Located on a small knoll off the Toll Branch Road in the Milligan College community is the historic Patton-Simmons Cemetery.
The cemetery, one of the oldest in Carter County, contains scores of graves with aged stones and markers. Mountains and hills stand tall overlooking the cemetery much like sentinels protecting the dead. Soon, those same hills will be ablaze with autumn color.
Records indicate the cemetery, originally known as the Pattons Chapel Graveyard, was organized July 25, 1891, with T.W. Patton serving as president of the association, J.H. Persinger, vice president, and W.A. Miller, secretary.
The first recorded grave was Alfred M. Carter Patton, born May 7, 1834. He was buried in the cemetery Sept. 20, 1836 — 167 years ago. The original part of the cemetery was donated by the Patton family, with the best known of the Pattons being Mary McKeehan Patton, an unsung heroine of the Revolutionary War. Her historical importance is based on the fact that she provided gunpowder to the Overmountain Men for the battle at King’s Mountain in South Carolina. Her grave is marked by an elaborate stone, which towers above all the others in the cemetery and reads: “One of that heroic band who established a civilization in the wilderness. She made the powder used by John Sevier’s troops in the battle of King’s Mountain.”
The dates on her stone are 1751-1836.
All around Patton’s grave are smaller stones marking the graves of family members and neighbors — many of them Pattons, some Gourleys, Collinses, Treadways, Britts, Persingers, Kytes, Millers, Mosleys, Paynes, Simmons, Taylors, Shells and Youngs.
Records from the cemetery reveal that as more land was needed for expansion, the Simmons family, whose land adjoined the cemetery “moved back” their fences and added the necessary space. Later, two other additions — the Daniels Addition and Nuckles Addition — were added.
The cemetery contains numerous old markers, aged by time and weather. The inscriptions on some are indelible. Some simply include the name of the dead and the dates of their birth and death. Others have inscriptions such as that of Mollie Hodge, which reads: “She bore the cross. She wears the crown.”
The marker of Fred Gourley reads: “Mild and gentle as he was brave. When the sweetest love of life he gave.”
At the entrance of the cemetery are six rows of small wooden benches and a wooden podium and a taller, shorter bench behind it, no doubt used in bygone days when there were decoration services on Memorial Day and Sunday afternoons in the summer.
Here in this cemetery, history hides in the folds of today. Here lies in this cemetery men and women who helped build the Milligan College and Powder Branch communities; men and women like Mary Patton and her husband, John Patton, who bought land and waded into a wilderness to shape their future. They tore through woodlands, cutting trees, clearing thickets and displacing Indians to carve farmland. They built houses, cobbled together communities, planted seeds and families.
They were pioneers and when they died, they were buried in quiet corners of their land. The Patton-Simmons Cemetery is appropriately situated on a hill — like many cemeteries of old — so the dead and living who came to mourn can, on a clear day, see forever. In the community below and all around, the next generation of leaders is being nurtured.
It is a cemetery where both the famous and the unknown, the rich and poor rest side by side. Each has a story to tell. Some headstones can’t help but make you wonder about the life of the person buried there. So, it is with every cemetery. But, once the curtain is drawn, their lives forever remain cloaked in mystery.
Though many of the stones in the cemetery are simple, symbols engraved on them express things that words alone could not. A broken column pays tribute to a life cut short, doves symbolize love and purity, and an angel with outstretched wings direct the way to a heavenly afterlife.
As the sun rises each morning and its rays spread warmth and light over the Patton-Simmons Cemetery, just as surely it will set when evening comes. All are born to die, and that’s the story of every cemetery.