By JOHN KIENER
I finally got to meet Dr. M. S. Mahoney, co-founder of the Herald & Tribune, at “A Spot On The Hill” on Saturday afternoon, Oct.19. With Mahoney was his wife Margaret. I recognized her as one of the ladies pictured in the 1912 Homecoming pictured by Jonesborough’s Old Mill Spring.
I had visited the Old Cemetery at the top of East Main Street before. However, my memory flashed a scene of brambles and overgrown weeds nearly overtaking a mixture of grave stones scattered over an area that offers an amazing view of Tennessee’s oldest town.
What I found Saturday was a neatly groomed place of solitude now occupied by the souls of many of the town’s most famous residents. With deference to the Reverend William Cate, first minister of the First Baptist Church in Jonesborough, I write of souls using a definition that says they represent the disembodied spirit of a dead human being.
Reverend Cate stood just a few feet from me as he pointed out the large, brick home next to the cemetery where he helped found the Holston Baptist Female Institute. Margaret Mahoney said, “I can remember when educating women was a radical idea.” The minister was also there when a new church was built and opened in the 1850s.
Anne G-Fellers Mason, acting director of the Heritage Alliance, prompted my soulful response when after being urged to visit the cemetery, signed her invitation “The Spirits look forward to sharing with you.”
Saturday, I met the spirits.
The ghosts I met on an overcast, somewhat chilly day promising rain were real. However, they also had actor’s names that 21st Century residents of Jonesborough will recognize as living persons with talents that took the nearly 50 people viewing the scene with me to another time.
Mason played Lucinda Broyles whose family founded the community of Broylesville in the 1780s. They also operated the old Broylesville Inn and a Mercantile Establishment. The Inn burned a few years ago but the rest of the community has become a Historic District.
At the “Spot,” also known as College or Rocky Hill, Gordon Edwards was cast as the program’s Funeral Director. For those who miss attending one of the five performances of “A Spot On the Hill,” Edwards provides residents and visitors tours of the cemetery. For additional details about the tours, telephone (423) 753-9580 or go to www.heritageall.org.
“Oliver” Ross played by Taylor Santucci and “Harriet” Ross played by Kail Papas were actually unnamed children of Oliver and Harriet Ross. Their father was a postmaster and Methodist minister. Their mother was the sister of Confederate General Alfred Eugene Jackson and for a time the family lived in the middle section of Sister’s Row. The two actors began a game of “heads and tails” using a coin for the answer “yes or no” concerning the outcome of a series of the old town’s historical events.
“I wanted the Herald & Tribune to be different,” Dr. Matthew Sevier Mahoney played by Stephen Goodman said. Now celebrating its 150 years of existence in Jonesborough, Dr. Mahoney and Dr. C. Wheeler in August 1869 stated the paper’s purpose was to be “Republican in politics but sufficiently independent to condemn wrong and expose fraud by whomsoever committed…”
Cost of a subscription of what was said to be the largest weekly publication in East Tennessee was $2 yearly. The paper’s promotion of education was emphasized. Readers would benefit from national news and reports of worldwide events provided by stories transmitted by telegraph.
In her presentation, Margaret Mahoney (1832-1919) played by Katy Rosolowski wanted her audience to know, “I had influence.” Her friend Mary Dosser Reeves (1849-1931) was portrayed by Jules Corriere. She was the daughter of James and Caroline Dosser.
Dosser built a three-story building across from the Washington County Courthouse and formed a partnership with a man named McEwen in which men and women’s apparel were sold.
Mrs. Mahoney said the 1912 Homecoming “was lovely.” She regretted that her husband, born in1832, died in 1883, did not see the new century. She was proud of the part he played in the establishment of the Herald & Tribune.
The most dramatic presentation of the day was by Stefanie Murphy as a cholera casualty. There were at least 15 members of the African American community who died during the cholera epidemic of 1873. The names of the deceased are known but not where they are buried. College Hill Cemetery was not founded by the Colored Peoples Cemetery Society until the 1890s.
For many years, there has been talk of a mass grave in the cemetery. In the epidemic, at least 35 people died in a Jonesborough community of 100 persons. Many people fled town. The African American minister, physician and teacher Hezekiah B. Hankal stayed and provided health care to everyone, both black and white. He was credited for saving a number of lives. I was handed a front page copy of the Herald & Tribune, Volume V, No. 3 dated Thursday, October 9, 1873 containing a front page article on Cholera and Yellow Fever with a sub-heading titled “EDITORS APPEAL” during this segment of the outdoor, hour-long play.
J. W. Patterson (1854-1895) played by Kyle Mason made it clear that the railroad was not responsible for the cholera epidemic. He explained that “Physicians and medicines were transported for free” by the railroad. He recalled that the railroad had arrived in Jonesborough when he was three years old with a train that could travel 15 miles per hour. “Townspeople were terrified of the train,” Patterson said but “I was not.
“My mother saw me watching the trains and asked if I could get a job on the railroad. I lived in Bristol, got married and had three children. I worked on the railroad for 23 years but died early when an engine jumped the tracks and I was killed instantly.”
A long-time teacher and daughter of a former town mayor, Alice Slemons (1850-1939) played by Allison Shapiro, lived in the Slemons House in Mill Spring Park. She sold the land to the town that would become Town Hall in the 1930s. Her home is now the Storytelling Resource Place.
Slemons said she “loved to teach. You would not believe what they expected of teachers. We were to keep the temperature at the school at 70 degrees. School provided the foundation of character with its purpose to prepare themselves for usefulness.”
Mike Keeler played the Reverend Cate, mentioned previously: (born in 1807 – died in 1860). He believed in revivals and said he had converted 500 persons to the Baptist faith. His effort in bringing religion to Jonesborough residents continues today.
I returned to my car parked at the First Baptist Church parking lot at 201 E. Main Street.
Anne Mason wrote “A Spot on the Hill” using a number of references from articles published in the Herald & Tribune in her research. She was co-director along with Gordon Edwards of the performance. Preshow music was arranged by Stephen Goodman.
There are two more shows Saturday, Oct 26. The 6:30 is sold out, but there is space at the 2 p.m. matinee that takes place inside the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum.
The complete cast of spirits reminded the audience as the performance concluded:
CHOLERA VICTIM (Stefanie) Death’s a funny thing, a humbling thing, and a certain thing. So a lesson to you, our visitors. When you come to your spot on the top of the hill, and gave all you could so that others can live, then you must sit, with the things you did and did not do, and find your peace at last.
The CHORUS replied:
There’s a spot on the hill; Where you look down below;
At the town that bustles; And the town that flows;
And the town that does nothing but grow, grow, GROW.
And you see what you gave; And all that you did;
The sacrifice you made; For your spot on the hill.