Nothing against Dolly and Elvis, but you can have Dollywood and Graceland. I’ll take paths less trampled, within a day’s round-trip drive of Nashville, Knoxville or Chattanooga.
Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston hitched their horses, slept on a dirt floor and (maybe) enjoyed some possum suppers.
Built around 1835 on the Wilderness Trail from Knoxville to Nashville, the Rock House sits just off Highway 70, 4 miles east of Sparta. A stretch of the old road, along which pioneer wagons creaked and adventurers’ spurs jangled, is still visible.
The rock exterior and much of the wooden interior is original, including the low-arched doorway through which stooped such formidable frontiersmen as Jackson, Houston and James K. Polk.
The house was erected as a toll booth/inn. For a quarter, overnight guests got a bowl of whatever was cooking in the pot over the fire – tour guide Rick Wood says possum was a staple – and could spread their bedrolls on the earthen floor in front of the hearth. Breakfast consisted of whatever was left over from supper. So much for room service.
The house contains photos, artifacts, period furniture and documents chronicling some of the area’s colorful characters and history.
Numerous graves are on the grounds, some unmarked, including those of Civil War soldiers who died of wounds or illness while serving in the vicinity.
The Rock House website details days and hours of operation. Even when the house is not open for tours, it can be visited and viewed from the outside, along with the grounds and historical markers. Information
Old Stone Fort
One slight historical correction: The old fort is not really a, well, fort.
Situated on the Duck River near Manchester, the Stone Fort is said to have been a solace-inspired ceremonial gathering place for Native Americas some 2,000 years ago.
Unearthed artifacts indicate the site was on the bucket list for visitors as far away as upstate New York. Must have been some ceremony. Or a heckuva party.
Construction of the stone wall that surrounds the 50-acre enclosure is mind-boggling to contemplate. Like the pyramids, the walls required generations of laborers to complete. I suspect the same contractor did my kitchen.
During the Civil War, Union troops camped and conducted operations from the site.
Remnants of an old mill perch on the riverbank. Mossy walls tower 15 feet high, the huge stone blocks weighing over a ton – again making the sheer numbers of aching backs remarkable to comprehend.
The entrance to the archeological park has an interpretative center displaying historical and geographical artifacts. And T-shirts.
On the way to Manchester, an interesting stop is Beech Grove’s Civil War cemetery. In addition to soldiers who died in a nearby battle, the cemetery contains graves of some of the area’s earliest settlers.
The pioneer graves have a macabre feature: large stones are stacked atop them to prevent predators that roamed the frontier from digging up the deceased. Information
Long-hunter Bigfoot Spencer spent a winter here in a hollow tree, eating parched corn and dried buffalo and (presumably) wishing he had chosen a better travel agent.
The Castilian Springs area is the Cradle of Civilization in Middle Tennessee.
It is where the first permanent white settlers planted a crop, the scene of fierce Indian battles and features frontier dwellings ranging from lavish mansions to one-room log huts, back before zoning codes.
Located between Gallatin and Hartsville, there’s more frontier lore here than you can shake a muzzleloader at.
A springhouse in the hollow below the Bledsoe Lick fort cooled milk, butter and other perishables. Inside the crumbling rock structure icy water still gurgles, just as it did some 250 years ago when it served as the family fridge.
Down the trail from the spring house is the Cavern of Skulls. The cave, when discovered by early explorers, was full of – yep – human skulls. Anthropologists don’t know if they were placed there as a ceremonial ritual, or if it was a trophy room for warring tribes. Whatever it was, it’s still creepy.
An arrow-shot away from the Cavern of Skulls is the Belote Cemetery where the Bledsoe brothers lie. Anthony was ambushed by Indians in 1799, and his brother Isaac met the same fate five years later.
The cemetery is located on Avery’s Trace, the main travel route from East to Middle Tennessee. Authentic log cabins squat nearby, sagging under the weight of moss and time.
A couple of miles away stands a somber monument to Ziegler’s Fort, whose male defenders were wiped out in an Indian raid. Women and children survivors were marched off to an encampment near present-day Chattanooga, a harrowing trek of some 200 miles through the wilderness.
Back near the Bledsoe Station, a granite stone marks the spot of the giant sycamore that sheltered Bigfoot Spencer through a bitter winter. Come spring, he planted what is said to be the first crop in Middle Tennessee by a white settler and – tired of living in a tree – also built the first cabin.
The area teemed with buffalo, elk and other animals attracted to the salt licks, making it a desirable and disputed hunting ground for Indians and settlers. Only flint arrowheads, old bones and ghosts remain.
Other points of interest are Wynnewood and Cragfont – five-star mansions by frontier standards – and the humble ancestral home of William Bate, future Civil War general and Tennessee Governor. Information
Old Salem Cemetery
What is a consort, and might your great-grandmother have been one?
Historians differ over the definition. Some claim a consort was a common-law wife, others say she was a woman married to a widower. Others admit they have no idea what a consarned consort was.
