Chester “Chet” Willis is a man with his heart wrapped up in his work. In 2003, he retired from his job as construction foreman with the City of Johnson City Water and Sewer Services Department and eagerly became involved with preserving Oak Hill Cemetery.
Oak Hill is the oldest cemetery within the city limits and contains the remains of just over 2700 inhabitants. As a member of the Cemetery Survey Team of Northeast Tennessee, this assiduous 80-year old individual assumed numerous laborious tasks that included restoring grave markers, producing and maintaining a massive directory of graves, installing 177 small red brick row markers, opening and closing the two main gates each day (at 6 a.m. and sundown) and helping keep the grounds well-groomed.
This seven-gated chain length fence necropolis is one block off W. Main Street and surrounded by four streets – Wilson (north), Boone (east), Lamont (south) and Whitney (west).
Well-known Oak Hill residents include Henry Johnson (city founder), Tipton Jobe (landowner), Col. LeRoy Reeves (Tennessee state flag designer), Sam R. Sells (U.S. Congressman), Major Cy Lyle (publisher of the Comet newspaper), George Hardin (supt. of ET&WNC Railroad), Captain William Dickinson (Confederate pioneer and owner of Piedmont Hotel), Rev. John Wright (soldier in War of 1812 and officer for the Confederacy) and others.
Some 141 veterans are buried at Oak Hill from the Civil War (55 Confederate, 29 Union), Spanish American War (16), Philippine Insurrection (1), Mexican War (1), World War I (30), World War II (5), and regular Army (4).
Mr. Willis produced a notebook full of annual reports from the Oak Hill Cemetery Association. The Jan. 24, 1946 one is particularly significant because it represents the golden anniversary of the society. The report began with a brief history of the cemetery: “Dear Member: On March 2, 1870, a bond was made by Robert Love and Samuel H. Miller to seven trustees – T.A. Faw, James M. Gentry, Wm. H. Taylor, Jm. Johnson, J.W. Seehorn, L.H.P. Lusk and P.P.C. Nelson – giving title to a part of their farms to be used for a cemetery for the growing village of Johnson City.”
Love donated about a half-acre and Miller roughly a quarter-acre. Each man reserved a 25’ x 35’ plot for his family members. Love’s was located in the northeast corner and Miller’s in the southwest sector. The oldest grave is that of Love’s daughter who died as a youngster in 1867. The contract specified that a “good plank fence” be built around the perimeter of the property and that the facility bear the name “Oak Hill Cemetery.” Over the years, additional adjoining land was added expanding the grounds to 6.5 acres.
By 1888, the downtown cemetery was described as being a wilderness of weeds and briers and nothing less than a pasture for the town cow. When a new fence was needed in 1896, a committee of women from each of the area churches was formed to raise money. Mrs. C.K. Lide served as its first president. The group held oyster and strawberry suppers, sponsored lectures by such notables as Bob and Alf Taylor and hosted numerous musical productions to maintain the venerated downtown property.
A big “thank you” is in order to Chet Willis from the people of Johnson City for his unfaltering efforts toward preserving the final resting place of some of Johnson City’s most prominent citizens.