny Shephard, Fradey embarked on a mission to save the Jackson County Cemetery.

It wouldn’t be easy. After clearing the massive amounts of shrubbery that had grown on the site, Fradey was faced with the task of figuring out who was actually buried there. Since almost every site was completely unmarked, he would first have to determine where each body was located in the graveyard.


A final resting place

The treatment received by the deceased residents of the Jackson County Home would not be classified as a proper burial in today’s terms. The Home, in operation from 1908 until 1986, housed the mentally handicapped of Jackson County. When a resident of the Jackson Home passed away, they received a hasty, no-frills burial by the inmates at the local jail. The cemetery was also the final resting place for some of the county’s poorest individuals. The last body was interred there in 1956.

At one time, a map existed showing the locations of gravesites at the Jackson County Cemetery, but Fradey has been unable to locate it. He was successful in discovering the names of some of the people buried there through family bibles and county records — today, a Jackson County Cemetery Book identities 24 people. But even with this information, Fradey had no idea where the bodies lay. He knew where two sets of his great aunts and uncles were buried, as well as a half brother — but other than the sites of two Confederate soldiers, the locations of the other residents in the cemetery had been lost with time.

To accomplish his goal of locating every gravesite, Fradey employs a method taught to him by his grandmother, known as “dowsing.” The practice entails holding two copper rods parallel to one another. When walking over a gravesite, the rods cross, indicating the presence of an underground mass. Fradey has been successful in locating roughly 80 graves in this manner — findings that have been confirmed by the Geoscience Department at Western Carolina University through the use of ground-penetrating radar technology.


Preserving the past

Today, tiny red and blue flags indicate graves that have been located at the Jackson County Cemetery. Fradey hopes one day to raise the money for granite headstones for each site. The county supports his efforts, and several years ago established the Jackson County Cemetery Board, of which Fradey is chairman. The group is appropriated about $5,000 a year to operate. The money has helped them purchase concrete steps and wooden benches that line the nature trail leading up to the cemetery.

Currently, Fradey and his associates are working to preserve another gravesite — the old Love family cemetery behind the Sonic on N.C. 107 in Sylva. The cemetery houses the remains of several Confederate war veterans.

“We went in there and cleaned it up — the Sons of Confederate Veterans are currently going up there and taking care of the gravesites, and are in the process of placing Confederate markers,” Fradey said.

The Jackson County Cemetery Board continues to work to preserve various cemeteries in the area. Fradey worries sometimes, however, about how the influx of newcomers will affect their efforts. He and his board members took the opportunity during the recent subdivision moratorium to submit a request to the town planning board so that at proposed development sites, “we can be notified first and make confirmation of graves, which cannot be removed by any means.”

“Jackson County is 65 percent outsiders, and the rest locals. Where you’ve got 30 to 35 percent locals, they’re in favor of preserving the past,” Fradey says.

He just hopes that the rest of the growing population will follow their lead.

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