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Tour of Riverside Cemetery enchants
McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley, right, offered his annual guided tour through Riverside Cemetery on Saturday. The event attracted approximately 40 people interested in the history of Warren County from its current historian.

Local residents took a walk into the past Saturday with a guided tour through Riverside Cemetery by McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley.
The tour started with a glimpse of life in McMinnville before the establishment of the railroad, as well as its impact on the city before and during the Civil War.
“This cemetery is not the oldest cemetery in town,” said Haley, who is also Warren County historian. “It was created in 1878. The old City Cemetery is on High Street. It was created in the earliest days in McMinnville’s history. We know the first person buried there was like 1813. Before then, we still had people living in McMinnville but they were buried in their yards or they were buried at Liberty Cemetery, which was across the river. The old City Cemetery filled up during the Civil War. People walked through and say ‘There are not many tombstones’ but there are a lot of people buried up there, including some famous folks who don’t have tombstones.”
When Riverside Cemetery first opened, it was called new City Cemetery, says Haley.
“When this cemetery was opened in 1878, it was known as the new City Cemetery. Later on, it became known as Riverside Cemetery because the river is right down below it. Before this was a cemetery, it was agricultural land and it was industrial land right before the Civil War. When the Yankees came in, everything was burned down here. Everything was pretty much destroyed.”
Tombstones were scarce in McMinnville before the railroad was built. Wagons were used and that created a transportation problem for anything heavy or delicate.
“Before the railroads came in,” said Haley, “it was very hard to get tombstones into here so a lot of folks didn’t get tombstones and those who did received hand-carved tombstones. You’ll see a lot of those in this cemetery as well. The railroad changed McMinnville and its history. Before then, wagons had to come across the mountains, either from Chattanooga or from Nashville, by mule or horses and you can imagine bringing things like china plates or pianos or nice furniture and what kind of condition it would be in when it got here from across the mountain.”
As one story goes, said Haley, an individual purchased a big-box piano and had it transported into McMinnville by wagon. It was internally damaged to the point it could not be tuned or played. The piano ended up being a beautiful, but useless, centerpiece in the individual’s house.
Haley said the railroad brought with it accessibility to items, but it also made McMinnville a very desirable spot for both sides of the Civil War.
“The railroad was a blessing and a curse for our city,” he said. “It brought all kinds of new things to McMinnville right before the Civil War. You could get oysters, French furniture from New Orleans, you could get items from all over the country in a matter of days. It revolutionized the lifestyles of the people who lived here. During the Civil War, we were the end of the railroad. We were a supply line. Both the Yankees and the Confederates wanted to take control of our city because it was a prosperous little place. It had textile mills here, mule farms here, successful farming here, and some very prominent folks lived here in the city of McMinnville.”
Many of those individuals are now interred at Riverside Cemetery.
“When you look at this cemetery, you are going to see some of the most prominent people from our community’s past. Some of them were notorious. Some of them were benefactors. Some of them were just regular folks but they still played a part in our history. In 1878, this little paved street through the cemetery was known as Main Street. James Dillon, former county historian, said walking down Main Street in the cemetery was almost like walking down Main Street in downtown McMinnville during the 1800s. The same people who lived on Main Street and the little side streets back then are now buried right here.”
After a glimpse into life in McMinnville before and after the railroad, Haley guided the group through the cemetery and introduced them to some of the notable characters in McMinnville’s past.