The small cemetery where the remains of Judge Charles Fleming Keith lie is part of the Judgment Day Haunted Trail in the Mayfield Farm and Nursery Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch, north of Athens on Highway 307.
According to Cleveland attorney Paul Dietrich, Judge Keith was probably one of the most influential judges of his day in the state of Tennessee. He served 34 years over most of the region of East Tennessee. He was the first circuit judge of the state of Tennessee to serve Bradley County upon its formation by the state Legislature, Feb. 10, 1836 (Chapter No. 32 Private Acts of 1835-36), and the first judge of the Third Judicial Circuit of Tennessee comprising the counties of McMinn, Bradley, Hamilton, Meigs, Monroe, Roane, Rhea, Bledsoe, Marion and Polk.
Dietrich said he learned of Judge Charles Fleming Keith (1784-1865) from a letter written by his great-great-great-grandfather, John Sharpe Rowland (1795-1863), to one of his relatives in Mississippi. At one point, the letter detailing family genealogy discussed one of his sons, John Thomas Rowland (1827-1856), who married Louisa Jane Keith (1831-1907), daughter of Judge Keith, of Athens.
“That’s how I knew Judge Keith was related at least by marriage,” said Dietrich, whose wife is a Keith descendant. “I came up here searching for Louisa’s grave and this is where I was told it would be. It was January 2012 when I found the cemetery. It was the fall of 2011 when I discovered the letter.”
Knowledge of the letter came to him via the Internet from someone who had posted Rowland family on a genealogical website.
“He told me he had a letter he’d gotten from the Alabama Archives, in Montgomery,” Dietrich said.
He went to the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum where he learned the location of Elmwood Cemetery, a small burial ground on the Mayfield Dairy Farm, a short distance north of Athens.
The cemetery was once part of the judge’s Elmwood Plantation. A grand house once stood between the cemetery and Old Athens Madisonville Road. The cemetery is not included in the property deed and is therefore unprotected by Tennessee law.
A faded black metal fence pieced together with materials and designs from different centuries, rusting in places and leaning in others, encloses the small plot. An old weather-beaten cedar tree stands in the center from where it extends frail, naked limbs that no longer shade the hallowed ground, but hang overhead like a threat to the old fence and tombstones.
The tallest of the tombstones marks the gravesite of the judge’s son, William F. Keith (1824-1857). The ornate gothic tablet is discolored by the elements. The Bible verse, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors until their works do follow with them,” is barely legible.
A much newer gray granite slab of seemingly lesser significance bears the inscription:
“Charles Fleming Keith
34 years judge of the
4th Circuit Tennessee,
Son of Alexander Keith
Officer of the American Revolution
Son of Rev. James Keith
Born in Scotland 1696
Died in Virginia 1758”
Dietrich said his wife accompanied him to the family cemetery that first time in January 2012.
“We tried to get permission to come on the property though we didn’t have to have it because it is a cemetery. We wanted them to know we were here. We went to the business office, but no one was there. There were a lot of vehicles, but no people. We started searching for it and drove all over the place until we finally found it there behind the goats.”
Dietrich said the overhead sign proclaiming “Judgement Day” in red, dripping paint shocked him. A line scrolled underneath described it as the gateway to a haunted attraction.
“We were just shocked quite honestly to see the sign, the haunted trail and the way they were treating this as an amusement park attraction rather than a cemetery, because it has such historical significance to this area,” Dietrich said.
He was taking pictures when Michael Mayfield approached them. He was friendly and encouraged Dietrich to take all the pictures he wanted and visit at anytime.
“I went home and wrote a really nice letter to Michael asking him to please consider doing something else with the cemetery that would be more in keeping with the dead, particularly somebody as prominent in Tennessee history as Judge Keith was,” Dietrich said. “A year later, he hasn’t done anything.”
After Scottie Mayfield was contacted for comment, he told his side of the story in a recent phone interview. He explained the cemetery had been on the farm “forever. It was once in the middle of a cow pasture and you couldn’t see it for the trees and grass and the ground was trampled by the cattle.”
That was the condition three years ago when a family included a visit to the cemetery as part of its reunion activities.
“It was unkempt and I was embarrassed,” Mayfield said. “We cut down all of the trees except for the large cedar tree in the middle because we were afraid to cut it down.”
Mayfield said they brought in fill dirt, planted grass and began making repairs to the fence.
“We’ve made some progress,” he said. “We have plans to put up a couple of signs to make it easier to read the inscription on the tombstone.
He pointed out that the Elmwood house was the first brick home in McMinn County.
“The signs will allow people who come to the maze to get to know the man,” Mayfield said. “We have started a process that will probably not be done until next spring.”
Mayfield said he is sympathetic to Dietrich’s concerns because his family is facing a similar situation due to development. However, he alone is repairing Elmwood Cemetery because no one else has stepped forward.
But, Dietrich has spent a great deal of time and money rehabilitating the burial site of another ancestor, John Sharpe Rowland, who is interred in a hilltop cemetery outside Cartersville, Ga. He added a flagpole, fencing and an historical marker placed alongside Georgia Highway 113 by the Etowah Valley Historical Society near the Cartersville airport. He would do the same with Elmwood Cemetery to raise it to the level of dignity it deserves.
“He was considered an excellent judge,” Dietrich said. “Probably the best-known case associated with him is State of Tennessee v. Thomas Foreman, a case that concerned an alleged murder that took place on Indian Territory, which was sovereign under the laws of the United States at the time,” he said.
“The honorable Judge Keith deserves the accolades of all future generations as he deserved those of his contemporaries in the bar and in his community and throughout the State of Tennessee and the nation,” according to a resolution provided by Dietrich. “Judge Keith displayed the greatest of all judicial attributes, firmness and restraint in the face of popular outcry and public clamor, by his decision denying jurisdiction of the State of Tennessee over the Cherokee Nation.”
Keith’s opinion stated, “Cherokees though not a sovereign independent nation, were nevertheless a nation, so recognized by the treaties made with them — that the individuals composing this nation were not citizens or members of the states, but members of a separate community — that they had passed under the dominion of the United States, but not of the states in their separate capacity — that they were not subject to the legislation of the States, but to the Legislation of Congress [and finding that] the act of the legislature extending the jurisdiction of the States over the Indian Territory, to be unconstitutional and void.”
According to historical information provided by Dietrich, Judge Keith’s decision arose from the murder of John Walker Jr., son of wealthy Cherokee businessman John Walker. The younger chief called “Jack” was ambushed by two men in present-day Cleveland near the intersection of Keith Street and Stuart Road. The murder occurred as the young chief returned to his home from a Cherokee Council at Red Clay in which Walker and others, who had expressed support for a removal treaty with the United States, had been denounced by followers of Cherokee Chief John Ross. An historical marker stands near the intersection of Stuart Road and Keith Street.
Keith’s ruling was later reversed on appeal by the Tennessee Supreme Court in the case of State of Tennessee v. Foreman in 1835.
While both Dietrich and Mayfield want to clean up the Keith Family Cemetery, Mayfield said he plans to keep the cemetery as part of the haunted trail.