THE EARLY YEARS
The eastern knoll in Mt. Zion Cemetery stands out in the barely undulating Delta landscape, and it was likely for this reason that the site was originally selected. An 1825 survey of Lawrence County shows that even before farming altered the landscape, the area around Mt. Zion was naturally higher in elevation and lacked some of the creeks and swamps that were to the west and south—today dredged and known as Big Running Water Creek, Coon Creek, and Village Creek. During World War II, it was these attributes that led to the construction of the Walnut Ridge Army Airfield adjacent to the cemetery. The construction of the Hoxie, Pocahontas, & Northern Railroad in 1896 and designation of Highway 67 in 1926, located respectively 1.25 and 0.75 miles west of the cemetery, allowed for the cemetery to remain more accessible than many of its rural counterparts.
Detail of the 1825 General Land Office Survey of Lawrence County, overlaid with a modern map of the area. The orange rectangle “MZ” represents the approximate location of Mt. Zion Cemetery.
According to Texas genealogist Blanche Keating Collie, the first burials at Mt. Zion might have occurred as far back as 1862, with the death of two-year-old Caroline Elizabeth Jones. Four other deaths in the extended Jones-Moran family over the next thirteen years might have also resulted in burials at Mt. Zion, though no grave markers are extant. It does seem quite probable that Mt. Zion was the site of these burials, due to several branches of the Moran family already being represented by a row of tombstones at the cemetery. This line of stones is aligned along the ridge in a more distinctively diagonal angle than the rest of the stones in the cemetery, which are generally on a north/south-oriented grid. Nevertheless, an alternative location for these early graves could potentially be Colquette Cemetery, 3.75 miles to the southwest of Mt. Zion. The patriarchs of the Moran family, William S. and Caroline Moran, are buried there instead of Mt. Zion, and Caroline’s burial in 1869 is the earliest recorded one in that cemetery.
The first tombstones that are extant at Mt. Zion date to 1875, and include infants John H. Bagley and George W. Moran. Their respective families proved to have outsized roles in the development of the lands and community surrounding the cemetery. A community that formed one and a half miles to the northeast was named the Moran community, and for several decades included a school by that name. By the 1910s, records indicate that Mt. Zion was by then located on the Bagley farm, and the family’s long prior association with the cemetery makes it possible that ownership of the surrounding lands went back decades before. According to area resident Bill McNutt, the Bagley homestead was located less than a quarter mile from the cemetery along what is now the corner of Fulbright Avenue and Avenue C. Artifacts discovered during restoration of the cemetery bear witness to its one-time agricultural surroundings: a 20 by 40 ft brick foundation, part of a weight from an agricultural scale, and a piece of metal slag that might have been from a blacksmith’s shop. More land was needed for the cemetery as the community it served grew, and an extant deed record shows that in 1904 one acre of land was added on the north side.
CIVIL WAR VETERANS
A number of noteworthy individuals have been buried at the cemetery, including at least twelve Civil War veterans and two World War I veterans. Several prominent figures are featured in the Goodspeed Publishing Company’s 1889 Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeast Arkansas, including Thomas C. Hennessee and Claiborne S. Pinnell. Hennessee’s biography tells of his storied Civil War career: “During his career in the army Mr. Hennessee has, no doubt, seen about as much fighting, and also done fully as much as any soldier at that period. He took part in the fights at Poison Springs, Marks' Mills, Jenkin’s Ferry, and a great many skirmishes and fights of lesser note, but equally as hot as their predecessors. When he first joined the army, the battalion of which he was a member was composed of 476 men, and out of that number only seventy-four lived through the horrors of war to be paroled at its close. Mr. Hennessee received a gun shot wound in one of his limbs, which disabled him for a time; and, on another occasion, was wounded by one of the guards, after being taken a prisoner, while walking over a log to cross a creek.… Mr. Hennessee started in life, after the war, without a dollar, and has accumulated his fine property by industry, economy, and good management, and is now one of Lawrence County’s solid men and enterprising citizens.”
Pinnell’s biography is emblematic of the agricultural background of many of the other early settlers buried at Mt. Zion: “Claiborne S. Pinnell was reared on a farm, and as his father always lived in a very new country, where schools were not to be found for love nor money, and teachers were few and far between, his education, as a consequence, was very limited. When nine years of age he met with a painful accident, which has rendered him a cripple all his live; a colt ran away with him one day, and, stepping into a hole, threw him off, breaking his right arm and shoulder, which has prevented him from doing any hard labor ever since. Notwithstanding this fact, he has been an active man all his life; following the plow, farming and raising stock. He came to Lawrence County about thirty years ago, and bought 160 acres on Village Creek, one and one-half miles north of Walnut Ridge, and has made this his home ever since, besides owning another farm in this county, the two aggregating 240 acres. He has hunted 'bar' all over the State, and about twelve or fourteen years ago he killed the largest panther that had ever been seen in that neighborhood, measuring eleven feet from both tips. Mr. Pinnell has made a lengthy trip to Oregon, and another to Texas, but looks upon Lawrence County as the dearest spot on earth.” (811-812)
THE BAGLEY FEUD
Perhaps the most famous burials that took place at Mt. Zion Cemetery were those of members of the Bagley family, killed in what the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture describes as one of the state’s “longest running and bloodiest feuds.” The feud began with the shooting of Jesse Edward “Ed” Bagley in 1905 and continued for another decade, costing the lives of Ed’s brothers John and Alf Bagley and father Isom J. Bagley (a Civil War veteran), as well as several others on the opposing side. The dramatic feud made headlines across the Midwest and as far away as Alton, Illinois, Natchez, Mississippi, and Austin, Texas. Over 100 news articles by numerous papers were published on the subject before it had run its course.
