I was inspired to write this post in preparation for an upcoming major event in my home town… a solar eclipse on August 21, 2017!
I have this relationship with my home town. I really feel like the whole county is my home town. There are just over 19,000 people in the county, which is less than half the number of people in my current city! This is where I was born. It’s where I learned to swim. It’s where I lived down the street from my best friend until we moved all the way across the river when I was 10. It’s where I went through my awkward phases and where I marched as a majorette with the Pride of the Upper Cumberland Marching Band. It’s where I got attacked by a rooster while bottle-feeding my baby goat, Stanton. It’s the place I couldn’t wait to get away from and go see the world.
Smith County is full of people you’ll find in any small town. There are busy bodies, church ladies, and communities of people who will band together in hard times and see each other through. I had to leave to fully appreciate that. Now I’m coming full circle and learning more about the history of my home town, Smith County, Tennessee. And remembering what is it to be from a small town.
First of all, on the way to town, we got into a traffic jam!
And then we walked around town for a bit before meeting up with our friend at the Smith County Heritage Museum.
And then we got to the heart of it–the Smith County Heritage Museum. If you’ve never played tourist or taken an interest in your town’s (or county’s) history, consider it. I never really thought about my own homeland’s history until recently, but I’m so glad I did because I really did grow up in an interesting place!
The building that houses the Smith County Heritage Museum is the old Stephens Manufacturing Co. shirt factory that operated until the 1980s. As you walk around on the original hardwood floors, you can still see straight pins that fell between the planks!
Just around the corner from the Heritage Museum is the Walton Hotel. When I was little I always thought it was beautiful and would be an incredible coffee shop, bookstore, or maybe a B&B. But what I didn’t know is that it’s named for William Walton, the frontiersman and surveyor who gave the original land that is now Smith County, and the man who forged the first major road through the area.
OK, so it needs a little love these days. I would love to see it roar back to life!
So what did people do when Tennessee was just coming into its own as a territory and in its early days of statehood? They farmed. And they still farm. My parents live on a farm! Farming is so important to Smith County, we even have a special distinction for farms that have operated within the same family for 100 years or more.
They’re called “Century Farms,” and here are the requirements for the distinction and for inclusion in the Heritage Museum:
I also learned a little something about my elementary school. I went to Union Heights School from fourth grade to eighth grade, and I always wondered why it was called “Union.” The “Heights” part was logical enough, since it sits on a hill, but when it was built and began as a school, it combined (or unified!) four existing schools: Rawls Creek School, Knobton School, Flat Rock School, and Sulfur Springs School. But even when those schools combined, there were fewer kids in the Kindergarten-8th grades than there are in a typical grade level in a typical grade school!
And what’s even more important than schooling in the South? Church. And Smith County has its share of small churches throughout the county. Here’s an example:
Aside from farming, schooling, and churching, zinc mining is an important industry for my home county. The zinc mine actually had to close a few years ago due to economic factors, and it was pretty devastating for a lot of families. It’s open again now, but the county took quite a hit in the meantime.
And speaking of hard work and handy stones, the Heritage Museum has quite the collection of arrowheads and tools:
But one of the biggest surprises to me on my walk through the Heritage Museum was Deford Bailey. Not only was he an early member of the Grand Old Opry, he had a hand in coining the name! Our guide, Mrs. Pam, even said there was a couple from Paris, France, who came in one day and wanted to see the Deford Bailey exhibit. All the way from Paris!
So what else is a big deal in a small town? Sports. I am willing to bet that Gordonsville High School and Smith County High School (both in Smith County) have one of the most highly charged rivalries in the state. And the Gordonsville/Smith County football game is the most anticipated game of the year. I went to Smith County High School, and we beat Gordonsville the vast majority of the time, but Gordonsville High School is the one with two state championships–and a professional baseball player as well!
Tommy Bridges played for the Gordonsville Tigers in high school, then in the Major Leagues as the pitcher for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s!
But like many players in the 1930s, and many small town boys and men as well, Bridges went off to war. Those who served are honored in the Heritage Museum as well. Many local residents and their descendants have donated uniforms and artifacts.
After a fun and enlightening trip to the Smith County Heritage Museum, it was time to head out to the lake! Smith County has some of the best lakes, campgrounds, and hiking trails in the state. Take a look!
If you want to visit the Smith County Heritage Museum, They are open Thursdays 12:00-4:00pm; Fridays 10:00am-2:00pm; and Saturdays 10:00am-2:00pm. Stay tuned for more blog posts about Smith County, TN!