Whomever they were, their markers are frequently found in pioneer cemeteries such as Old Salem near Bell Buckle, and in the afore-mentioned Belote Cemetery in Castilian Springs.
One tombstone is engraved: “In Memory of Mrs. Lucy Cornwell. Consort of Enoch Cornwell. Born Sept. 27, 1812. Departed this life June 9, 1850.”
Today “consort” has a negative connotation, as in “consorting with the enemy,” but that doesn’t seem to have been the case back then.
Lucy evidently had no qualms about being eternally etched in stone as a consort, and Enoch was apparently proud to claim her as such.
The Old Salem Cemetery is an interesting stopover on the way to Bell Buckle and Wartrace.
Bell Buckle is known for its antique shops and Moon Pie Festival, but visitors can also stroll flowery lanes and view some of quaintest architecture this side of a gingerbread house.
Down the road, Wartrace was named for a prominent Indian trail, or trace. Later, a real estate agent named Andrew Jackson acquired much of the surrounding acreage and sold it to developers.
For Native Americans, there went the neighborhood.
During the Civil War, Wartrace was an important railroad junction, where local young soldiers kissed mothers and sweethearts goodbye, many never to return.
The community later hosted Tennessee Walking Horse shows and its posh hotels became popular with gentry who liked to horse around.
Wartrace is the hometown of Fred Russell, who moved to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University and went on to national acclaim as sports editor of the Nashville Banner. Some of Russell’s finest writing involved nostalgic reminisces of his carefree Wartrace boyhood. Today a marker commemorates the Russell House. Information
Here’s where Aunt Cord showed who wore the pantaloons in the family.
A historical marker on the Camden town square proudly proclaims in 1920 Cordelia “Aunt Cord” Beasley became the first woman to vote in Tennessee when she cast a ballot in a municipal election.
A few miles west of town in a deep, shadowy hollow, another marker commemorates a more dismal event: On that site on March 5, 1963, country music diva Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at age 30. An engraved granite stone marks the fateful spot.
An equal distance to the east is Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, home to the Tennessee River Folklife Museum. Located atop Pilot Knob, the highest point in the state west of the river, the museum features Civil War exhibits, artwork, artifacts and a video documentary about the Battle of Johnsonville. It also offers free popcorn.
Much of the museum is devoted to life on the river – exhibits, vintage photos and indigenous wild critters – including snakes, which visitors can hold if they insist.
There is information about early inhabitants, from Native Americans to frontier farmers, loggers and fishermen. Included in the exhibits is an authentic “brail boat” used to harvest mussels. The rivermen lived on the barge-like boat in a cramped hut, toiled from dawn till dark, and ate a lot of catfish and mush. It probably wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.
Pearls from mussels are on display, along with buttons and jewelry made from the iridescent shells. The shells were sometimes used for the unique custom of decorating graves.
Faded sepia photos show rivermen – and riverwomen – proudly hoisting their catches, alongside shelves of such yummies as canned carp.
A museum deck offers a panoramic view of the sprawling Tennessee River. Rocking chairs and mockingbirds are provided.
Across the river lies New Johnsonville (so named after Forrest burned old Johnsonville.) New Johnsonville’s State Historic Park features a Civil War museum, historical markers, cannons, river vistas and miles of walking trails.
Look out for poison ivy. It’s easy to spot: it’s those three-leaved plants tangled around your bare ankles. Information
If you like cornbread, moonshine and Elvis (and who doesn’t?) this is the place for you.
The community sprang up as a bustling, bawdy riverfront town on the Cumberland, then almost died of neglect when the river traffic dried up and pooped the party.
It was revived by a big dose of nostalgia.
Granville has something retro going on year-round: antique car shows, old-fashioned Christmases, old-time gospel music, Elvis and I Love Lucy exhibits, and 1950s sock-hops. And of course the Moonshine and Cornbread Festival.
For a trip back through time, step through the screen door of the Sutton General Store. I’ve toured it numerous times, and on every visit I discover something new – I mean something old – from moustache wax to a chamber pot.
If you’re into vintage farm implements there’s a museum just for you, and across the street is a century-old barber shop where a Granville youngster named Albert Gore might have gotten his first haircut.
If you want to learn more about riverboat-era history, inquire at the archives building. There’s where I discovered how the nearby community of Nameless got its name. Or lack thereof.
The original settlers argued about what to name the place, according to an old newspaper clipping. The dispute became heated. Finally – as a compromise or in a snit – they decided not to name it anything. Today it remains nameless, with a capital N.
Down the road is the community of Difficult. Legend states an early citizen wrote to Washington requesting a post office for the growing community.
The clerk who received the letter had trouble deciphering the scribbled hand-writing. He wrote “This is Difficult” on the envelope and passed it on to a superior – who assumed that was the name of the place. Difficult got its post office – and its name.
It could have been worse. The clerk could have written “This is Illegible.”