Throughout the past eight years of collecting and digitizing documents and photographs related to the history of Smyth County, there is a chronic problem that never ceases to frustrate me — unidentified photos. There are stacks upon stacks of pictures in museum and library collections all across the country that bear the title, “Unknown,” or some other synonym that conveys the same message. These images, once treasured by someone, somewhere, have landed at the mercy of an archivist, who is challenged with the task of preserving the legions of these now anonymous faces that gaze across the generations. Facial recognition technology is being utilized to help identify some of these lost family members and reunite them with their rightful owners. Google reverse image search is also assisting in the identification of unknown photographs of places.
Recently, I had the opportunity to “visit” with a well-known Smyth County historian, who helped clarify the stories behind several unknown images I had been given on a CD several years ago. I spent a few hours at the Smyth County Museum in downtown Marion one Saturday, looking through a collection of Clara Hill Carner’s notes. Within the files, I recognized images that, until that point, were occupying space in the “unknown” folders of my computer hard drive. Clara’s handwriting is easily recognizable. Her carefully written cursive notes occupy space in conspicuous places on many items related to local history. Some criticize her blatant disregard for the sacred space of photographs, saying she ruined the integrity of the images. I have discovered that these messages are lessons from a historian who can no longer tell her stories in person. She left little bits of herself behind, to educate future generations on our rich local history.
One of her notes served to pique my curiosity about the history of Royal Oak Cemetery and the building that originally occupied the space where the Henderson School now sits. For several years, I had seen within my “unidentified” files an image of an old building surrounded by a wooden fence. There was a copy of the same picture in Clara’s files with writing on the front and back. Her notes gave a detailed history of the structure: “Old Marion High School. Stood on location of present grammar school. Original site was the old Royal Oak Presbyterian Church and graveyard. Church St. and Strother St.”
On the back of the photograph, she offered another story about the site. “When present building was erected, many skeletons were exhumed and buried in Round Hill Cemetery. As my father’s home was on corner of Church and Strother Streets (site of rock wall), my mother, brother Lawrence, and I saw the skeleton of Major E.A. Scott and two or three of his children put into a pine box and buried in Round Hill. Locks of grayed, black hair were well preserved in Mr. Scott’s grave, also his shoes.”
Her notes offer a timeline relative to the history of this important site in Marion’s history. “On July 7, 1883, the Trustees of Royal Oak Presbyterian Church sold the old brick church to Smyth County School Board for $600. It was partitioned into three rooms.
“In 1895, the old church building was torn down and this four-room brick building was erected on the site. About 1904, this was torn down and an eight-room building with auditorium was built for $20,000. “During the summer of 1962, the Primary School building was modernized inside for offices for the Smyth County School System, the County Health Department, and the County Farm and Home Demonstration Agents. A new Primary School was built on Stage Road near the new High School.”
After doing a little more research, I found a three-page article that she wrote on Aug. 25, 1977, which went into greater detail about the Church Street property. In this document, she clarifies that the Royal Oak Presbyterian Church bought the property at the corner of North Church and Strother Streets in 1853. They moved to this location from their original meetinghouse that sat in the area where the old Royal Oak Cemetery is now. That location served them for 77 years.
Once the church moved from behind what is now Marion Baptist Church, the congregation established a cemetery at the North Church Street location. This site was “used until 1885, when a new church was built at the corner of Main and Sheffey Streets,” where the current Royal Oak Presbyterian Church now sits. After the relocation in 1853, the old Royal Oak Cemetery became inactive, “with a burial there every now and then. The last burial was recorded in 1914.”
This final burial was researched by Clara Hill Carner. The headstone indicated the name of the last person to be buried at the old Royal Oak Cemetery was Stephen E. Brinkley. He was born on May 11, 1889, and died on Jan. 11, 1914, at the age of 25. A railroad engine was carved at the base of the stone. By the time she returned to the gravesite on Jan. 1, 1959, she discovered that the grave had sunken in and taken the stone along with it. For future reference, Clara noted that the grave was in the “level section of the southeastern part of the cemetery, not far from the N&W railroad track.”
The story of this young man was told in his obituary, which appeared in the Marion News on Jan. 16, 1914. The headline read, “Eugene Brinkley Dies from Injuries.”
“Eugene Brinkley, son of Mr. and Mrs. C.W. Brinkley, who was injured in service last Friday at Chilhowie, as fireman on Train Number 83, died January 11, 1914, in a Roanoke hospital. He was supposed to have been looking out for signals as they were going to take the siding for another train. His head struck the beam of the bridge, throwing him into the river.
“He was unconscious when the members of the train crew reached him and never became rational up to the time of his death.
“The remains were taken to Seven Mile Ford Sunday night. His funeral was held January 13, by the Rev. J.A. Early, Methodist, assisted by the Brotherhood of T.F.& E., after which the remains were brought and laid to rest in the Royal Oak Cemetery in Marion.
“He is survived by his father and mother, four sisters, Mattie, Clara, Reva, and Mrs. Kate Friend, of Bluefield, WV, and six brothers, William of Roanoke, Ed, C.W., Bolden, and Mack Brinkley, who is with the U.S. Army and could not reach here.”
Upon finding the obituary, Clara Hill Carner wrote to one of Eugene’s brothers, asking if any other family members were buried in the cemetery. In June 1977, Bolden Brinkley responded by saying that he had a brother and sister buried in Royal Oak. He said that his sister, Virginia, was buried there first, when she died at the age of three. He told Clara that, although he was small when she died, he did remember that there were stones placed at her grave.”
This is just one example of the stories that were left behind by a conscientious Smyth County historian. Thank goodness Clara took the time to leave a trail of cursive captions that others could follow many years after she was gone. What are we doing in our own families to make sure those who come after us will know our stories? Take the time to leave your own trails for others to follow. Someday, it will be well worth the effort.
If you have a story about the history of Royal Oak Presbyterian Church/Cemetery, I may be contacted at email@example.com.