My maternal grandmother’s limb of the family tree has always put me in mind of a weeping willow, sort of ethereal and beautiful, but a little sad. Her father died when she was only 10 years old; they nearly starved to death during the depression; her brother died mysteriously in a Manhattan hotel room; and her beautiful sister, in the presence of their mother, was struck and killed by a car while she was rendering aid to others who had been in an accident. Tragic stuff. Our family had visited a number of graves represented by these tragedies, but my mother could not recall the location of the cemetery where her maternal grandparents, Peggy Fitzpatrick and James Hogg Cornett, are buried.
Mom never knew her grandfather James, a dapper, enigmatic man who died of uncertain circumstances. There was a story about a gunshot wound acquired in a shootout … maybe gangrene in the leg … maybe gangrene caused by a gunshot wound. Well, those are the stories we were told, and we had no reason to think otherwise. We were also under the impression that he had been some sort of lawman, but I found a census that shows him as a teacher. Mysterious. Mom did, however, know her grandmother Peggy, a poor but proper lady who was a fine seamstress and served as Perry County, KY Deputy Sheriff. Oh, yes, she did. I found a 1930 census that proves it. So, we did have a law-woman in the family.
My mother was in her early 30s when her grandmother died, and she remembered going to the funeral in Hazard, KY, but her only memories were that it was somewhere near the Blue Goose and that it required climbing a hill to reach the gravesite, not an uncommon circumstance in Appalachia. A cousin had attempted to explain to her where the cemetery was located and described the final approach as feeling like you are driving right up to someone’s house. So, with this limited information and insatiable curiosity, I became determined to find this cemetery.
Over the last few months, I have been climbing the family tree, researching our genealogy and both unlocking and discovering a few mysteries along the way – a fascinating and addictive pastime. Mystery # 1 solved: James Hogg Cornett died December 24, 1926 after a 10-month battle with a brain tumor and, ultimately, hypostatic pneumonia. No gunfight. No gangrene. Well, I suppose there could have been a gunfight or gangrene, but if so, those are not the things killed him. Another James Cornett of Perry County, KY, however, did die 18 years later from a gunshot wound received in a shootout at a roadhouse. Sometimes, this research can ruin a perfectly good family myth.
While doing all of this research, I stumbled upon a list compiled by a Mrs. Howard Johnson in 1977 with the names of those interred at the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY.” Among the names, I found my 2x great-grandparents, Granville Roger and Hettie Hogg Cornett, and their sons, Urban, Folger, Floyd, and my great-grandfather James. Success! However, my great-grandmother Peggy was not among those listed, so was it the right cemetery or not? We assumed James and Peggy were buried next to each other, but were they?
We had come to eastern Kentucky for the annual family reunion of the descendants of Robert S. Jr. and Cornelia Amburgey Cornett – my mother’s paternal Cornett side. You see, my grandparents, Carson and Marguerite, shared a surname before they were married. The familial connection went back several generations, and everyone in the family has the right number of appendages and none of us has tail, so we think we’re all right. In the 1930s, you couldn’t swing a dead bobcat in the mountains of Kentucky without hitting someone with your surname, so romantic liaisons often involved those with some hereditary connection. But British royalty did it on purpose to keep the bloodlines pure, so surely my kin could do it out of necessity or happenstance. Or unabashed love, as in the case of my grandparents, who were crazy about each other. And they were many generations removed from one another on the family tree, unlike those British royalty who married their first cousins. So much for mountain people being “kissin’ cousins.”
But I digress. The morning after the reunion, we set out on an adventure to find this mysterious cemetery that was the final resting place of my grandmother’s closest relatives. Based on the limited information I had, I attempted to search for the cemetery in question using an app called Find-a-Grave, and a few possibilities popped up. With the help of my iPhone’s GPS, we headed into Hazard, KY and followed Siri’s instructions to three different cemeteries, one of which was nonexistent, as far as we could tell. The other two, in Wabaco, did exist but were not the right cemeteries. The first was a tiny, fenced-in plot of about 15 headstones that Siri, remarkably, lead us straight to without a hitch, despite the fact that the cemetery had no name and was tucked away amidst a grove of trees on an unmarked street. On the way to that cemetery, we passed the third, much larger cemetery. So, we took a slow drive through that one, searching scores of headstones for the Cornett name. We saw only one, and it was no one we knew.
