Roan Mountain Gardens
Roan Mountain Gardens
It’s the land of Davy Crockett and the National Storytelling Festival. Pocketed with mountain lakes and rivers, small towns and cities, Northeast Tennessee lays claim to the birthplace of country music and the final resting place of the nation’s 17th president. Our writer explores the land of his childhood.
Blountville, Rogersville and Jonesborough are not what immediately comes to mind when someone mentions the Tri-Cities of Northeast Tennessee.
But they could be. Each town dates back decades before the births of the traditional “Tri-Cities,” Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City.
All at least 200 years old, these towns are robust yet nostalgic – ringed by mountains and haunted by history. For years, I have never grown tired of exploring their picture-postcard qualities, either to appreciate the architecture in Rogersville, or Blountville’s blend of modern business alongside 1700s-era structures like the Anderson Townhouse and the Old Deery Inn.
In Jonesborough, brick sidewalks front quaint cafes, gift shops and handsome landmarks: the Chester Inn, the Eureka Hotel and the Washington County Courthouse. Being in town is like walking through a 19th-century movie set. Its looks are too good to be true.
Incorporated in 1779, Jonesborough claims to be the oldest city in Tennessee. The town is most famous for October’s National Storytelling Festival, when thousands huddle in tents to hear yarns spun by tellers from all over America. Later in the year, for a month before Christmas, you can stroll around with carolers, visit Santa Claus and shop like the dickens.
Going south from Jonesborough on U.S. 11E, it’s just a few short miles to the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park at Limestone. There, the big attraction is camping near the banks of the Nolichucky River. But history buffs – and folklore fans – should also look for a replica of the log cabin where the coonskin-capped Crockett was born in 1786. The cabin stands in sight of the cool, refreshing river.
That’s what I like most about Northeast Tennessee – the water. In some ways with all its rivers, lakes and streams, it’s like a coastal region. I could spend weeks fishing and a few more days searching for waterfalls near little towns like Sneedville, Erwin and Mountain City.
Northeast Tennessee is known as both “America’s First Frontier” and the “Mountain Empire” on the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
My family roots lie here in Greeneville, a few miles southwest of Limestone. My grandfather ran an eatery called Linton’s through the 1960s. His restaurant on Depot Street is now called Tipton’s. Go inside, and you’ll catch the wonderful scents of hamburgers sizzling on a grill behind an old-fashioned counter.
The Big Spring centers Greeneville, just off Main Street, at the arch of a stone pedestrian bridge. Pioneers began settling around the Big Spring in the 1780s. Within a few short years, Greeneville became the state capital of now-nonexistent Franklin. Just as soon, Franklin faded – a fabled “lost state” dying in infancy, even before the birth of Tennessee.
In the mid-1800s, Greeneville became famous as the hometown of Andrew Johnson, a native of Raleigh, N.C., who became a tailor, then a politician and, ultimately, the nation’s 17th president.
“He based everything on the Constitution,” says Kendra Hinkle, a ranger at Greeneville’s Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. “If it didn’t fit in, he didn’t do it.” Historic aside: Johnson questioned the constitutionality of secession, the Civil Rights Act, the statehoods of Colorado and Nebraska and the Tenure of Office Act, the last of which led to his impeachment.
Head north from Greeneville on Tenn. 93, and you’ll be in Kingsport in about 30 minutes. Follow signs to Kingsport’s Exchange Place to discover a pioneer farmstead with craft demonstrations. This was once a stopping point for travelers to exchange horses and goods along the Great Stage Road.
Stagecoaches also stopped at the Netherland Inn in Kingsport’s Boatyard District.
It was here in the early 1800s that William King built a port along the Holston River, and the area became “King’s Port.”
In 1917, a reservoir was built high above the Holston River atop Bays Mountain. Clean and clear, that 44-acre reservoir is now a nature preserve, loaded with lillies, snapping turtles, beavers and bluegill. The lake can be explored with a guide on a 45-minute barge ride at Kingsport’s Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium.
To get from Kingsport to Johnson City, forget about I-26. It’s fast, but take Tenn. 36 instead. The corridor is a smorgasbord of shops in little villages including Colonial Heights, Gray and Boones Creek. In Boones Creek, look for a historic site at a small ripple in the stream – what was once a four-foot-high waterfall. A historic marker near Boones Creek Middle School says frontiersman Daniel Boone hid beneath this ripple in the 1700s during one of his many travels through the region.
Just beyond Boones Creek in Johnson City, you’ll soon be overwhelmed by the urban corridor of Roan Street. Signs everywhere point to Johnson City’s Hands On! Regional Museum, a place with kids-oriented exhibits including the unforgettable “Noah’s Ark” – a ship stuffed with a boatful of wild game trophies.
Elizabethton lies 15 minutes east of Johnson City along Tenn. 91. This courthouse town in Carter County is the gateway to the famous natural rhododendron garden blooming atop the 6,285-foot-high Roan Mountain.
On a summer Saturday night, I find Elizabethton to be rocking. A Native American festival has drawn crowds to the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area. Streets are blocked off for a car show. Just below a red-and-white covered bridge, a couple of boys splash in the blue waters of the Doe River.
A policeman on a bicycle rolls past my 3-year-old daughter with a friendly “Hey there, sweetheart.”
And I feel right at home.
Taking Tenn. 91 north from Elizabethton, I’m soon surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. The two-lane snakes over the Iron Mountains and slips into Shady Valley, a Johnson County community known for its wild cranberry bogs. These remnants of the last Ice Age are celebrated during October’s Cranberry Festival.
Going west from Shady Valley on U.S. 421, I can be in Bristol in about a half an hour. I cross the Appalachian Trail atop Holston Mountain. Down below, I see South Holston Lake and then signs pointing to Bristol Caverns and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Keeping straight on U.S. 421 will land you at State Street, where Tennessee meets Virginia. A mural and a museum note Bristol as the “Birthplace of Country Music” by recognizing the discovery of both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family at a makeshift recording studio in 1927.
Continue on U.S. 421 until you reach I-81. Turn south and you’re back in Tennessee. Near a giant, guitar-shaped building, look for the Tennessee Welcome Center. Inside, you’ll find all the information you’ll need in planning a visit to this “Mountain Empire” and “First Frontier.”