For my first couple weeks in Tennessee, I referred to my location as Southcentral Tennessee. I soon learned the proper name was Middle Tennessee. The state of Tennessee is shaped like a leaning rectangle and if you section it into thirds, you get west Tennessee, east Tennessee and, you guessed it, Middle Tennessee. I spent six weeks in the area.
During my stay, I learned another new term. Destination campground. A destination campground is one close to desired tourist destinations. Any campground near Disneyland is a destination campground. The Jellystone in Texas where I stayed in February is a destination campground because of all the things to do at the campground as well as the many nearby tourist attractions.
I learned the term during a conversation with the owner where I was staying. He said his campground “was not a destination campground.” As soon as he said the words I knew exactly what he meant. Most people stopped only overnight on their way to some other place.
I took advantage of the discount by staying a month. I chose the campground because there were lots of places to visit within driving distance. So, I used the campground as a hub and my adventures were the spokes spreading out from there.
More Presidential Visits
I had no idea when I started this journey that Presidential houses would hold so much fascination for me. Except for the White House, I hadn’t been in a single presidential home prior to life on the road. After visiting LBJ’s Ranch in Texas, I found a few more Presidential places in Tennessee.
Three of our past presidents called Tennessee home. I didn’t make it to Andrew Johnson’s house in east Tennessee because it was too far. But I thoroughly enjoyed the two that were in Middle Tennessee, as you can see below.
A few days before I left Tennessee, I drove to Nashville to visit Andrew Jackson’s estate he named the Hermitage. It is a French for retreat. It’s a beautiful estate. I thoroughly enjoyed the three and a half hours I spent and could’ve easily spent another hour. But Solstice waited in the car. I assumed she and I could walk the grounds together then I could tour the house while she waited. But the entire estate is behind a gate and pets are not permitted.
After paying the $20 fee, enter into the museum. It’s best to start with the short film to get the highlights of Jackson’s life and presidency. Then walk the museum. From there go out the back to get to the Hermitage. The dressed-in-costume tour guides are excellent. After the tour of the Hermitage, you can walk the property to some of the slave cabins, fields where they worked and other buildings.
One unique feature—or at least it was a first for me–is the audio tour guide you can check out. The device looks like a phone. As you walk the path, there are posts with numbers. Punch the number into the phone and the voice will provide general history or information or will explain the significance of what you are looking at.
Since I cannot share everything, let me share a few things that stuck with me about the house and the man:
- Jackson purchased slaves to build his house. His original two-story Hermitage was simple. After he married and had the much grander Hermitage built, he separated the two-stories into two one-story houses for slave quarters.
- Inside the home is the bed where Jackson took his last breath in June 1845 at the age of 78.
- It became a museum in 1889 and, since then, sixteen million people have visited.
- Jackson participated in two wars and was the last president to serve in the American Revolution. He did so at the age of 13. He served as a General during the War of 1812.
- In Jackson’s study, the tour guide pointed to a barrel chair and told us it was Jackson’s favorite. Then he shared the story behind the chair. It was George Washington’s chair. Jackson long admired the chair but when Washington died, he left the chair to his doctor. Jackson got to know that doctor during his time as president and when the doctor died, he left it to Jackson. That said, the actual chair is not the one we were looking at. The reason? George Washington’s home and museum, Mount Vernon, asked to borrow the original. And hen never gave it back. Instead, they commissioned the reproduction plus gave a financial contribution to the Hermitage. You just know there’s more to the story. But that’s the version we got.
But what I liked best was learning of Jackson’s passion and believe that government truly was about and for the people. Andrew Jackson strengthened the power of the president and the executive branch of government. As stated on the Hermitage’s website: “Jackson fought hard to restore a nation of “We the People” and give voice to all those he represented as President.”
But he was a complicated man. “We” in “We the People” did not include blacks, women or Indians. He owned slaves and did not free them at his death. Opportunities for women and free blacks were almost nonexistent and that didn’t change under his administration. And American Indians continued to be systematically displaced.
The tag line at the Hermitage is Home of the People’s President. It’s said that we might be living in a very different country today had Andrew Jackson not been elected and changed the role of the president and the way representatives govern.
James K. Polk’s House and Museum
The 11th US President was James K. Polk and the house in Columbia is his only surviving residence. Except the White House, of course. His father built the house, the first two-story structure in Columbia, while Polk was in college. After Polk graduated, he lived in the house, practicing law, until his marriage six years later.
It was fascinating to learn Polk had no interest in a second term because he kept all his campaigns promises during his first term. However, because he was popular, he found it necessary to send a representative to the Democratic Convention to ensure he was not nominated for a second term.
Turned out to be a good thing. He died of cholera three months after he left office. His wife, Sarah, put on a black mourning dress and wore black until her death, 43 years later. The artifacts in the house that I found most compelling had more to do with Sarah than Polk. My favorites were:
- Her most prized possession was a desk that belonged to Dolly Madison. Sarah had admired it during a visit to the White House and, later, Dolly sent it to her.
- The official President and First Lady portraits are not at the White House, but in the house in Columbia. The reason? Sarah got tired of waiting for Congress to approve the funds for their official portraits so paid for them herself. That meant she also owned them. When the Polks left the White House, so did the portraits.
- Sarah invited Alexander Graham Bell to her house in Nashville after she heard about his telephone. She wanted to be able to talk to her friend more often than their social calls permitted. And, she got the first telephone in Tennessee.