Not to be defeated, we headed back toward Hazard in search of assistance. When in search of a locale, ask a local. We saw a little store with an “Open” sign in the window and a sheriff’s vehicle out front, so we pulled into the parking lot. A group of people were maneuvering some kind of machinery next to the shop, but they paid us little attention so we headed inside. An older, bespectacled gentleman was behind the counter waiting on a husky, younger man whose t-shirt indicated he likely went with the sheriff’s vehicle out front. Before the officer could get away, we explained our plight and showed him the list of names I had found for the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY.” Now, Wabaco is neither city nor suburb. It’s just an area that somehow took on a name and was generally described with a hand gesture as being “back over that way.” And this was the shopkeeper’s only offering. The sheriff studied the names and, learning that we had already visited the only cemeteries he knew of, offered a brilliant suggestion. “Go down to the Maggard Funeral Home. They’ll know.” Well, there’s an idea! Ask a funeral home where a cemetery is. Why didn’t we think of that? We thanked them and headed toward the funeral home, which the sheriff assured us was just up the road a piece. I’m not sure what road it was up or how far “a piece” is, but apparently it was not the road we were on or “a piece” is farther than we anticipated. We drove a couple of miles into the heart of Hazard and finally encountered the Engle-Bowling Funeral Home, which we thought would suffice.
Entering the funeral home, we were immediately greeted by the open doors of one of the viewing parlors where a dearly departed person was laid out in preparation for an afternoon funeral. It felt strangely invasive to even look in the room, so we headed down the hallway in search of a living person who might come to our aid. Standing in a second, darkened parlor were two men who greeted us with a nod but were otherwise lacking in curiosity about our presence. We wandered around a bit more, but finding no one else to ask, we inquired of the two men lurking in the dark about the location of an office and headed in the direction they indicated. In what I can only describe as a waiting room sat another two men who were swapping stories as if in a barbershop. After finding no office or any additional men, we ventured back into the darkness and told the first two men our business. They were unfamiliar with the cemetery we sought, but a third man emerged from the darkness and offered that he would go get Clyde. “If anyone’ll know, Clyde’ll know.”
A few moments later, Clyde appeared, having apparently come from the aforementioned but nowhere-to-be-found office. He was a middle-aged man wearing a dark suit and tie, indicating he was likely the funeral director. His black, perfectly coifed hair put me in mind of a toupee, but I don’t think it was one. We again described our plight and presented the list of names associated with the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY.”
“Yea, I think there is another cemetery over that way. I think it’s down near the Blue Goose. You know where the Blue Goose is,” he offered, more in the form of a statement than a question. We said we did. “Well, go past the Blue Goose, and you’ll see a little auto dealership. Just past that, you’ll see a road on your left. I think it’s up there.” One of the barbershop guys agreed, “Yea, there is a cemetery up in there. What’s the name of that road? Chimney Rock?” Clyde did not recall the road’s name but said, “It’s right after the auto lot. Now, if you can’t find it, go to that auto lot and talk to Sammy Smith. Sammy’ll know.”
We thanked them and headed back toward Wabaco. Beyond the Blue Goose and the auto lot, we found the sought-after road, which was indeed called Chimney Rock. Turning onto the gravel road, we drove past a dead pigeon that far-too-closely resembled the initial scene in the funeral parlor, and headed up into a holler. When we reached the top, we encountered an old guy sitting on his front porch swing, watching curiously as this unknown vehicle pulled into the drive next to his house. We told him our business, and he assured us there was no cemetery on that road. So, back down we came, paying our final respects to the dearly departed pigeon.
As suggested, we stopped at the Sammy Smith Auto Sales to seek out the all-knowing Sammy Smith. His dealership was a white trailer with fans whirring inside and a small, covered front porch that offered some folding chair seating. A man emerged through the sliding glass door, and I inquired if he was Sammy Smith. He was. I again related our quest, and Sammy asked to see the list of those resting in the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY” in case he might recognize any of the names. He did not. “Let me call Lucy Anderson. If anyone’ll know, it’ll be her.” He retrieves his cell phone.
“Lucy, there’s a lady here looking for a cemetery. She’s got this list of names. See if you know any of ‘em.” He rattles off some of the names and then listens for a moment.
