BRISTOL, Va. – The autumn wind whispers through the trees surrounding the old Susong Cemetery, hidden on a hillside behind the old Food City on Euclid Avenue. Amid the cheerful chirping of birds, a weathered man wanders through the old broken tombstones, pointing out the graves of the original family members.
“These are the original owners,” said Ralph Roark, pointing to two curved stone sarcophagi in the older section of the cemetery. “The Susongs, they’re right there. They weren’t planning on turning this into a cemetery. But the first lady died, two days before Christmas 1836, and she was buried on Christmas Day.”
Roark, 75, has been caretaker for cemetery for more than 20 years. He knows it better than anybody and even has family buried there. The nine-acre site holds approximately 1,300 graves.
He went on to explain that two of the Susong slaves who used to help Mrs. Susong wash clothes were also buried at the cemetery.
“Most of the slaves here that we know of don’t have a head marker,” Roark said. “The Susongs were one of the few families that allowed the slaves to be buried in the family plot.”
The family owned much of the surrounding land, including the adjoining neighborhood, the ball fields, and what Roark says was called “the Furnace Bottom,” which included the area where Bristol Metals and Bristol Lingerie were and where the offices of The Bristol Herald Courier are today.
Over the years, the cemetery has suffered from neglect. The majestic trees became overgrown and many older tombstones were leaning or had been knocked over and broken either through vandalism or the effects of time. Discarded liquor bottles and beer cans littered the grounds.
For years, Roark has been dedicated to maintaining and improving the cemetery. He and his two sons run Ralph’s Mowing and mow the grounds regularly. Roark has enlisted the help of volunteers, but the cemetery still needed attention.
“It takes time and manpower to keep it up,” Roark explained. “Right now, it’s just me and Bunny Mutter. I’m 75 years old now and I’ve got two bad shoulders, neuropathy of the feet and COPD so I can’t do what I used to do.”
Finally, Roark appealed to Scoutmaster Allen Marshall of Boy Scout Troop 15 for assistance. Marshall approached 17-year-old Brendan Smith about helping at the cemetery for his Eagle Scout project. A student at Tennessee High, Brendan eagerly took on the project.
“Me and a group of Scouts, we were able to put in about 327 man hours doing everything from leveling gravesites to epoxying gravestones back together,” Brendan said. “It feels very honorable to do this work. I’m glad I was able to do this to serve the families and everyone who has been here. It’s awesome to know what you do is impactful to others.”
Truckloads of gravel were brought in to help level the gravesites. Many of the old tombstones had sunk as much as several feet into the earth and were covered in clay and mud. With the help of a Bobcat donated for a day by Marshall’s son-in-law, the team was able to lift the stones – some weighing up to a thousand pounds – out of the mud and set them back upright. The years of accumulated clay and algae were pressure-washed off stained grave markers. Broken headstones were pieced back together.
Furthermore, with the assistance of adults, low hanging tree limbs were trimmed to reveal hidden graves. Dead trees were removed and the old hedges that surrounded the cemetery were removed.
“It’s looking so much better,” Roark said. “The homeless people don’t come over here anymore because they’ve got no place to hide. We cut the hedges down because ladies were afraid to come over here because of the hedges. They were scared to go behind them.”
Though a far cry from finished, the improvements are noticeable. A pile of broken headstones and plain stones that served as markers still await sorting – pieces that still need to be identified and restored. Years ago, the late historian Bud Phillips helped research and survey the cemetery – Roark just needs more help to get things set right.
Roark, who is also heavily involved with the Buffalo Ruritan Club and helping homeless veterans in Johnson City, hopes to see more members of the community get involved.
“What we would really like to have over here now is more volunteers for the Susong Cemetery Board of Trustees,” he said. “It’s just two of us on the board right now – we need more people involved. We can’t get the help over here that’s required to keep it up. We’ve come so far and it’s looking so much better, I’d hate to see it go back to the way it was.”