July 22 will mark the 84th anniversary of Nick Grindstaff’s demise. His gravestone reads: “Lived alone, suffered alone, died alone,” but in the 1870’s he was one of Johnson County, TN’s most colorful residents. Grindstaff was born on December 26, 1851. By the time he was three years old both his mother, Mary Heaton Grindstaff, and his father, Isaac Grindstaff, had died. Nick and his three orphaned siblings lived with relatives until Nick was 21 years old, at which time the parents’ farm was divided equally among the children. Nick built a house on his portion and began to farm the land. After five years of farming Nick sold his farm and decided to go west.
He was an adventurer, and like so many young men of that era, smelled his fortune in California gold. While there he met, fell in love with, and married a young woman. The woman died.
On his way back to Johnson County, legend says Grindstaff was coaxed into the rear of a saloon by a “lovely lady,” whose partner in crime robbed him of his fortune. In another version of this story, he was not robbed, but drank all his money away when his wife out west died; when he became destitute he moved back to Johnson County. In either case, he returned to Tennessee and bought land on top of Iron Mountain, were he lived for 40 years as a hermit with only his dog Panter, a steer and a pet rattlesnake (said to have been killed by a man named Sam Lowe) for company.
On July 21, 1923 Baxter McEwen went by to check on Nick. He found him dead on the bunk in his hut. His faithful dog had been keeping watch over his master’s dead body for the previous three or four days. The dog had to be tied before men could carry out Nick’s body. Nick was buried, with 200 in attendance, on the mountain peak where he had lived. The house was eventually dismantled for the wood and tin, but the imprint is still on the ground surrounding the gravesite.
Two years later locals erected a chimney-shaped monument made out of mountain granite, which even included some of Nick’s pots and pans in the construction. The citizen who kept the general store down in Shady Valley, Tennessee, where Grindstaff would buy his meal and bacon twice a year, wrote the words. Somebody had to. Nick Grindstaff was a special man, with a story no one ever quite knew.
Today the Appalachian Trail passes by the area. The Appalachian Trail Conference maintains the monument that marks Nick’s burial site.