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More than a Wall - Harriman City Cemetery

A Stone Strong retaining wall shores up an eroding bank and protects hallowed ground at the oldest cemetery in Harriman, Tennessee.

It would be a cemetery that time forgot, if not for people like Jess Rittenhouse. Tucked away on a ridge at the highest point in Harriman, the cemetery is the final resting place for some of the earliest families in the town’s history. Mayors and municipal leaders are buried here. And, for Jess, it’s hallowed ground where a hero is also buried – his son Matthew, a Harriman police officer who lost his life in the line of duty, on Sept. 16, 2004, when his cruiser crashed on a rain-slicked road during severe weather related to Hurricane Ivan. He was 25.

To honor his son, Jess Rittenhouse began volunteering at the 10-acre cemetery, which would be overgrown and unkempt if not for the volunteers who mow, trim and keep a watchful eye over the grounds. As cemetery board members retired, Jess eventually moved into a leadership role, which means that when he walked the grounds and saw erosion reaching precariously close to gravesites, it was a problem that he would worry about.

“People are dedicated to each other in our small community,” Rittenhouse said. So, it was only natural for C.R. Barger and Sons, a 5th generation Roane County business, to step in to help after hearing about the erosion issue. Eric Barger runs the precast concrete division of the company and had the perfect solution – a Stone Strong wall.

“We talked about it, and Eric said, ‘I believe we can help with that,’ and so I just sort of gave him carte blanche to do anything to help,” Rittenhouse said, “and they did a wonderful job.”

Not every big block precast concrete wall system would work on the steep terrain and narrow roads of an antebellum cemetery. But Stone Strong fit the bill. The Stone Strong system includes three sizes of block, ranging from a 6 sq. ft. face with 28 inches of depth to the hefty 24 sq. ft., 84-inch deep block. Their smaller block – the 6-28 – would fit the bill.
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Stone Strong Meets the Challenge
Eric’s wife Kelly Barger, who works in estimating and business development, said the slimmer profile of the 6-28 made it possible to meet the confining properties of the site. The small block weighs about 950 pounds versus the 6,000 pound standard Stone Strong block.

“You don’t have to excavate as much, and you’re able to use smaller equipment, so it’s really appealing for walls that are 4 ½ feet or under,” she said. The Stone Strong cemetery wall runs 40 ft. long and 3 ft. high.

Once they settled on the 6-28 blocks, they had to work through delivery and staging challenges.

“The cemetery is on a tall ridge and it’s a narrow road to get up there,” said Eric Barger. “We had to use a flatbed to do the deliveries because there was no way a tractor trailer could get in there. It was pretty much a challenge all the way around to get the blocks to the site.”

Because the road through the cemetery is only 10 feet wide, installer Randy Slauenwhite had to move the blocks from the bottom of the hill one-by-one with a Bobcat Skid Steer.

“It was a long way – about three-tenths of a mile at least,” Barger said. “But Randy was able to get the block unloaded and installed while also making sure we didn’t disturb the grounds.”

With the excavation complete and the blocks staged, the three-person installation team finished the wall in just one day. Slauenwhite has been installing Stone Strong for about a year, and has become a big fan.

“I think it’s a fantastic product,” he said. “It’s easier to work with, and it’s designed to hold back the bank – unlike cinderblock walls which are not designed to hold back a lot of weight. We’ve done Stone Strong 10 ½ feet tall, and I know they’ve done them quite a bit taller than that. It’s the only kind of wall I will do now,” he added. “After doing one of these walls, I won’t do any other type.”
We have done Stone Strong 10.5 feet tall, and I know they have done them quite a bit taller than that. It is the only kind of wall I will do now. After doing one of these walls, I will not do any other type.
Randy Slauenwhite, RGS Mechanical & Septic
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Family Ties
Like the Barger family, Jess Rittenhouse operates a family business that is highly invested in the community. Adkisson’s Flowers and Gifts was started by his wife’s family in 1946 and is now in its third generation. He appreciates the good will that goes behind the wall installation. It’s really more than just a wall. It’s a symbol of a tight knit community – people helping each other when they see a need. “The fact that their hearts would be touched with our needs, and the relationships, with our kids going to school together and all that. It’s like the circle of life,” Rittenhouse said.

For the Barger family, the project was also personal. Eric’s brother Wesley, who runs the on-site sewer technology division of Barger and Sons, was close friends with Matt Rittenhouse.

“That was the main reason we wanted to help,” Barger said. “This was a good fit for us. The wall is close to Matt’s resting place. It’s a cemetery that many people have long forgotten about, and the Rittenhouse family has made monumental efforts to keep the cemetery looking good. So, we appreciate the efforts of Jess and the other volunteer caretakers. It’s something we wanted to get behind.”

For Jess Rittenhouse, the cemetery offers a way to keep his son close.

“Matt was a special kind of person, where, if he saw something that needed to be done, he would see that it would get done,” Rittenhouse said. “A lot of times he would come to me and he’d say, ‘dad, you need to get involved with this.’ He was that kind of public servant.”

Jess is sure that if Matt had known about the cemetery falling into disrepair, he would have said something. “He would be telling me, ‘dad, you need to go clean that up,’” Rittenhouse said. “And so I do this in honor of the kind of man he was and the kind of man that we still hold – all that he is to us. It’s an honor to him, and we do it for the families we’ve never known. There are people buried there who we never knew. Matthew is in heaven with them now, and so we’re doing it for them and all the families that remain.”

Matthew Rittenhouse was a big man, his dad said. “He had arms like a football lineman.” He had one of those big arms tattooed with a Celtic cross after returning from Belfast, where he visited his sister who was teaching there. So when it came time to order a headstone, the family ordered a large Celtic cross carved from black Minnesota granite to match the tattoo on Matt’s arm.

“It’s very large, like he was,” his dad said. “And it’s one of the first things you see when you go around the curve up into the cemetery. It’s almost like he’s standing there.”
It is one of the first things you see when you go around the curve up into the cemetery. It is almost like he is standing there.
Jess Rittenhouse
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