Shawn Dills and son, Liam, place purple lupine wildflowers at the gravesite of Tommy and Winnie Kate Downs at this year’s decoration. Held June 3, 2012, the annual event honors ancestors buried in Round Hill Cemetery outside Bryson City, N.C. Katie Bailey/Carolina Public Press

A 15-minute drive around the blind curves lined by slopes of kudzu-covered ridges from downtown Bryson City will bring you to Round Hill, the top of a mountain that overlooks Fontana Lake. Round Hill is thought to have been a Cherokee Indian mound, but today most of the homes scattered in the area are inhabited by the Downs and Howard families.

Most of these families are related to Tommy and Winnie Kate Howard Downs. The two, who died decades ago, had 13 children – nine of which are still living – and raised them on a subsistence farm on Round Hill. They always provided for them, family members say, eventually sending all of the children to college.

Though the majority of Downs’ descendents have moved out of the area, many still have physical and emotional ties to Round Hill.

Tommy, Winnie Kate and others who have died are buried on a smaller round hill in the trees, called Round Hill Cemetery, on Greasy Branch Road. And their family members and others in the community gather on June’s first Sunday morning with artificial flowers and hymnbooks in hands to pay respect to their ancestors by decorating their graves.

Decoration Day – known by many as just “decoration” – is a southern tradition that has been observed by groups like the Downs family, which has held the annual event since the cemetery was begun. In their book “Decoration Day in the Mountains,” Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour wrote:

Decoration Day – its practitioners often call the event simply a “decoration” – is a powerful ritual of piety. At the practical level, it provides a cultural motivation for cleaning and repairing a cemetery, which, if not properly maintained, can be reclaimed by the forest of the Upland South with astonishing speed. At the social level, it serves as a focal point for gathering a community, and it has long provided an occasion for community members from afar to return to their homeplace. At the deepest spiritual level, a decoration is an act of respect for the dead that reaffirms one’s bonds with those who have gone before.

The surviving members of the Downs clan share blood with almost two-thirds of those buried on Round Hill. The large family of siblings and cousins, parents and children interacts, teaching younger members about the tradition and calling back memories of those past.

Writer and photographer Katie Bailey is a Downs descendant and documented the day through her camera lens. Her photographs show just a glimpse of the long-practiced tradition of Decoration Day on Round Hill.

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Katie Bailey is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact her at

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