“… You mean, behind Jeff Strong’s? … They’s a cemetery up there? … Where?”
Two other men had emerged from the trailer – a young man smoking some kind of a strange-looking pipe, about which I chose not to inquire, and an older man balancing himself evenly between his rifle-shaped cane and the porch post. The older man started nodding his head and whispering excitedly to Sammy, “Yea, there is a cemetery up in there. I remember now. You can see it from Jeff Strong’s deck …” Sammy continues to question both Lucy and the man with the cane until he concedes the cemetery’s existence.
The man with the cane offered to show us the way. “I’ll get in my van over there and you can follow me. It’s right up the road here.” I returned to the car, where my mother had been waiting in the air conditioning, and said, “We’re following that van!” And we did. After a half mile or so, the man turned onto a steep, gravel road and slowly led us to the top where he turned around in a wide place behind someone’s house and stopped so that his open window was next to mine.
“Now, you follow me back down and when you get to the mouth of the holler, go across the road and wait. I’m gonna see if I can find an entrance from another road.” Halfway down the road, he stopped, got out, walked to my window while pointing to the hillside and said, “You see that fence right there?” I did. “Well, that’s it. I’m gonna go up this other road and see if I can find where you get in. Now, you go on down to the mouth of the holler, cross the road and wait. I’ll come back and let you know.”
As we started to descend, a rather disturbing noise began to display itself from somewhere within our vehicle. “Do you hear that? Is that our car? It must be his car. No, it’s our car.” It was an awful, screeching, metal-on-metal sort of sound. Nothing you want to hear while driving out of a holler to await further instruction from a man with a rifle-shaped cane. We eased down to the mouth of the holler, crossed the road and parked in a gravel lot in front of a garden center whose signage warned against trespassing. We got out to investigate the noise, but we could find no suspect metal piece causing the sound. So, we waited, wilting a bit in the noonday heat. A few minutes later, the man in the van pulled into the lot and stopped next to us.
“Ok, now, you want to drive around this curve in the road right here, and you’ll see a road on the left called Walker-Cornett Road.” We had noted our namesake road earlier in the day. Then I remembered that the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY” list included some Walkers. I suspected we were onto something. “When you get to the top of that road, you’ll see the cemetery on the left. It says No Trespassing, but you know …”
We thanked him for the information and shared that we were in further need of assistance, as our vehicle was making an odd noise, which we attempted to describe.
“Ah, that’s probably just some dust in your wheel. Happens all the time in these hollers.”
We expressed our continued concern, and he offered to walk to the tire shop that was adjacent to the inhospitable garden center to see if someone could help. Now, it has come to my attention that no one in eastern Kentucky is in a hurry. Apparently, there are no pressing engagements to hone these skills. It’s a slow, easygoing pace, and I envy it tremendously. Our new friend sauntered, then moseyed a while, before easing into an amble on his journey to the tire store 100 feet away. Meanwhile, Mom and I waited in the intensifying July-in-Kentucky sun. Many minutes later, he reappeared, followed by a lumbering young man with a cigarette barely hanging onto his lower lip. After assessing the situation, the young man agreed with the van man’s dust-in-the-wheel theory and meandered back to his shop to retrieve some sort of tool. Knowing this may take a while, I decided to strike up a conversation with the van man, so I asked his name.
The name he offered was Elijah, which pleased and somehow comforted me. He is a round, tallish man, perhaps in his late 60s, with white hair and no teeth that I could see. His easy way and toothless grin had won me over early on, but this was my first opportunity to learn anything about him.
“I like your cane,” I said. It’s always useful to start with a compliment. His lips disappeared into another toothless grin as he announced that he had made the cane himself. I called over my mother, and we oohed and ahhed over it. It really was a beautiful specimen, finely carved and bejeweled with little, silver tacks that formed a cross near the handle. He puffed up a bit and produced his cell phone, which housed a gallery of images showcasing scores of canes he had carved. Then, he scrolled through the images until he reached another gallery featuring the wooden instruments he has built – dulcimers, mandolins, banjos, and some kind of instrument that resembled a cigar-box guitar but was played with a bow, like a violin. He was especially proud of that one. He described his basement workshop and explained his process, which involved wetting and bending the wood to create curves. I told him I had never heard of that method, and he said he thought he had invented it. A truly gifted craftsman. Apparently, his craftsmanship won him a spot among the top 10 pieces in a juried art show in Louisville some years ago. I don’t doubt it a bit.
