WALKER COUNTY, Ga. - The low-key community of Noble resembles many of the unsophisticated communities dotting the rural highways of north Georgia's Appalachian ridge country.
The nearest Wal-Mart is about five miles to the south in the city of LaFayette. Litter is common along U.S. Highway 27, the main road to Noble, which lies sandwiched between Pigeon Mountain and Peavine Ridge.
Noble, unincorporated and lacking a local government, has no traffic lights or grocery stores.
Deputy Sheriff Todd Franklin, a Walker County native, said the only crimes of any significance in the area are occasional break-ins.
"Nothing goes on in Noble," said Deputy Franklin, who has lived in Walker County all his life. "There's nothing in Noble."
Last weekend, however, the serenity of Noble was shattered when a human skull was found in the parched red-clay soil behind Tri-State Crematory.
Investigators have since found the remains of 306 corpses hidden throughout the property of the Marsh family, the owners of Tri-State since it was established in 1982.
Police say they believe that Tri-State owner Ray Brent Marsh, 28, has been stashing the bodies for years - probably with the help of his father, Ray Marsh - instead of cremating them as they were paid to do.
The grim discovery sent shock waves through the county, puzzling residents of a place that rarely causes a stir.
THE LAST TIME residents recall their sleepy county being the center of international news was 139 years ago, when the Confederate Army successfully repelled advancing Union troops in the Battle of Chickamauga, north of Noble. More than 3,900 soldiers were killed during the three-day skirmish in Chickamauga, a town whose name comes from a Cherokee word meaning "river of death."
Now, with the tragedy of Tri-State Crematory unfolding, the community struggles to make sense of what Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson has dubbed "the largest tragedy our nation has experienced since September 11."
Hugh Odom, a park ranger at Chickamauga Battlefield, was horrified when he learned the former principal of his neighborhood's school was sent to Tri-State for cremation several years ago.
"I've never heard of anything like this before," he said. "No one knows how to respond."
John Holcomb brought his wife, Ethel, to Noble on Feb. 18, shortly after she discovered her sister Edith Gowens was cremated at Tri-State.
"They told us (three years ago) at the funeral home that she'd be sent to Atlanta to be cremated," said Mr. Holcomb, a retired logger who lives in Trenton, a small town north of Noble in Dade County.
"Somebody had their eyes shut," he said. "Somebody wasn't looking."
Sheriff Wilson, the man in charge of the 125 workers combing the Marshes' property, says his focus is on the families who have been victimized.
"I would like to see all the remains down there identified," he said. "But Dr. Sperry said he doesn't think that's likely."
Many families might have moved away or died in recent years, making identification of some corpses impossible, Dr. Sperry said.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is the condition of the corpses.
"The bodies are so tangled, so intermingled," Dr. Sperry said. "Some were stacked in body bags, others were in clothes, others in hospital gowns. It's like taking a hundred jigsaw puzzles, pouring them on the floor and trying to put them back together upside- down."
WHILE MANY FAMILIES are reliving the grief of losing their loved ones all over again, the law enforcement and disaster workers assigned to the case are facing their own personal difficulties.
"Our veteran agents are saying it's really something they've never experienced before," said Debbi Metz, a GBI spokeswoman.
Investigators began combing through the collection of bodies Feb. 16 on the property of Ray and Clara Marsh, the elderly, original owners of the crematory. More than 300 bodies have been recovered from the Marshes' land. Some were stacked in muddy pits and others were crammed into metal vaults, one of which contained more than 40 corpses.
"We're trying to keep a clear mind," said Sheriff Wilson, who spent three years in the FBI before he became Walker County's sheriff.
"We begin each morning with a devotional on site," he said. "I think the community is rallying around us. Everyone knows we're working hard."
The daily chore of walking among mummified corpses, including those of several infants, has taken its toll on the workers.
Colin Walker, a Georgia State Patrol trooper assigned to guard the Marshes' property said he is thankful his 12-hour shift is during daylight hours.
"I wouldn't want to be out here at night," he said.
Ever since the bodies of Tri-State were discovered, a constant outpouring of emotion and prayer has flowed into Noble.
Steve Saine was so worried about the mental health of the workers that he went to the grocery store and bought about 30 boxes of cookies and cakes for them.
Several funeral homes have volunteered to cremate the corpses for free after they are identified.
Still, Sheriff Wilson recognizes it may take some time before Noble and Walker County are able to move on from their woes.
"It's not over," he said. "We have a long road ahead of us. We ask that everyone be patient with us."
Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.