Photo by Ed Richardson
on this story
With encroaching chain stores and closed factories, many of East Tennessee's small towns face uncertain futuresbut residents keep their rural charms alive.
Their names don't often appear on the interstate exit signs as we speed by, impatiently zipping to our destinations at 70 mph.
And even if they were, we might not even stop to see them. Nevertheless, there they are on the map, with names like Oakdale and Winfieldsmall towns that used to dot the main byways to major cities.
Just within a 50-mile radius of Knoxville, there are dozens of them; although now shunted by the interstate system, they still bear colorful communities and long histories. But what are these places really like?
We sent out three reporters in three directions to find the stories of three of these small towns and the people who live in them.
Sunbright is a place where the ball caps are worn frontways. Don't think of that as old-fashioned just because some city fad has ball caps worn turned around. Think of it as small-town. Observe that towns as small as Sunbright seem to be in some sort of mid-20th-century time warp. It's an easy observation. Old-fashioned, in such places, is seen in the felt hats that were the uniform male head covering for a century before that.
You'll find cap bills pointed straight at you from the foreheads of each of the town's men when they give you a glance as they busy themselves in and out of the Sunbright Hardware & Home Supply. It's a franchise store, big for a small town and brightly lit, filled with tools and building materials. It's fairly bustling on a weekday afternoon. The caps seem to be issued at birth in Sunbright.
Right on U.S. 27 at Sunbright's main intersection, which is unhampered by any traffic signal, the hardware is directly across from W.E. England's Phillips 66 service station, where England and his son Marshall tend the gas pumps, perform routine auto maintenance in the station's bays, and wash your windshield without being asked.
Kitty-corner up 27, a winding thoroughfare that was the main link from Cincinnati to Chattanooga and points beyond before the interstate highway system rendered it secondary, is Lou's Cafe, where Lou Dixon, the wife of truck driver Edward P. Dixon, holds court and serves meals and coffee.
If the hardware store is Sunbright's lungs, where the breath of the town's vitality is in constant evidence, then England's service station is its heart, because without the lifeblood of gasoline, as Lou Dixon says, "You can't buy a pair of shoes here, you can't even buy a pair of shoelaces without getting in your car and driving the 12 miles to Wartburg."
Lou's place, then, is something like Sunbright's liver, where the town's gossip and small talk is purified on a daily basis under the ceiling fans or next to the big radiant-gas stove. The cafe's wrinkled, dark, colorless indoor-outdoor carpet, its smoke-dulled poplar paneling, hung with dubious trophy fish, a span of bovine horns and sets of Dixon family photos, and its plain brown Formica tables and steel, stackable chairs fairly resonate with everydayness. The patrons' conversations are largely of deaths, births, surgeries, accidents and school, depending on age, and a lot of kidding among the whole lot. In a town this size, everybody knows everybody and everybody's business.
"Are you'uns kissing over there," a coffee-sipping house painter calls out to a high school couple playing kneesies at a corner table. "Next thing you know there'll be wedding bells," he says, and a woman companion issues forth a grinning "Ding-a-ling." From out of the glow of blushes in the corner comes a boy's voice: "You'd best be quiet." But the voice lacks menace, and the whole house breaks up laughing. You think that isn't the stuff of the 1940s, give or take a decade? Only the coffee price lets you know it's not from that far back. It's 30 cents, refills free. You pay at a huge, blue, manual R.C. Allen cash register and are ushered out past three racks of gum ball machinesa nickel, a dime and a quarter. Time, you see, can be bent to stay put, or nearly so, in small places.
Sunbright's a town on the Cumberland Plateau. "Plateau" is a figure of speech, a mere technicality in an area ragged with ridges and coves in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. It was settled more than 180 years ago as Pine Top, so-called for its rich stands of yellow pine. It became Stapleton, renamed after its first postmaster, when it got a post office about 1840. It became Sunbright when streets were laid out with the coming of the railroad about 1880. A railroad worker, the legend goes, was laying track into the community when he exclaimed, "Sun bright!" And the railroad subsequently named its depot Sunbright. The town picked it up from there.
It reached its present population, 600, around the turn of the century, just 100 years ago. It existed on timber, going through mini-booms and mini-busts, until after World War II, then leveled out. A shirt factory and other small textile operations have come and gone. Sunbright holds little now in the way of work for its young people. Maybe it never really did. A couple generations of wartime and postwar men, virtually all of whom went first into military service, went north for work before East Tennessee's economy finally brought numerous jobs within commuting distance.