The tire shop fellow returned with some kind of metal implement and proceeded to beat on the wheel he suspected of making the unsettling noise. Mom drove the car a few feet, which indicated a different wheel might be the culprit, so he walked over and beat on that one a while. I’m not sure what he knocked loose – the aforementioned dust, I suppose – but the sound abated and we were most grateful. Elijah asked what the charge was, and the young man waved him off. My mother insisted on compensating him and handed over a $20 bill, which he accepted before bidding us farewell, never once having looked either of us in the eye.
Elijah provided his phone number and asked that we let him know when we had safely completed our mission to the cemetery, which I thought was very kind. We said our goodbyes and headed toward Walker-Cornett Road. Turning onto the small gravel road took two attempts, as the angle of approach requires a very sharp, switchback sort of left turn. When we reached the top, we discovered why Mom’s cousin had described it as he had. We basically pulled right up in the backyard of someone’s house, stopping in a wide turn-around that appears to be a standard driveway feature of top-of-the-holler homesteads. And as Elijah had promised, there sat the little, no-name cemetery, behind a black, cast-iron fence adorned with a “No Trespassing” sign. We moved the concrete block holding the gate closed and trespassed on the cemetery grounds. One of the first headstones I encountered was a name I recognized from the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY” list. “Mom, I think this is it!” We walked slowly through the recently-mowed cemetery, examining the headstones. There were only about 20 grave markers, and they were somewhat randomly placed. I discovered a row with a large stone that simply said “Cornett” and four smaller stones that read “Granville,” “Hetty,” “Folger,” and “Floyd.” It was the right cemetery. To the left of these stones lay two larger stones, covered with the fresh-cut grass. I brushed away the debris to reveal James and Peggy, my mother’s grandparents. Success. A little further back, we discovered the graves of Granville’s second wife Ellen and their son Miller, as well James’ brother Urban.
We felt great satisfaction in finding this cemetery, though we felt less satisfaction with its condition. It was a strange, nearly inaccessible cemetery with a lawn mower and about a half-dozen motorcycles and their spare parts adorning the back fence line. Not far from this makeshift parking lot, a small shed advertised that it housed the “Miller Cornett Memorial Railroad Museum.” Apparently, Miller Cornett had been an engineer on the L&N Railroad for 45 years, and some of his memorabilia lay behind the padlocked door of this small repository. Leading up to that door was a trail of trash – empty plastic oil jugs and rusted paint cans. It made us kind of sad. To its credit, the cemetery was mowed, which is more than we can say for another cemetery where some relatives are resting at the far end of Hazard. We spent a fair amount of time in the little cemetery, walking, looking, wondering about these long-gone ancestors. I suspect this land was once part of Granville’s farm, and they had decided to create a small, family cemetery on the top of this hill. Over time, the little community of Wabaco grew up around it, walling it off from the outside world.
When we left the cemetery, we drove back to Sammy Smith’s auto lot so we could tell Sammy and Elijah in person how grateful we were for their assistance in finding the lost, little cemetery. They seemed pleased. We hoped we had added a bit of spice to their otherwise routine day. They’d have a story to tell when they got home that night. I told Elijah that my mother wanted to buy one of his canes, but he said he had never sold one and wouldn’t know what to charge. He just gives them to friends in need or nursing home residents. What a nice guy. But he said he would take $120 for his cigar-box, violin-like instrument, which had a name that I’ve now forgotten. Later, he said, “Well, you have my number. Maybe I could come up with a price on a cane.” And it would be worth every penny.
As much as I would love to have finagled an invitation to Elijah’s workshop to see his art and possibly purchase a cane, daylight was burning, and we had to make our way back to Louisville before dark. What an unexpectedly good day it had been. We saw parts of Hazard we never knew existed. We made the acquaintance of some of the most hospitable and friendly people I had ever met. And we found the long-lost resting place of our ancestors. After saying our goodbyes to Sammy and Elijah, we headed out of Hazard, feeling the spirits of long-ago loved ones bidding us farewell.