The picture above is of Main Street in Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee. Jonesborough, founded in 1779, during the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, pre-dates Tennessee as a state, and was established as the capital of Washington County, North Carolina.
Tennessee itself finally gained statehood in 1796, with Knoxville, located in the eastern third of the state, serving at the state’s first capital. As Tennessee – and the U.S. – expanded westward, the capital eventually moved to Nashville. But the earliest seeds in what later became known as “The Volunteer State” were sown in and around Knoxville. Nearly all of the state’s pre-Civil War towns still exist. The luckiest thrive as tourism towns for history buffs, day trippers, and antiques collectors. Jonesborough, which I wrote about in more detail last August, is just one of several. Here are four more.
Morristown is the one-trick pony of Hamblen County. Despite having a population of less than 30,000 people, Morristown features some formidable traffic, particularly along its main east-west thoroughfare through town, Andrew Johnson Highway (named after the former U.S. president – but more on him later). The vehicles may belong to rural farmers driving to one of the four (!) Walmarts that have set up shop around town. This will, no doubt, put the non-Wally World grocery stores in Morristown at peril; the shopping mall on the edge of town is already dying.
But Morristown isn’t a bad place. Like Jonesborough, Morristown has a touristy Main Street; this one even features a tattoo parlor, as well as a few restaurants to feed the numerous antique shop proprietors. The picture above is of the Morristown SkyMart, an upper-level sidewalk the likes of which is said not to exist anywhere else in the world. The Coca-Cola sign in the picture below dates back to the 1940s but was given a lick of fresh paint and re-dedicated last summer in an impressive ceremony that included free food catered by Jersey Girl Diner, a Main Street, Morristown eatery that is one of the best lunch spots in the area. (Alas, it isn’t open past 7 p.m., and is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Such limited hours are commonplace in “Main Street” communities.) The website for Coca-Cola featured an article published just four days ago about lettering artist Jack Fralin, who touched up the sign.
The SkyMart is regularly decorated for the holidays. White lights and holly are strung around the picture-perfect lampposts that line both sides of Main Street. I love the image below, deliberately out of focus and taken by yours truly in December, 2014 while waiting for the Morristown Christmas Parade to begin:
If my opening paragraph about Morristown sounded harsh, know that the town has one major drawcard in addition to its one-of-a-kind SkyMart: Panther Creek State Park. Over 30 miles of well-maintained trails meander through 1,435 forested limestone acres near scenic Cherokee Lake.
Greeneville, east of Morristown and closer to the North Carolina border than to Knoxville, is big enough to house a federal courthouse but small enough to have a walkable central corridor. Greeneville is most famous as the pre- and post-presidency home of 17th U.S. president Andrew Johnson. Several downtown buildings, including the house in which he retired, are open to the public and are managed by the National Park Service as Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. Though born in Raleigh, NC, Johnson spent most of his life in Greeneville. You can take a tour of his residence, known as the Homestead, and you can also visit his tailor shop (a building carefully preserved inside another building).
Andrew Johnson died of a stroke in 1875, and was buried alongside wife Eliza at Signal Hill, a glorious hilltop resting place on the outskirts of downtown Greeneville. Andrew Johnson National Cemetery is part of the national historic site, and makes the perfect capstone to your visit to Greeneville. I can certainly think of worse places to be buried.
Another point of interest downtown, this one related to the Civil War, is the “cannonball church.” Cumberland Presbyterian Church, on Main Street, features a cannonball lodged in its front exterior wall, just above the entrance. Uncertainly remains as to whether the cannonball that is planted there today is the original weapon. What do you think?
Greeneville plays host to two more cultural sites: the Niswonger Performing Arts Center, and the General Morgan Inn. The former is a 1,130-capacity concert hall that hosts touring artists. Recent performers include Vince Gill, the Charlie Daniels Band, and one of the countless inceptions of Cirque du Soleil. The latter is a tavern-turned hotel that has been in operation in one form or another since the 1790’s, and that has housed three U.S. presidents, earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel is home to Brumley’s Restaurant, an “upscale casual” restaurant specializing in southern cuisine. Check out the menu here.
Located midway between Greeneville in the east and Morristown in the west, Rogersville is the second-oldest town in Tennessee, as well as the seat of Hawkins County. The 180-year-old county courthouse is still in use today, while the adjacent row of red brick buildings that front Main Street are considered the country’s best surviving example of Federalist architecture. This one-two punch of historic buildings justifiably helped get Rogersville listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
I last visited Rogersville on a sunny autumn day in 2014. Fall leaves were at their peak, and it was while perusing an antique shop with wares spread over three levels that I learned, courtesy of the shop’s septuagenarian proprietor, that Rogersville was first settled by the grandparents of future Alamo hero Davy Crockett. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cemetery, set into low land on an otherwise unremarkable side street at the edge of a town, features the graves of the Crocketts and of founder James Rogers.
I don’t have the bankroll to dine here myself, but Amis Mill Eatery, on the edge of town, is considered by many to be the best restaurant in town. The eatery is part of Thomas Amis Historic Site, the oldest stone dam in Tennessee, built in 1770. Take Ebbing Flowing Springs Road southeast out of Rogersville, continue south on Bear Hollow Road and you’ll find the dam and restaurant at 127 W. Bear Hollow Road.
Moreso than in most other small Tennessee towns, Rogersville stood out to me for having a series of stately, manor-style homes, set back from Main Street on large, leafy lots. The picture below is an excellent case in point:
The final “Main Street” community of this post is located due north of Knoxville. Clinton, population 9,908 as of the 2013 census, is a fun place to while away an afternoon. The town’s Main Street corridor features a historic movie palace and an adjacent Rexall pharmacy (see pic below). This time, however, most antique shops line Market Street, not Main Street. I always enjoy dining at non-chain restaurants, and during my visit last week, my mom and I ate lunch at Jessi’s Blue Plate, on the corner of Market and Main Streets. Visit their FB page to sample the menu at facebook.com/jessiblueplate.
That being said, the biggest – and best – bric-a-brac shop is Cadence Antique Emporium, just around the corner at 307 N. Main Street. Their collection of antiques and collectibles include over 3,500 LPs and a still-working soda fountain. They, too, have a FB page; check out facebook.com/CadenceCT.
Clinton was founded in 1801 as “Burrville,” in honor of Aaron Burr. Burr, as you probably know, was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president (and a supporting character in the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” written over 200 years later). What I didn’t know until doing research for this post was that Burr fell from political grace not after slaying Alexander Hamilton in a pistol duel, but after conspiring to form another country from land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Meanwhile, Burr’s political rival, NYC mayor George Clinton, stood idly by, watching the duelist succumb to charges of treason. Thus, “Burrville” became “Clinton.”
History was made during the struggle for Civil Rights in the year 1956 when, following the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Clinton High School became the first public school in the south in which African-American students – 12 of them, later known as the “Clinton 12” – enrolled for classes. Controversy and riots surrounding their enrollment led to the school being bombed in 1958, although it was quickly rebuilt. Today, the school is home to the Green McAdoo Cultural Center.
Are there any “Main Street communities” where you live?