"There's nothing for the young here," says Dixon. She says the best of prospective small industries were shooed away in the past by business interests who feared that good wages in plants would drive up the pay of their own employees.
Today, the railroad is all but gone, the depot is gone, the dry goods store is gone, three groceries and a drug store are gone. Even the barber shop is gone. But, as the hardware's counterman, Bob Bacon, who lives up the road in Robbins, says, "The elements of a small town are here, really. There's a good supermarket and a Laundromat and a car wash and a new post office and a new schoolK through 12and a new volunteer fire station and...and a bank," he says, taking a breath and planting his tongue in his cheek before continuing, "That bank's open from 2 to 5 o'clock." He's almost right; it's open longer on Thursdays and Fridays2 to 6. Talk about bankers' hours.
Bacon doesn't even mention the mini-mart with its self-serve gas or the burned-out motel that is supposed to reopen soon or the teeny-weeny brick loan office or the equally tiny public library, the latter open from 2-4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. There's also the Masonic Hall on the second floor of a closed-down ceramics shop. The Masons held a spaghetti suppercome one, come allup there just last Saturday.
Those suppers and fish fries and chicken dinners and church functions comprise Sunbright's social life, by and large. It's a town, though, a real community, even though the nearest Wal-Mart's 20 miles up 27 in Oneida, where the closest movie theater has three screens. There's nothing special about the buildings in town, unless cinderblock is special to you. The post office is a faux-colonial affair, and the school is the color of clay and wholly without character. The most distinguished piece of architecture in town might be the sawmill, a utilitarian masterwork.
The biggest excitementunless somebody has too much beer at the VFW hall (members only) out on one-and-one-half-lane VFW Roadmay be wondering if the towering load is secure on that timber truck you are passing. You pass one or more on virtually every daylight drive through town. They make you think. The VFW, 150 members strong, is the only alcohol by-the-drink outlet close by.
W.E. England, a member, doesn't go out there. At 63, he isn't looking forward to retirement either. Too many windshields to clean yet. And he loves the town. He was born here. He will die here. There may be nothing pretty about Sunbright except for life's simplicity. That can be a beautiful thing. It obviously is to England and Dixon and Bacon.
Still, they all say there's no real future for young people in Sunbright. Asked outside at the gas pumps what the young do when they complete high school, England starts to answer. But his voice is drowned out in the excruciatingly loud exhaust blast from a 20-year-old Camaro as it squalls up 27 from the parking area across the way, where youth are beginning to gather in their cars and trucks at 5 p.m. "That's what they do," says England's son, secure in his 20s as heir to the family service station, as we watch the Camaro smoke on down toward Wartburg. And time stands still for that moment out of many such moments in Sunbright.
The Main Street may have seen better days, but it's Main Street nonethelessa row of old brick storefronts with weathered signs and faded displays in the windows, probably set there a year or two before. There's a florist, a fabric shop, the Main St. Cafe. On one end is the venerable Williams Hardware, where older fellows talk about the weather and consider purchasing one thing or another; on the other end is the relatively new Tanasi Charm, a country gift shop named after the Cherokee village which lent its name to our state. Nearby, there's a small gazebo in the park, an upright church with a perfect white spire pointing to the sky, and an old-fashioned water tower on spindly legs looking over the whole scene, its tank emblazoned with the town's name: Englewood.
If you were driving along on the nearby 411 highway on your way through McMinn County, you might catch enough of a glimpse to think, There's a place that hasn't changed much. And it hasn't, at least outwardlyEnglewood is the small-town America we idealize, the kind of setting a Hollywood studio would spend millions trying to recreate. But the times haven't been entirely kind to this community of some 1,700. Pull over, take a closer look for yourself.
First stop is the hardware store, the sort with creaky hardwood floors, a stamped-tin ceiling, and shelves of open boxes filled with nails; the room is permeated with that raw metal/oil/wood scent that Home Depot will never be able to provide. There, amid the grinding wheels, router bits, threading tools, Southern Giant Curled Mustard seeds, guaranteed vacuum cleaner bags, all-purpose turbine oil with zoom-spout bottles, and the 50-pound sacks of Blue Gooseİ potatoes, you'll find the slim, slightly stooped figure of Wayne Williams, owner. His father originally opened a furniture store on this site in 1922; 54 years ago, Wayne took it over, then converted it into a hardware store in 1984. He's lived in Englewood all his 78 years, except for his time in the service.
