Historic Greenwood Cemetery Tours are Back!

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

September is here, and with the change in month comes the promise of cool air, falling leaves, cozy sweaters and… cemetery tours!   

Yes, the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center’s popular Historic Greenwood Cemetery Walking Tours are back this year starting September 23. Every other Saturday until the end of October, you have a chance to learn about the fascinating characters and imposing dignitaries that populate Clarksville’s oldest active cemetery while you stroll among the elaborate grave monuments that make Greenwood so special. 

Greenwood Cemetery opened during one of Clarksville’s more prosperous eras. Following the Civil War, Clarksville enjoyed a boisterous economy with the tobacco trade. Multiple wealthy families lived in Clarksville and sought out a bright new place to lay their loved ones to rest.  Older cemeteries and churchyards in the middle of town were landlocked and couldn’t be expanded. Greenwood sold its first plots in 1873 and quickly became the place to be buried. A large number of historic names who lifted Clarksville into the modern era can be found in Greenwood. The cemetery is also a well-preserved example of the mortuary symbolism that was popular in the 19th century. Here’s a small sampling of what you can learn during a tour through Greenwood Cemetery. 

The oldest resident of Greenwood wasn’t even buried there. 

Politician Cave Johnson died in 1866 – years before Greenwood Cemetery opened – but you will find his grave in the cemetery’s oldest section. Did Cave’s family wait seven years to bury him? No. Cave’s son, Polk Grundy Johnson, was one of the first Clarksville residents to purchase a plot in Greenwood when it became available and reinterred his father in the shiny new cemetery. Cave Johnson was originally buried in a church graveyard on Franklin Street. At the time, Franklin Street was rough and not a peaceful place for families to visit the graves of their loved ones. Greenwood Cemetery was set far enough outside of town for visitors to enjoy the peace and quiet, and became the preferred place to be buried.   

One of the monuments gained national attention. 

Nannie Tyler was four years old when she died in 1885 of diphtheria, a horrible infection that causes sore throat and obstructs the airway. Her grieving parents, Judge Charles and Molly Tyler, were well-to-do enough to order a beautiful marble statue from Italy in the likeness of their child. The statue, based on a photograph taken of Nannie, cost today’s equivalent of about $10,000 dollars and serves as the monument above Nannie’s grave. The grave also once featured a glass box containing Nannie’s toys before it was vandalized.  

In 1996 someone stole Nannie’s statue, but thanks to a kindly Boston antique dealer, it wasn’t gone for long. The return of the statue made national news. Many Clarksville residents still enjoy visiting Nannie and leaving her gifts of small toys, necklaces or flowers.   

The cemetery was a popular park. 

While in 2023 we have the freedom to text our friends to meet up at specific places or go to the mall to see other people, in the late 19th century, being social was a little different. Places to just hang out and meet up with people were few and big cemeteries like Greenwood doubled as parks where people knew they would see their friends on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. An electric trolley that served downtown Clarksville provided a line that ran to Greenwood Avenue to provide reliable transportation to Greenwood Cemetery. Hanging out in a cemetery might seem creepy today, but when you stand near one area of the cemetery that’s devoid of graves and lined by trees and benches, it’s easier to imagine a time when people enjoyed the natural beauty of the grounds and anticipated seeing people they cared about. 

A famous actor is buried in Greenwood. 

Frank Sutton rocketed to fame playing Sgt. Carter on the popular 1960s Andy Griffith Show spin-off, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Frank was born on Second Street in Clarksville, in the historic Doghill neighborhood located behind the Museum to parents who worked at The Leaf-Chronicle. He moved around a lot in his childhood and attended high school in Nashville, but his first job was at a radio station in Clarksville. His gravestone is probably the most visited site in Greenwood after Nannie Tyler’s. Sutton’s connection to Clarksville is also commemorated on Franklin Street as a bronze statue.  

This season, not only will Lead Visitor Services Associate Kim Raines take you through Greenwood Cemetery, but she’s also offering to show you around Riverview Cemetery, Clarksville’s oldest public cemetery. Watch for an upcoming blog post to showcase what history Riverview has to offer. Space for both tours is limited, so reserve your spot before they fill up! 

Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters. 

Back to Blog