Cemetery is a draw, but it needs owner's permission for repair
May 5, 2013 4:00 AM
Eddie McCoy of Port Richey, Fla., visits the graves of Randolph and Sarah McCoy, his great-great-great grandparents, at the Dils Cemetery in Pikeville, Ky.
By Chase Purdy The New York Times
SARAH ANN, W.Va. -- Standing on the back of an Appalachian hillside, Reo Hatfield fixed his gaze over the land of his infamous forebears, a scowl etched across his face.
Before him, the graves in the Hatfield Family Cemetery had surrendered to years of gravity and weather, slender headstones slumped and overgrown, the inscriptions of some erased by time.
The graveyard, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has become a focal point for Mr. Hatfield, 63, a Virginia businessman seeking to restore and preserve the cemetery in hopes of luring tourists eager to learn about the Hatfield-McCoy feud. It is a burial spot for members of both families -- some of whom died in the 19th-century interfamily war over land and family honor.
"They come here with expectations of seeing something special," he said. "But you start up the road, and you can hardly walk up there. And once you get there, the graves are unkept, and the fence that guards the gravesite has fallen down in numerous places."
Four years ago, Mr. Hatfield approached West Virginia officials with a plan to clean up the cemetery, but they have been unable to determine whose land it is. The owner's approval is needed for the project to go forward, so nothing has happened. The lack of progress has frustrated Mr. Hatfield, who called the initiative a good-will effort by both families after their truce in June 2003.
Local tourism departments, along with members of the Hatfield and McCoy families, are working to transform feud folklore into a dependable source of jobs and revenue for Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, a region facing the twilight of coal. In the past year, communities along the Tug Fork, the stream that is the state boundary in the area, have witnessed a surge in out-of-town foot traffic, tourists by the thousands drawn to the region in search of history.
Officials on both sides of the river attribute the increase to "Hatfields & McCoys," a 2012 History Channel mini-series that told the families' story. There is an urgency to capitalize on the show, Mr. Hatfield explained, and to promote the feud as a major draw to the region.
In Pike County, Ky., thousands of state dollars have been funneled to the local tourism department to that end. Tony Tackett, the county's executive director of tourism, said his office had spent close to $40,000 in state money on billboards and a national advertising campaign since April 2012. The campaign included advertisements in O, The Oprah Magazine, and several other publications. State money also bought signs to direct tourists along winding roads to landmarks. And at least three previously unlisted cemeteries and sites nearby have been submitted for National Registry status.
"The mines are shutting down every day," Mr. Tackett said. "We have to put our people back to work."
As Mr. Hatfield left the site of his family's cemetery on an April afternoon, Adam Warren stepped off a rented bus with a tour group. Mr. Warren said he decided to start his own business, Hatfield & McCoy Guided Tours, shortly after the History Channel show ended.
"As soon as the mini-series came out, we had tons of people showing up, looking for sites," he said. "I was home, applying everywhere away from here because I didn't want to work in the mines. But here I am. This is what I do."
The family feud -- which some say started over a pig, and with a stabbing at a polling place -- officially ended in 2003, after more than a century, when the families united in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to show that they could overcome their differences and stand in solidarity, Mr. Hatfield said. The last feud-related death has been traced to the spring of 1947, but a majority of the violence took place in the late 1800s, when dozens of Hatfields and McCoys perished in tit-for-tat skirmishes.
Stepping around the cemetery with his customers -- on that day the Romeos (Retired Old Men Eating Out) of Ashland, Ky. -- Mr. Warren expressed concern about the state of the site. The weeds, mud and boulders leave it looking uninviting, despite the official Department of Interior plaque at the graveyard entrance, he said.
Officials with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History said they had fielded phone calls about the care of the Hatfield Family Cemetery but that the burden of site upkeep fell to the property owner. The state does not police the conditions of sites.
"People are concerned that it be taken care of, that it continue to be mowed, that it's accessible," said Susan Pierce, the deputy state historic preservation officer. "I know my mother would complain if she went up there."
The department's most recent paperwork on the cemetery dates to October 1980, when Evelyn Gannon, then its owner, applied to have it listed on the National Register. At the time, Ms. Gannon listed an address in Bakersfield, Calif., as her primary residence. Efforts by the families and by The New York Times to reach her have been unsuccessful. The local tax assessor's office has no name on file associated with the property, which is not surprising; officials there said cemeteries were not subject to property tax.
At the Sarah Ann post office, about a mile from the cemetery along the curvy Route 44, a postal worker, Fawn Morrison, said that for years, before it became popular with tourists, the cemetery had been a solitary Appalachian spot, a jungle of weeds that made for pleasant getaway hikes on slow afternoons.
By contrast, Dils Cemetery in Pikeville, Ky. -- the grave of the McCoy family patriarch, Randolph McCoy, and other family members -- was once an eyesore, but it has been restored and is now heavily advertised as a must-see spot. Standing in the cemetery with Mr. Hatfield, Randolph McCoy's great-great-great-grandson, Ron McCoy, 49, sympathized with his friend and the rest of the region.
"If tourism goes away, it's still my family," said Mr. McCoy, a finance officer for the state of North Carolina. "But we know the Hatfields and McCoys can be a real boon to this area."