"Well, I guess because I was born here and raised here, I just love to live here," Williams says. "It has been a very progressive little town, up to the last few years. But we've lost our industry, and we don't have the traffic here that we used to have. But we figure on the four-lane going through here right away, and that should help us out."
The four-lane. To many shop owners here on Main Street, the planned expansion of 411 is a hope for better things to come. With the added lanes will appear more travelers, people on their way to Atlanta or Pigeon Forge; a mini-plaza is already in the works to take advantage of the increased traffic. And perhaps these travelers will spot the quaint row of shops in Englewood and stop for a bit... Of course, things were different back when the textile mills were open and there were more workers to buy things.
Englewood got its name in 1895 from the inspiration of Nannie Chestnut, who thought the area's trees were reminiscent of those described in Robin Hood. She took the name from a quote in the book: "Deep in the forest of Englewood..." By then, several spinning and cotton mills were already in operation, eventually reaching 25 in number. They employed whole families, including children, though the labor force consisted mostly of women. The mills were the area's dominant industry, creating company neighborhoods like Sock Hill or Yellow Top. But today, due to cheap labor overseas, all of the mills have shut down except for one, Allied Hosiery Mill. Nevertheless, Englewood's residents have stuck by their town, commuting to new jobs in nearby cities like Athens. A sense of community is strong here, and people know each other on a first-name basis.
"I think here in a smaller town, people have more time to talk," says Gail McConkey, proprietor of Tanasi Charm, surrounded by a mass of figurines, candles, and Beanie Babies. "I think we move at a slower pace and take time to listen. You ask 'How are you?' and you can hear everything that's going on in their life."
McConkey was raised in Atlanta, but moved to Englewood nearly 30 years ago when her father returned to his hometown. She and her husband Darrell, one of the owners of Allied Hosiery, opened Tanasi Charm in 1992, creating perhaps a more feminine equivalent to the hardware store. Everybody here knows everyone else, she says, whether you're an old-timer or not.
"I never knew my husband when we were growing up, but my great-great-grandparents grew up in the same area his great-great-grandparents did," she says. "Even if you're not really related to anybody, probably way back hundreds of years ago your families were neighbors... you get a sense of belonging."
Without much local industry, you'd think most of Englewood's teenagers would be making plans to leave soon after high school. But not all of them. With his backwards baseball cap and Dodge pickup truck parked outside the Tanasi Charm, 18-year-old Chris Miller looks like your typical all-American teen. But rather than head out for the big city after graduation, he found a job in Athens at the Denzo plant, making fuel injectors. For fun, he hangs out with friends, watches movies at their houses, participates in church activitiesa pace of life that suits him fine. Someday, he'd like to get married and start a family here.
"I lived here all my life. I work, go to church, and that's it," he says. "Everybody I know is from here and I'd feel weird moving someplace else, 'cause I'd hate having to start all over. I don't know what I'd do if I ever moved away from here."
Englewood does offer its own cultural pursuits. Just head over to the town's historical center, the Englewood Textile Museum. Opened in 1994 by CAGECommunity Action Group of Englewoodthe renovated former diner is filled with photos and mementos that relate Englewood's story. You might find Helen Morgan behind the counter, and she can tell you what's upcoming.
"We're having a gospel festival in May, a bluegrass festival in October, and in June a homecoming for alumni and friendswe'll have a pancake breakfast and hopefully a square-dance," she says in her perfect Southern lilt. "This is what we're really excited about: We've engaged a man to write a play about our town and the millworkers. It's a three-character play, and so after we have our banquet we'll go over to the gym for the play production. That's if everything works out as it's supposed tobut he already has it written, so I think it's going to fall into place."
Next door, at the Englewood Library, librarian Bennie Raper and her young assistant are waiting for Bill Gates' free computers to be delivered. They've cleared a space in the one-room library and set up a table. "We're proud of Bill Gateswish he'd run for President," she declares, shuddering at the thought of the nation's current presidential prospects. Another of Englewood's lifelong citizens, Raper says it's the residents she appreciates most about her town.
"Well, I just like the peoplegood folks, most of them, sincere and friendly and down to earth," she says. "They like me just like I like themno pretensions, no big shots, just plain old people."
The 74-year-old former mill worker is a bit of a realist"We're just kind of a 'blah' little place, nothing much to it," she says when asked about the town's charmsbut she's also a poetic one. If you were to check out either of Englewood's two history books, you'd find her poems in front describing the place and people she's devoted her life to. In "Me and My Town" she writes:
Where the old depot stood is a paved parking lot.
