A Folk Custom of Respect
Decoration Day is a late spring or early summer tradition where the community comes together to clean common spaces, trails, and cemeteries. Placing fresh flowers on tombstones and plots allows us to remember those who came before us, reconnecting today’s generations with those that came long before. You may know the holiday that was born out of Decoration Day – national Memorial Day – but for the Great Smoky Mountains we will always decorate with life.
The folk custom of Decoration Day, while having been a long tradition of maintaining the gravesites of loved ones in the Smoky Mountains, became the cultural underpinning for a movement in the early 1970s when many families were removed from the area near Fontana Village Resort.
These families were removed from the “North Shore” in 1943 when Fontana Dam was completed. Some were directly impacted by the rising waters of Fontana Lake. Others were indirectly impacted, because Fontana Lake covered most of a road that had run along the north side of the Little Tennessee River before the dam was built. But a formal agreement arrived at by the U.S. Department of the Interior (on behalf of the National Park Service), the Tennessee Valley Authority, the State of North Carolina, and Swain County provided that after World War Two had concluded, a new road would be built through the region, which had become part of the national park.
The promised new road would have allowed these families to once again access the old home sites and 27 cemeteries that, according to their cultural traditions, should be properly cleaned and decorated annually and visited by relatives and friends of the deceased in a religious service in the cemetery known as a decoration (or Decoration Day). In the years after the war, portions of the promised road were indeed built. But by the 1960s the construction ceased at a point just beyond a tunnel under a mountain ridge. This struck many people as odd, and someone appropriately named it the “Road to Nowhere”. The name has stuck ever since.
Today, access to these cemeteries and old family homesteads is only by water. Fontana Village Resort and Marina offers transportation by pontoon shuttle to these cemeteries in the Smokies on Decoration Days. For more information or to get involved, Click Here for North Shore Cemetery and Historical Association’s Facebook page.