The local community was greatly affected by the feud as well, as the front page of the October 24, 1910, Arkansas Gazette relates: “Stunned by the double tragedy of yesterday, half the population of Walnut Ridge today wended its way up the road to the little country cemetery [Mt. Zion] on the Bagley farm, following two improvised hearses which bore the bodies of T. F. [sic] and his son, Alf Bagley, to their graves. Father and son were shot and killed yesterday by an assassin, the father being shot down as he was returned from town where he had purchased a suit of clothes in which to bury his son. Walnut Ridge has but one hearse. The family, however, which now consists of a widow, son and daughter…insisted on a double funeral. Two vehicles were secured. The Rev. Mr. L. C. Craig, pastor of the Methodist church, paid tribute to the Bagleys, father and son, who were respected and well-to-do farmers. Farmers came from miles around to the funeral.” More information about the feud can be found in this Encyclopedia of Arkansas article and this article.
Headline from the front page of the October 24, 1910, Arkansas Gazette.
At least two other burials at Mt. Zion in the 1910s were also due to murders, and both caused sensations of their own. In 1913, Claiborne G. Pinnell (not to be confused with Claiborne S. Pinnell mentioned above) was shot by the town marshal of nearby Hoxie, Lou Easley. The Jonesboro Evening Sun stated, “It is reported that Pinnell and Dempsey [his companion] had been drinking and after leaving the lodge room, became boisterous. When Easley went to arrest him they treated him as a joke and after some words made right at him when he shot them, killing Pinnell….”
A copy of a historic photo of the Mt. Zion School that was once located across from the cemetery, date unknown; courtesy James Whitlow.
Eighteen-year-old Bettie Burleson was murdered in the middle of a cotton field in 1915 by her stepfather, who denied doing so at first. A news article written on November 2nd says that “feeling runs high here tonight and threats of lynching are freely heard on the streets.… It was said that soon after leaving Rhea’s farm [site of the murder] a mob of residents of that community gathered and pursued the sheriff and his prisoner so hotly that the officer was forced to change his route as well as his destination. Nothing has been heard from him tonight. It is believed, however, that he is hiding out somewhere in the river bottoms.”
More peaceful institutions prevailed after this violent spell. By 1920, a church was constructed on the north side of the cemetery and was also named Mt. Zion; it was listed as one of the locations of the local Methodist quarterly conference that year. In 1948, the church was deeded to a Free Will Baptist congregation. By 1930, a school was built across the road to the west of the cemetery, and lasted through about 1948. While enrollment was 170 in 1931, it dropped dramatically after that, with only 85 students in 1932 and a low of 35 students in 1944. In 2017 a cast iron school desk frame section from the school was found buried near the western edge of the cemetery.
AN AIR BASE IS BUILT
The construction of the Walnut Ridge Army Air Field next to the cemetery in 1942 was a boon to the regional economy, yet a major disrupter to the Mt. Zion and Moran communities. While the Mt. Zion Cemetery, church, and school were left untouched, forty-five families to the east were displaced and the neighboring Moran schoolhouse was demolished after eminent domain was exercised on 3,096 acres. The cemetery was soon located on a much more prominent corridor, as a concrete access road later named Fulbright Avenue was constructed as the main thoroughfare to the air field. A boundary fence was installed that bordered the cemetery on its south, east, and north sides, and an area east of the cemetery was used for scrap lumber disposal during construction of the air field. A 1942 whiskey bottle found during gravestone restoration suggests that construction workers and/or cadets might have found the cemetery to be a satisfactory drinking spot; aerial shots from the era reveal it was one of the few wooded areas in the vicinity.
Compounding the effects of the Great Depression and the construction of the air field, increased mechanization in agriculture and improved local transportation also contributed to the decline of Mt. Zion as a farming community. These trends both reduced the number of farmhands needed on area farms and made it more attractive for those remaining to move to nearby Walnut Ridge, a town of about 3,000 in 1950. A symbolic shift occurred when the municipality of College City was incorporated in 1951, in some senses a geographical descendant of the Mt. Zion community. The new city included sections of the former air field turned into the campus of Southern Baptist College (now Williams Baptist University) and other neighboring residential areas, including the cemetery.
Mt. Zion Cemetery is in the background of this circa 1946 shot of the Walnut Ridge Airport.
Members of the 2017 WBU Greco-Roman Wrestling Team resetting a gravestone.
NEGLECT & RESTORATION
By the 1960s and 70s, both the Mt. Zion School and Church buildings were demolished, and private residences were constructed in their place. With no congregation remaining to care for the cemetery, the property quickly became overgrown, with the exception of the McNutt family plot in the far southeast corner that was maintained by a relative. In the 1980s, a first round of restoration work was spearheaded by the Southern Baptist College faculty, Circle K Club, and College City residents, including removing underbrush and dismantling the wire fence surrounding the site. Afterwards, mowing and upkeep were provided by College City. In January 2017, College City consolidated with Walnut Ridge: as the City of Walnut Ridge did not accept responsibility for upkeep of Mt. Zion, the following year a group of private citizens formed the Mt. Zion Cemetery Association, which has maintained the cemetery since.
From 2016 to 2018, Williams Baptist students and local citizens led a second round of restoration work that included repairs to fractured gravestones and broken cast iron plot fences, cleaning lichen from gravestones, and resetting toppled gravestones. A metal-detecting survey of the cemetery located seven metal grave markers from otherwise unmarked graves that had snapped at ground level, possibly dating back to the 1930s. Harkening back to the tree-covered landscape of the cemetery in the 1940s, new trees were planted throughout, and a historic iron fence salvaged from a Walnut Ridge property was installed along the eastern boundary of the cemetery.