The Hotel is gone; Calfee's Hardware is, too.
In its place is a bank with a modern drive-through.
Lots of people are gonethere are new faces each day.
Some people have died; others just moved away.
We've been through a lot down the years,
We've shared in the good times, the heartache and tears.
We're not much to look at; we're not worldly renowned,
But, we'll make it togetherme and My Town.
Whether the new four-lane brings new prosperity or just more chain stores, Englewood and its community will get by. It always has.
People in Russellville like to say the town "is just a wide spot in the road," which isn't exactly truethe road's not all that wide.
Russellville, or "Russellville, Unincorporated" as the green road sign along Highway 11 says, is only nominally a town at all anymore. The city limits of Morristown actually reach into it from the east, and barring a handful of local institutionsan elementary school, a post office, the Russellville Church of God ("Living without faith is like driving in a fog," the marquee reads)there's not a whole lot to tell you that you're anywhere in particular.
There was a time, though, when Russellville meant something. It's named for George Russell, a captain in the Revolutionary War who staked out a homestead here along Fall Creek in 1785. Andrew Jackson stayed at a tavern here; so did Louis Phillipe, the future king of France. One local newspaper account of its history says, "Once it was said Morristown was a 'rabbit patch along Turkey Creek and Russellville was a thriving community.'" The equation is long since reversedMorristown is the governmental seat of Hamblen County and its only real citybut Russellville persists in the way things persist that have existed so long no one can remember when they weren't there.
Things you can find out by entering "Russellville, Tennessee" into an Internet search engine:
* On Feb. 10, 1864, there was a battle here between Confederate troops under the command of Gen. James Longstreet and Unionists. Among the combatants were the men of Company H in the 16th Regiment, a.k.a. the "Flint Hill Greys." It wasn't a good day for them, judging by the list of wounded and killed. Fifth Sgt. William M. Mayfield and 2nd Cpl. J.A. Long were both captured. Long died one month later, on March 16, in the Lost Creek Baptist Church Hospital outside of nearby New Market. He had smallpox.
Right there on Highway 11 is a historical marker. It's across the two-lane road from Brook's Barber Shop, in front of a big white house with a wide, empty porch. "General Longstreet's Billet," the sign says. Its text explains that Longstreet occupied the house in the winter of 1863-64, following his retreat from Knoxville.
The woman who answers the door looks inquisitively at her visitor and then says, "Sure, come on in." She gestures dramatically around the entry hall, half taken up with the ascending ramp of a staircase, and says, "Yes, General Longstreet billeted here." Then she drops her arms and laughs. "He was only here for about three weeks. We don't really know much about it."
Her name is Patti Herbst, and she and her husband Alan are from Pennsylvania. They bought the circa 1820 house six years ago with the idea of opening Russellville's first coffeeshop. They have a blues band, evidenced by the piles of amplifiers, drums, and cables in the front room, and they were looking for a place to play. (The band is called Midlife Crisis. "We'll be playing at the blues jam in June in the Old City," Patti says. "Come see us.") But then someone else opened a coffeeshop down the road in Morristown, so now they play there. They've had their house on the market for the past year, without a single inquiry. With Russellville sprouting new mini-marts and blocky apartment complexes, the market for historical structures appears to be in a slump.
The house is all original wood, from the look of it. The Herbsts, who live there with a son and a daughter, figure the back half must have been servants' quarters. For rural Tennessee in the early 19th century, this was luxury. "There's no closets at all, though," Patti says.
The man they bought it from was a minister. He said he could sense troubled spirits in the attic. "Who knows what could have happened in the Civil War?" Patti says. "Rapes or just about anything." She turns to her 14-year-old son Zach and asks, "You haven't felt anything weird here, have you?" He shakes his head. "No, just bats," Patti continues. "There are two or three hundred."
"Three hundred and ninety-six," corrects Zach, who seems way too pleasant for his "People Ruined My Life" T-shirt. "I counted them coming out one side of the house."
* At one time, Russellville was a stop along the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. It had its own depot.
* For 40 years, it has been home to Winter-Seal Products Inc., which manufactures "Custom crafted vinyl windows designed to last." Since July 15, 1998, the company's website (wintersealinc.com) has had 1,914 visitors.
