As I mentioned in my recent July post about Johnson City, I have made a concerted effort during my four years of Tennessee residency to take in as much of the state’s natural and political history as possible. For starters, I visit my sister in Memphis once or twice each year, and often stop off in Nashville along the way. The state’s two largest cities have much to offer, and my August, 2016 post on the subject remains one of my most-read entries. Secondly, I hit up the state’s spectacular hiking trails as often as possible. Panther Creek and Seven Islands are two favorite tramping spots close to where I live, while Cummins Falls, further afield, has a short, but tough, hike to the spectacular falls in question. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the jewels of the national park system, is 90 minutes by car with traffic, and I could write pages upon pages about the joys of hiking in the Smokies. Finally, I commute to Knoxville each day for work, and have gotten to know that city almost as well as places like my original hometown of Chicago or my beloved Mexico City.
Tennessee began as a series of settlements in the late 1700’s, farmsteads usually established on or close to one of Tennessee’s many rivers, and grew from there. Few buildings from that time period remain, although you will find some early 19th-century brick “Federalist” architectural gems in towns like Jonesborough and Rogersville, and several in Johnson City. If it is log cabins, moonshine stills, and one-room schoolhouses that you are looking for, however, you’ll have to look a bit harder; most are preserved at various public parks and open-air museums. Here are just a few:
Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site
The outskirts of Johnson City play host to a mid 19th-century farmstead that was built by one of the area’s first settlers, pre-Civil War Colonel John Tipton, and his slave, George Haynes. The modern visitor center has a lovely floral garden lining its entrance, and a few placards on the region’s Civil War-era history that are too complicated for easy summary here. Chickens were roaming freely on the grounds behind the visitor center during my visitor, and I, in turn, roamed freely among the farm sheds and other buildings on the grounds. The Tipton-Haynes law office and home were closed during my visit – guided tours through the buildings only run during the school year – so instead I wandered down to the spring house and the idyllic Pond of Peace, then beyond, where a limestone cave, not visible from the upper grounds, beckoned. I squeezed through a cave passage to a loop trail which wound through the woods behind the cave. Although it would have been nice to tour the house itself, I still enjoyed myself and found the $5 entrance fee reasonable.
Hours are sporadic; visit http://www.tipton-haynes.org/ to learn more.
Davy Crockett Birthplace
Tiny Limestone, TN is a sleepy backwater near the Nolichucky River, and while it isn’t the easiest place to find to begin with, it is of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety even when driving directly through it. The town, south of Greeneville, has one thing going for it, though: it is home to David Crockett Birthplace State Historic Park. It was here, in 1786, that the Tennessee congressman and Alamo martyr was born. During my first visit, in 2016, a one-room replica cabin was built near the exact spot where it was believed that Crockett was born (on a bluff above the river). I returned two years later to hike along the river itself, and the cabin was no more. In its place, several smaller outbuildings were constructed, including a corn crib and a horse corral. The state park administrators, who are to be commended, are attempting to recreate the actual farmstead environment. It should be known that the park’s campground is one of the better ones in the state, and that the hiking trails on the grounds pass through some daunting thickets of poison ivy.
All state parks have free admission; visit https://tnstateparks.com/parks/david-crockett-birthplace for information on pool hours and campground prices.
The Marble Springs State Historic Site, perhaps better known as the Governor John Sevier Home, is a farmstead in South Knoxville, seemingly worlds away from the bustle of the state’s first capital. Sevier, a Revolutionary War hero and governor not only of Tennessee but of the short-lived State of Franklin before that, once faced off against the aforementioned John Tipton politically, and is said to have lived in a cabin on the grounds here. Other period buildings, including a tavern, were relocated here from other parts of the state, while some University of Tennessee researchers claim that the Sevier cabin itself is not the original structure. Wherever it was first constructed, my favorite building is the loom house, besides which a short trail leads down to the titular spring. (The “marble” in the name refers to the marble slate that grows in the vicinity.) Guided tours are $5, and my docent, John, humored me as I took pictures of him demonstrating the log press. I made sure to hike the forest trails that traverse the site’s periphery, and in addition to the turtle pictured below, I encountered roughly 5,000 spiderwebs and 10,000 mosquitoes. Suffice to say, I had a great time. Pets are welcome.
The upper grounds can be rented for camping and group events; check out http://www.marblesprings.net/ to learn more.
Museum of Appalachia
I wrote about the Museum of Appalachia in more detail in my November, 2015 blog post, and will give it just a paragraph’s worth of mention here. This Norris, TN open-air museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian, and features what may be the country’s best collection of regional farm machinery and literal backwoods cabins from the mountain regions of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. The gravel road to the visitor center winds past a working farm with cows, goats, and horses, and the main concentration of buildings includes more livestock in the form of chickens, goats and peacocks. Among other period buildings, you’ll find a one-room schoolhouse, a gristmill, and a smokehouse, as well as a cantilever barn and a whiskey still used by Popcorn Sutton. The visitor center includes a restaurant and a first-rate general store.
Visit http://www.museumofappalachia.org/ for hours and directions.
Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park
Further west, the birthplace and family home of World War I hero Sergeant York, in Pall Mall, is just a few miles into the Central Time Zone. If you don’t know the story by now, Alvin Cullom York was a talented marksman and reformed Christian who, after being drafted during WWI, applied for conscientious objector status, but found his appeal denied and was sent to the front lines, where he almost single-handedly captured over 100 German soldiers without firing a shot. He turned down all subsequent offers of movie stardom and returned to run the family farm. Guided tours are offered of the family home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can wander freely among the other buildings. A hiking trail leads to a “Temple of Doom”-style suspension bridge across the Wolf River, the opposite bank of which abuts the cemetery in which York and his family are buried. In addition to the swing bridge, kids will have fun scampering through a recreated WWI trench. The scenic drive north from I-40 along Highway 127 passes by the Cumberland Plateau and through miles of farm-dotted countryside.
Visit the official state park website at https://tnstateparks.com/parks/sgt-alvin-c-york for more information.
Not all of the historical figures that figure into the sites above are household names, but their stories helped shape the Volunteer State and the Southeast in general, for better and for worse. But whether, like me, you live in Tennessee or are just passing through, you can do far worse than to pass few hours of time at any of these fascinating sites. Although Davy Crockett, George Haynes, John Sevier, Popcorn Sutton, John Tipton, and Alvin York have all passed on, their spirits linger. And as visitors to their farmsteads and pioneer villages, you may want to linger, too.