Polk lived in Polk Place, the house they purchased in Nashville for their post-White House years, less than 30 days. He died there. When Mrs. Polk died, a long legal battle regarding the president’s will ensued. It’s an interesting story. You can look it up. In the end, Polk Place was sold to a developer who tore it down and the proceeds distributed among many. Polk and Sarah never had a child, but as the oldest of 10, Polk had a lot of heirs.
Ironically—and this is the part I loved—Mrs. Polk’s grand niece to whom she was very close received all the furnishings of the house per Mrs. Polk’s will. It means we owe a debt of gratitude to a non-Polk for preserving their legacy and giving us so many Polk artifacts to enjoy.
After a month at Texas T Campground, I moved an hour southwest to the David Crockett State Park. That’s right. Davy Crockett “of the wild frontier.” The place was beautiful. I won’t tell you about the nine ticks Solstice and I got. Or about the continuous power surges. I am double protected with both an on-board surge protector as well as one I plug into the power source. But still it was annoying, especially in the middle of the night. When it cycled back on, the microwave would beep. Woke me up every time.
Lawrenceburg , a few minutes away from the State Park, has 15,000 residents. The town center is a circle with a little park in the middle. The park has a statue of Davy Crockett (as seen at the top of the post) on one side and a Mexican-American War Monument on the other.
There is an interesting story about the monument. One hundred twenty Federal troops from the 14th Michigan Mounted Infantry arrived in Lawrenceburg on November 3, 1863. Finding the log jail and the courthouse empty, they went about burning them down. They spread cotton inside the jail and set it ablaze.
As they proceeded to do the same to the courthouse, the townspeople begged them not to burn the three-story brick structure built in 1821. One of the Union cavalrymen pointed out to the commander that destroying the courthouse would likely destroy the monument nearby. The commander, himself having fought in the Mexican-American War, realized the men listed on the monument were those he fought alongside twenty years earlier.
He ordered the courthouse remain unharmed
Lawrenceburg is the birthplace of Southern Gospel Music. In the town square you’ll also find the James D. Vaughan Museum which is supposed to be fantastic. Though I didn’t make it inside.
I did, however, make it to the Old Jail Museum, run by the local historical society. Apparently, Fridays are most likely to have visitors so the two most knowledgeable members staff the museum on Fridays. I didn’t know this. But I got lucky.
I enjoyed it so much that I went back the following Friday. It was free,. Donations are gladly accepted.
I got a one-on-one tour from Doyce, the Friday afternoon volunteer, and heard all the stories about the jail, including where every person who died in the jail died and how. Interested?
- In 1943, an inmate palmed a knife and stabbed the sheriff four times. The sheriff died. His name is on the Killed in the Line of Duty plaque in the town square.
- One cell served as the drunk tank. One man died from alcohol withdrawal. Another because he was thirsty. The jailer filled a jug with water for him, not knowing there was a ¼ inch of acid cleaning product in the jug. The drunk drank it right down. He soon was sick but the sheriff said it was because he was drunk, not sick. When it became clear he was really ill, the sheriff called the drunk’s family to come get him and take him to a doctor. Back then, a jail stay didn’t include medical care. But the drunk died before the family arrived.
- Another man hanged himself with a bed sheet.
- Finally, one day when the sheriff’s wife was cooking with the help of an inmate, her baby in basket nearby, a man came in and demanded to see his brother who was arrested the night before. An officer told the man to leave because his brother was arrested. The man again demanded to see his brother. The officer told him to wait. The officer left, returned with his pistol and shot the man dead. Blood spray covered the baby. The sheriff returned and told the inmate who was helping cook to go home and when they needed his witness statement, someone would get him. That former prisoner spoke at one of the historical society meetings and said, it’s been 40 years and he was still waiting to have someone take his statement.
Doyce also told me the story of an escape attempt. Two inmates sawed the bars and were shimmying down the building from the second story. The sheriff’s son, who was playing in the yard, saw and ran to tell his mother. The sheriff’s wife came outside and yelled up at them. She said if they left, they wouldn’t be getting any dinner.
They shimmied right back up.
Graffiti covers the walls of the jail cells. Lots of names. But everywhere you see “11-29” which I couldn’t figure out. Do you know what it is? Hint: not Thanksgiving, not a date.
When sentenced for your crime, if you got more than a year, you were sent to the state penitentiary. But if you were sentenced to less than a year, you stayed in the local jail. Local jail was better than the penitentiary. So, it’s almost with glee that inmates wrote “11-29” next to their names. It means 11 months and 29 days.
There is much more to share about my adventures in Middle Tennessee, including one of the last big battles of the Civil War and coming face-to-face with racism. Watch for both posts in the coming weeks.
Sounds like you had a great time in Middle Tennessee and the things of interest that you saw. Mike grew up in Nashville and remembers a lot of the things you saw and shared. Did you go by the Parthenon when you were in the Nashville area? James K Polk is a president that not many remember or know much about, and what you shared about him and his wife was very interesting.
I was actually about 90 minutes south of Nashville so only made it up there that one time. There is a tons to do and see in Nashville but I only had time to do one ting and I really wanted to see the Hermitage. But you know…it just means I’ll have to make my way back there again. Do you guys get back there much to visit?
I enjoyed the tours, photos, history and Sarah. It is wonderful that you teach as you write. Love, Marie
Thank you. I am just loving how much I’m learning at the places I visit. I expected I’d have fun, but just never thought about how much there was to learn.