The church itself is a simple whitewashed building, with clean lines featuring a cross topped steeple with a belfry beneath. Long before the days of telephones, the bell was used not simply to announce services, but to alert the area residents of emergencies such as fires, sickness, death, as well as announcing births, marriages, and happier tidings.
My earliest memories of Stanley Church and the cemetery that surrounds it, are as a little girl, getting dressed up in my Sunday best and going with my family to the “decoration”. I remember that the event was so well attended that cars would be lining the side of little dirt road going all the way from the cemetery down to the bottom of the hill and Aska Rd. If you didn’t get there early, parking would be a problem. I have to think that many of them also showed up to experience the amazing views!
Back in those days, many folks brought a covered dish, and the tables under the pavilion next to the church would be covered with food. And not just any old food. One thing you could count on, you’d have a chance to experience some of the best cooking in the south.
Before settling down to eat and connect with relatives, my parents would unload all the flowers from our car-usually an American Motors station wagon-then we’d all set about the business of putting them on the graves. We always got there early, not only to find a good parking spot, but to get the work completed during the morning hours before the heat set in. Even at that elevation, in late August, the temperature could be brutal. Fortunately, there was no shortage of shade. The entire hilltop is surrounded by lush forest, though as children we were discouraged from doing much in the way of exploring because of the very real threat of rattlesnakes and even bears.
Every decoration day involved a visit to my great great grandfather’s grave where we’d hear the story of how he’d been the very first burial. It is an interesting tale, and it always made me contemplate the sturdy nature of the original settlers of Fannin County.
Now, like most bits of family history that are handed down from one generation to the next, the story of Elisha Stanley and that first burial in what came to be known as Stanley Cemetery, seemed to be somewhat fluid. Depending on who was doing the telling, the details would sometimes differ. I don’t suppose anyone will ever know for sure exactly what transpired, but the story goes something like this….
During the Civil War, Fannin County was divided. Now it goes without saying, being loyal to the Union anywhere in the state of Georgia was certainly a dangerous thing to be, but even so, the Stanley’s and about two thirds of the county’s population were anti-confederate.
It might be said however, that the Stanley men who fought, and fought bravely, were more or less “sometime” soldiers. Family lore holds that they were oftentimes AWOL, back at home tending to their farms and families when the need arose, then having taken care of whatever crisis was going on at home, they’d return to battle.
One such side trip back to his mountain farm led to the assassinations of Elisha Stanley and his brother-in-law Elv Hughes, both of whom had farms in what used to be known as Snake Nation, and is now called the Aska area.
On the evening of September 6, 1864, my great great grandfather Elisha Stanley and Elv Hughes were shot dead by Confederate soldiers. When telling us the story, my dad always used the term “bushwacked”, which I was told meant that it hadn’t been a fair fight, something that was very much looked down upon by my dad. If you had to fight, make sure you did it fairly. Then of course my mother would come along and say, forget about that, if you have to fight, fight to win, regardless of what that entails.
Anyway, whether smart or cowardly, according to the story, on that September morning, the soldiers shot my great great grandfather Elisha in the back, as he sat on an outdoor bench repairing his children’s shoes. Bushwacked, apparently, from the cover of some trees at the edge of the yard.
Later, they proceeded on to the neighboring Hughes farm, capturing Elv as he was shearing sheep. The soldiers then tied the man to a tree and shot him dead.
First Burial At Stanley Cemetery
After the killings, and under cover of darkness, the families of the slain men gathered together – mostly women and children, and prepared the bodies for burial. The women emptied out an old feed box to use as a coffin, and both men were buried together in the same grave. It was dangerous enough to dig the one grave, and taking the time to dig two was out of the question. The families believed that they were still being watched by the soldiers, expecting at anytime that they might be murdered while at their task.
Thus began Stanley cemetery, and following that first interment, anyone with a blood or marital relationship to the family could be buried there, without having to pay for a plot. Instead, donations for the upkeep were made over the years to whatever Stanley was currently in charge of the upkeep of both the cemetery and the little church.
This tradition continues to this day, as does the Decoration Day event. Every year on the last Sunday in August, family members gather from all over the country to tend and decorate the graves of their loved ones.
It must be said that the Stanley’s do an amazing job of upkeep on both the church and the cemetery. I have been there dozens of times over the years and never found any signs of neglect. It always looks as if it has been lifted from a picture book. Beautiful and pristine.
The most meaningful bit of information to me, was that the Stanley family were Unionists, and because of this, in this part of the country, during that time, they were seen by many as traitors to the Confederate cause. Hence, the assassinations. Surprisingly, two thirds of the Fannin County residents remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War.
Sitting high on a mountain, with a breathtaking view, Stanley Church and the cemetery that surrounds it stands as an important reminder of our county’s complex history and those who fought and died for their beliefs.
Though no known battles were fought in Fannin County, Georgia during the Civil War, it did not escape unscathed. The entire area was devastated by lawlessness and abject poverty, and as a consequence, those that could, fled the county. Those who remained began the rebuilding.
I wonder what they’d think of it today?
The Stanley clan, early 1900’s. My grandparents, Avery Grindstaff and Carrie Stanley Grindstaff, are top row, the last two on the right.
Oh, and for those of you who are tombstone tourist interested in graving – I think also called “gravers”? – did I mention that there is a single arm buried there? That’s right, the rest of the body is buried elsewhere, but this gentlemen’s arm came to rest at Stanley Cemetery.
Here’s a photo of ole Buel, with his wife and an unknown child.
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