Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Stories of Stones - Oscar Shuler (1906 - 1917)

Indian Creek is likely my favorite spot in the park, and I am either hiking or riding my bike on it at least once a week. Prior to its acquisition by the National Park Service in the late 1920's, the creek once had (according to one of its oldest residents) approximately 30 families living on it at one time. It had its own church and school and at least one mill (written about in this article) and was a small but thriving community. However, Indian Creek, like everywhere else in these mountains, saw its fair share of tragedy and loss, and today I visited the Queen/Styles Cemetery on the creek to pay my respects to a young boy buried there.
Oscar Shuler's stone
Source: (Mike Gourley, 2011)

Queen/Styles Cemetery
Photo by Wendy Meyers (December 25, 2019)
Oscar Shuler was born (likely on Indian Creek) on May 19, 1906, the second documented child of James and Nora (nee' Laney) Shuler. We know almost nothing of his brief life. He is captured in the 1910 census at the age of 4 along with his parents, sister Eva, and brother Robert, with his parents recorded as being subsistence farmers (as were most others living on the creek in the early 1900's). Life was hard for these families, and like all children of the mountains, Oscar would have been expected to contribute heavily to the day-to-day activities required to run the household year round - gardening, cutting firewood, helping with the livestock, and so on. 

His parents were both literate and he does appear to have gone to school for at least a time, as his death certificate records his being a "schoolboy". He lived on the upper end of Indian Creek so his walk to and from school would have likely been around two miles each way. He also likely attended the Indian Creek Church on Sundays. Beyond that, Oscar's life is an enigma. I do not even have a picture of him.

Robert Shuler family in the 1910 Census, Charleston Township
Tragically, Oscar's life came to an end at the tender age of 11 on November 26, 1917, after a devastating 3-day illness. His death certificate records that no doctor attended him, but that per the history given by the parents, it was believed by Dr. James DeHart that he had died of meningitis. With an extant mortality rate for untreated meningitis approaching 70% in the modern day, poor little Oscar stood virtually no chance of surviving this illness over 100 years ago. It is absolutely heartbreaking to imagine the horror faced by Nora and Jim Shuler as they sat watching helplessly as their son succumbed to his illness.
Oscar Shuler's death certificate
As tragic as the circumstances of his death were, they were the grist for the creation of one of the most poignant headstones to be found in the entire park. For Nora, in her grief, decided to handcraft a stone for her son rather than place a simple (unmarked) fieldstone. She is said to have carved an inscription in wood; a framework was then created and concrete poured and allowed to cure to create the stone. The end result is a headstone whose inscription is backwards; however, it matters not, for the love with which it was created resonates in every single letter and number. Turned around, the stone reads as follows (I have not corrected the spelling):

Osker Shuler
Sun if Nora Shuter
Wos Borned May 19 196
Died Nove 20 1917
At Rest

Oscar Shuler's stone - photo is reversed for readability
Photo by Wendy Meyers (2012)
All of Oscar's Indian Creek kin left the area in the late 1920's and early 30's after their land was acquired for the creation of the Park. He has lain quietly for eternity for 102 years now, visited only by the rare curious hiker and by the families that come once a year for Decoration Day on Memorial Day weekend. Time and weather have prevailed and his stone now lies broken on the ground, oddly symbolic of the incomplete life it represents. 

And yet, if you place a hand on the stone and allow your fingers to trace the markings, you can still feel the love and sadness embodied in the hand of the grieving mother who sought to memorialize her child in the only way she could. Through Nora's simple tribute, Oscar's life will always be remembered.....a beautiful and powerful reminder of the tenuous nature of life and death a century ago in these mountains we call home.
Oscar Shuler's broken stone
Photo by Wendy Meyers (December 25, 2019)

For those interested in visiting the Queen/Styles Cemetery, here are the directions:
From the gate at the main Deep Creek trailhead, hike approximately 0.8 miles up the Deep Creek Trail to the intersection with Indian Creek. Turn right on Indian Creek and hike approximately 2.5 miles until you come to the third bridge on Indian Creek itself. Just before you cross the bridge, there is an old road on the right - take this road and hike approximately a quarter of a mile up the road; the road will terminate at the cemetery. The round-trip hike is just over 7 miles.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park archives


  1. I have relatives/ancestors in several abandoned family cemeteries in those mountains. Some lived just a few days and some near a hundred years. Life was hard for all of them but they probably didn't know there was anything easier or better in other places. We can't really imagine how hard life was for them. Children are meant to bury parents - not parents bury children. However, the same events occur today all too often.

  2. That is so true, Jackie! Having children of my own, I can't imagine the suffering of parents (both then and now) who had/have to bury their children.

  3. Hi Wendy, I've missed your last two posts. Shame on me! You say the picture is reversed. Does that mean it is flipped left to right? It doesn't look like a negative. Is the lettering raised as it appears?

    1. Hi Ed -
      Now, shame on me for not seeing this until today! (I'm not getting email notifications when I get comments for some reason). When you are facing the stone, all the lettering is reversed (as in the first picture). I reversed the second picture of it for readability. The lettering is raised. Nora carved the letters in wood and then made a mold - rendering the letters (reversed) raised.

  4. What a (sad) well-written delight of a blog post. This is just so lovely. Glad I stumbled upon it.