Last week, twenty years after my first visit to Pike County, I was honored to participate in the restoration and cleanup of Dils Cemetery in Pikeville, KY. Long recognized as a Kentucky historic site, the "Hatfield-McCoy" cemetery was placed on the national registry of historic places in 1976. Formerly the family cemetery of Pikeville mercantile businessman and Union Colonel John Dils, the two acre site on a high hill overlooking the city holds more than 500 graves including those of Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans, influential townspeople and freed slaves. It is thought to be the first integrated burial ground in Kentucky. It is also the final resting place of two generations of my family: my great-great-great grandparents, Randolph and Sarah McCoy and two of their children, Roseanna and my great-great grandfather, Sam and his wife, Martha.
In the fall of 2017, there was considerable damage to the front area of the cemetery, caused by a large tree that had fallen. A number of older headstones were broken and others were toppled over. In the McCoy family area, Roseanna's marker was pushed deeply into the ground with one end sticking up in the air. Sarah's footstone was also askew. One of the posts holding a large granite sign at the cemetery entrance was destroyed and the 600 lb. sign was lying on the ground. The protective fence surrounding the McCoy family area was destroyed. Additionally, dense undergrowth had begun to overtake the wooden steps that lead up to the cemetery. Weeds, trees and other invasive brush covered large areas of the cemetery, obscuring ancient headstones long forgotten. Years of leaves, debris and trash needed to be raked up and removed.
Thanks to months of coordination on the part of Pike County Tourism Director Tony Tackett, on April 27-28, 2018, a small army of committed volunteers, family members and city and county employees began the arduous task. Under the watchful guidance of Lt. Burl Vanover, eight inmates from the Pike County Detention Center labored with chainsaws, weed eaters, pickaxes, shovels and rakes to get the job done. A second crew of four followed up behind them. Hatfield descendent Bob Scott and his neighbor, Mark worked diligently cutting trees and brush and leaf-blowing. Tony and Tourism Marketing Director Jay Shepherd manned rakes and shovels.
By Saturday, much of the work was completed. The undergrowth that had choked the cemetery was removed. The McCoy markers had been restored to their rightful place. The granite sign had been picked up and stood against the remaining post. Flower and bushes were planted at the entrance of the cemetery and around the McCoy family sites. For the first time, Roseanna McCoy, the famed "Juliet" of feud history, had two rose bushes planted at her marker, one for her and one for her baby, Sarah Elizabeth. Wreaths were also laid at the markers in advance of Memorial Day.
Given the effort to restore Dils, it seemed appropriate that we should devout some time to the Hatfield Cemetery as well. Tony, Jay, Bob and I made the one hour drive to Sarah Ann, WV with tools in hand. Along the way, we stopped by the home of Rita and Bob Scott to lay a wreath at the old well there, the last vestige of the McCoy family homesite that was destroyed in 1888. At the Hatfield Cemetery, we pulled up weeds, trimmed back stray growth, raked up grass and leaves and picked up trash. We laid a wreath in honor of the family as well. As the descendant of Randolph McCoy, it was my distinct honor to pay respects to Willam Anderson Hatfield and his family on behalf of mine.
In the coming weeks, additional work will be completed at Dils. The wooden steps to Dils cemetery will be thoroughly cleaned and pressure-washed. The City intends to replace the damaged protective fence as well. It is hoped that the City will install several new metal benches in the cemetery and possibly build new wooden benches at several elevations along the steep entrance steps.
Participating in the cleanup of Dils Cemetery was a rare privilege for me. Twenty years ago, I never could have imagined that one day I would be involved in its cleanup. My grandfather, Eugene was born and raised on Ferguson Creek in Pikeville, just on the other side of the hill from Dils. He grew up listening to tales of the feud, told to him by my great-great grandmother, Martha. The experience of being down on my hands and knees digging in the cemetery dirt somehow brought me closer to him and to the other family members buried there. Dils Cemetery is hallowed ground for the McCoy family. It is a beautiful place of peace and tranquility, a fitting resting place for a family that endured such violence during the feud. It was my honor to be part of its restoration.