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Distilled Life

In Lynchburg, take a while to stop and smell the whiskey

by Scott McNutt

I'm late and I'm rushing. I'm heading south on I-40 to write about the pleasures of a day-trip to Lynchburg, Tennessee. As I speed along at 80 miles per hour, I constantly recalculate the remaining miles and minutes, calibrating the negative potential of a speeding ticket versus the positive potential of subtracting another five minutes from my trip time. I increase velocity to 85 mph.

All for naught. Rather than following I-24 far to the north and taking Highway 55 south again to Lynchburg, I decide to take a shortcut. The shortcut proves to be a slow cut. What at first is a passable four-lane highway quickly becomes a twisty, tiny, two-lane back-country road. I am frustrated. "Am I EVER gonna get there?" I ask, exasperatedly.

Quite suddenly, I'm there. Seconds later, I'm not.

Lynchburg is that small. Population estimates range from 361 to 500. Much of the population appears to be on the town square just now. Rows of businesses make up the four "sides" of the square, with roads in or out at each corner. An old courthouse stands in the middle of the square, surrounded by a manicured lawn, shade trees, and benches. I park and check my watch.

It's noon, an hour before my dinner engagement at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House. An hour to check out the Tennessee Walking Horse Museum. Perfect. Beneath a large sign that reads "Mary Ruth Fuqua's Antiques," I see a man leaning in the doorway of the shop. He is Jim Fuqua, proprietor of the store (his wife, Mary Ruth, passed away some years before). He might be 70 or older, but his animation and vigor gives him a much more youthful aura. He tells me the museum is a few storefronts down. I thank him and move along. A note on the door of the museum informs me "Gone to lunch. Back in an hour." "Typical small-town way to run a business," I mutter in frustration.

I go back and look around Mary Ruth's. Nice-looking stuff, but I know absolutely nothing about antiques. I survey the rest of the square. Besides Mary Ruth's and the museum, there are restaurants, gift shops, souvenir shops (lots of Jack Daniels paraphernalia, naturally), a bank, a grocery store, a general store, and a pharmacy. And more antique shops. There seems to be a lot of Civil War memorabilia. I wouldn't know a minie ball from a Manet, but I get the feeling Lynchburg might be an antiquers' bonanza.

I cross to the Lynchburg Pharmacy. It has a genuine old-timey charm, with a full service lunch counter, and an odor of age that recalls memories from childhood, when I ate at similar counters in Fort Payne, Alabama, while visiting my grandparents. They offer ice cream, shakes, floats, burgers, and several types of "bulkies," which are sandwiches. "They're real big, and they come on jellyroll buns," the girl at the counter explains. I smile. It's probably the first time today I've smiled.

After visiting the pharmacy, something in my perception has altered. As I exit back into the sunlight, I notice for the first time that nobody seems to be in a hurry. No one is waiting impatiently for a driver to move his car, in order to seize the space. People are actually lolling in rocking chairs, as if they have nothing better to do. Friends wave and stop and speak to each other. Everybody smiles. My cynicism flares up. What kind of place is this? I suspect the Stepford wives have expanded operation into Lynchburg.

Across the way I notice a storefront that proclaims itself the "Moore County News." I walk over. There's one person in the office. She's Marilyn Craig, publisher and editor of the weekly Moore County News. And apparently, she's just about its entire staff, too.

Marilyn is an enthusiastic and happy person, seemingly. I ask her about the atmosphere here in Lynchburg. She tells me, "If you come from the big city expecting... zing and zoom, you're not going to get it." Marilyn came here from Miami, about which she says, "the style of living there is—from the minute you get up to the time you get back home, you're always rushing...Here, sometimes if you rush too much, someone will say, 'Hey, Marilyn, you better slow down there, you're going to get a speeding ticket.'" She ends with a laugh. "It takes an attitude adjustment to live here. Easy for me to say, since I've been here 17 years."

Time for dinner. I amble one block from the square to Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House, which turns out to be a large, squarish, two-story white house with an antebellum look to it. Two very large, very old trees shade the front walk. Potted flowers and ferns line the extended front porch, where guests sit on benches chatting. It's an inviting scene.

Other would-be diners are milling about on the front lawn. It seems we have to wait for the dinner bell to summon us to the table. How quaint. I peruse the signatures in the guest book. I find visitors from California, Florida, Alabama, England, Italy, Long Island, Maine, Ohio, Virginia, more. Truly an international attraction.