* In 1937, photographer Edwin Locke came through East Tennessee on assignment to document smalltown life for the Farm Security Administration. He took one picture in Russellville, of an old hobby horse wearing a bridle in front of what's identified as the Russellville harness-maker's shop.
There's no harness shop here anymore, although the modern equivalentsauto parts storesmake up at least a quarter of the active businesses (Russellville Parts Place, Transmissions 'R' Us, etc.). More intriguing is a sign along Old Russellville Pike, which branches off Highway 11 at the elementary school. It advertises Hobby House, a one-of-a-kind business quartered in a long beige hut next to Ann and George Shepard's white farmhouse. Inside is aisle after carpeted aisle of shelves holding thousands of unfinished clay figurines.
"We've been in business for 25 years," says Ann Shepard, leaning on a counter stocked with dozens of small bottles of glaze in different shades. "We started out real small and grew into this."
The ShepardsAnn runs the business, George, a retired truck driver, pours the clay into plaster castssell the figurines, as well as porcelain dolls, to an apparently sizable clientele of hobbyists who paint and fire the clay themselves. Or they can paint them here in the shop, as a trio of older women are doing under Ann's supervision, and fire them in one of the Shepards' three kilns. The figures cover a bewildering spectrum, from cowboys and Indians to angels to dragons and wizards. George, who quit driving after barely surviving when his rig turned over on him six years ago, gives a tour of the plaster cast collectionthousands and thousands of molds piled on shelves in the back of the shop and in the driveway's garage, in no discernible order. "You just look through 'em, and you find the one you're looking for," George says. (One, presumably a holiday favorite, is helpfully labeled "Turkey.")
Most customers are from upper East Tennessee, but sometimes an out-of-state visitor will stop by and then become a mail-order client. Ann, who's from Knox County originally, allows that Russellville probably isn't as lively as it once was. But, citing the trucking parts distributor across the road and the nearby outfit that makes dyes for furniture factories, she says, "To be such a small community, we have a number of businesses."
* It is also home to a Mrs. Burwin Haun, the official historian of Hamblen County. She lives on Silver City Road.
To get to the large two-story farmhouse that Burwin Haun built for his wife and children more than 50 years ago, you have to take Stagecoach Road off of Highway 11, across the railroad tracks, and past the sign that says "Rhonda's Creative Hair Design" until it dead-ends into Silver City Road. Turn right. Then it's another few miles from the intersection, behind what Mrs. Haun on the phone describes as "the biggest shrub you ever have seen."
"I'll put my dog up," she adds. "Oh, I'd rather have him than a loaded gun."
Her full name is Connie Maloney Haun. Widowed since 1991, she is 90 years old. "And I still have my marbles," she says, tapping her head. The dog is indeed locked away"He won't let a strange man in the house," Haun says with a grinbut a photo shows him to be a purebred collie, "prettier than Lassie."
Connie Maloney grew up in a family that believed in education. Her father sent her in the 1920s to a girls' school in Salem, N.C. Then it was on to East Tennessee State University, where she got a degree in education. (She later earned a masters' degree at the University of Tennessee.) She married Burwin Haun, a UT graduate and farmer and salesman. They had three children. "He could do just everything," she says. "Oh, he was a handsome man." She gives a tour of the house, pointing out her late husband's woodwork in the details of the paneling, as well as an array of his semi-impressionist oil paintings, many of them scenes from the Hauns' frequent travels overseas. (He also made the imposing, ornate picture frames.)
She taught English to Hamblen County teenagers. And she wrote articles and books, some of them about local history. In 1960, the County Court made her official county historian. The title is still in effect. Most recently, she wrote the Hamblen County entry for 1998's The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. "I don't write anymore," she says. "It's too hard on me."
One of her sons tends the farm and checks on her every day. There's a nurse on call. But Mrs. Burwin Haun seems content to mostly spend her time alone.
"I was never lonesome in my life," she says. "Give me a book, or a record. Or the television. There's too much to do. I've been around people my whole life."
Back in Russellville proper, traffic is picking up as the afternoon winds down. As the primary route from Morristown to Greeneville, Highway 11 is starting to swell like a rising river. Patti Herbst says the state Department of Transportation wants to extend the four-lane section of the road from Morristown into Russellvillemaking it literally a "wide spot in the road." Herbst wonders what that will mean for her house, which was already reconfigured once by the advent of the highway.
She asks, "Can they just tear down historic buildings?"
Jesse Fox Mayshark
March 16, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 11
© 2000 Metro Pulse