Miss Mary Bobo bought the boarding house in 1908. When she died in 1983 (at 101), it was closed for a time. Jack Daniels Distillery bought the house after Miss Bobo died, because townspeople were concerned that this long-standing attraction could be lost, even torn down. Miss Lynne Tolley took over as proprietor in 1984 and ever since has been overseeing dinner there at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday through Saturday, April through December, and at 1 p.m. only, January through March (though they retain the name, the establishment no longer lodges guests).

Punctually, at 1 o'clock, Lynne emerges onto the porch and rings the dinner bell, then calls out names of those who will be dining together. People who arrive in groups don't necessarily get to eat together—part of the experience is dining just as you would in an old boarding house, grabbing a seat where you can and getting to know the person next to you. Happily, I am in the group with Lynne as hostess.

I say "happily," because Miss Lynne Tolley is graciousness personified. Lynne shines in the traditional hostess role, starting conversations, asking diners where they are from and what brings them here, inquiring whether anyone needs more tea or lemon or butter, insisting that each us have another helping of this or that. Dinner today consists of barbecue pork ribs, chicken with pastry, hashbrown potato casserole, speckled butter beans, a tomato relish, cream corn, fried okra, cornbread muffins, and Lynchburg candied apples, (Lynne introduces them as "best of all, because they have some of the 'hometown product' in them"). Lemon icebox pie and coffee are dessert. Good solid Southern food, and no doubt as good as you'd have gotten at Scarlett O'Hara's Tara plantation, or as Lynne suggests, at "Sunday dinner at grandmother's house."

At dinner, I find out that the "Celebration," a festival surrounding competitions for Tennessee Walking Horses, is going on in Shelbyville this week. Apparently, several of my dining companions are here for the Celebration. Speaking of which, with dinner over, it's time to return to the Tennessee Walking Horse Museum. Lynne says goodbye to each of us as we leave, and lingers with some, chatting with repeat guests (one couple has been coming to Miss Mary Bobo's for over 30 years) or giving recommendations on places to go in Nashville.

At the museum, I find Ms. Sarah Brown in charge. I'm the only visitor there, and Sarah, a cheerful, gregarious person, suggests I watch a short video presentation on the Celebration before touring the museum. As I proceed to the video area she calls, "I'll come check on you after it's over. Sometimes folks go to sleep." However, I don't get to watch the video, because, while trying to record the audio of the presentation, I discover that my cassette player has gobbled up my tape. When Sarah, true to her word, comes to check on me, she finds me trying to unravel the twisted tape. She offers to help. With the aid of a couple of pencils, we untangle it.

A few hours earlier, this incident would have frustrated me so much that I would have ruined the entire tape in my impatience to fix it. Maybe I'm learning to slow down. I'm definitely learning about good folks showing kindness to strangers. Unfortunately, I still have a schedule to keep. Unwinding and rethreading the tape took a long time, so I have to rush through the rest of the museum, which is actually quite small. There are photos of all the champion horses from the Celebration, mementos from riders, saddles, uniforms, trophies and ribbons, among other memorabilia. If horses are your thing, a stop here would likely be enjoyable and informative.

By the time I cover the two or three blocks to the Jack Daniels Distillery, the tour has already started. I catch the last minutes of another video presentation, then follow the other tourists out to a bus for a brief journey up to the rick where sugar maple logs are burned to make the charcoal through which the whiskey is filtered. I learn that the trees are bought from local farmers, and the logs are stacked by hand and set ablaze using 140-proof whiskey as fuel. I learn that the Jack Daniels Distillery is the very first distillery to be registered in the United States. I learn that the mash used to make the whiskey is 80 percent rye, 12 percent barley, and 8 percent corn. I learn that the smell of the mash in the distillery is overpowering. I learn far more than I'll ever need to know about distilling whiskey.

The whole thing seems somewhat programmatic. Each of our stops is timed, and incongruous with everyone else I have met in Lynchburg, our guide appears to get a bit antsy when we fall behind schedule. But he is entertaining. His style is homespun, never calling the product "Jack Daniels," but rather, "that good whiskey," and displaying his share of hokey jokes. It's well worth the price of admission, which is free. Tours run for about 75 minutes, and begin every 15 minutes or so, daily from 9:30 to 4:30.

With the tour over, it's time to head back to Knoxville. I regret it, ever so slightly. I learned something today: Like the Jack Daniels whiskey it is famous for, Lynchburg is meant to be savored, slowly. It is meant to be appreciated by those who know to take their time. So, as I slide back into my car and slip back into the stream of an 80-mile-per-hour lifestyle, I know that when I return, I'll leave my cares at home and bring my smile. And I'll take my time.

October 11, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 41
© 2001 Metro Pulse