Greeneville, with an E.

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National Allied Publications founder Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born in Greeneville, TN in 1890. Eventually his company became DC Comics, and Wheeler-Nicholson would be forever credited as the pioneer of American pulp comic books. 

My song for this entry is not a metal song but it is featured on the soundtrack for DC’s newest project, Dark Nights: Death Metal. Check out “Sodium” by one of my favourite bands, The Idles. 

 

Greeneville, Tennessee is known for many other reasons. It has the distinction of being the only “Greenville” in the USA spelled with an “e” in Greene, taking its name after major general Nathanael Greene of the Continental Army.

There is no evidence that Nathanael Greene was ever in Greeneville, but he is remembered as an intelligent military strategist who served under George Washington and has towns named after him (minus the e) all over the US.

Founded in 1783 as part of Greene County, Greeneville is Tennessee’s second oldest town after Jonesborough. Greene County is part of the great Tri-Cities area of East Tennessee and includes the community of Limestone where famous frontiersman Davy Crockett was born. The David Crockett Birthplace State Park is just minutes from downtown Greeneville. 

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Greeneville was voted capital of the unofficial State of Franklin from 1785 until 1788. This part of East Tennessee was historically a hub of Abolitionist and Unionist activity unlike many surrounding territories. 

Greene County Courthouse is the only courthouse in the USA that has both Union and Confederate monuments onsite, exemplifying its history of intense social and political dualities.

One of the monuments is for a Confederate General John Morgan who was ambushed and killed there in 1864. The other is dedicated to local men who served the “Grand Army of the Republic” and in tribute of the Unionists.

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Greeneville and Greene County have an unbelievable amount of multi-war history and a historical ability to hold space for more than one “side” during these wars.

There are several sites in Greene County on the national Civil War Trail route including the Battle of Blue Springs (a town now called Mosheim), the site of General John Hunt Morgan’s murder, the Dickson-Williams Mansion, Tusculum College, the Longstreet Winter Headquarters, and more detailed on this map

Start your visit with a trip to the Greeneville Greene County History Museum for more in-depth history and to see a collection of relics, crafts, automobiles, and antiques recovered from the town’s early days.

An exhibit on Magnavox  includes the last television the made in America by Magnavox/Phillips, which had production facilities in Greeneville and employed a large population of residents until closing in 2005. 

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Greeneville is home to the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. In 1826 when Andrew Johnson was in his late teen years, he evaded a tailor’s apprenticeship arrangement and instead moved to Greeneville.

He had not received any formal education in his life aside from tailoring, and had heard that the town tailor in Greeneville would soon pass away. Johnson bought a home, married, and started his own tailor shop. Can’t blame him there. 

Johnson’s first Greeneville home and tailor shop have since become the Visitors Center complex that is maintained by the National Park Service. The NPS created a free audio-visual guide you can follow on cell devices, or visitors can request a tour onsite.

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Andrew Johnson’s actual birthplace home is in Raleigh, but a replica stands at the crossing of south College Street and east Depot Street. 

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Later in life, Johnson began his political career and later moved into the luxurious homestead which is known as the Andrew Johnston Homestead below.

Johnson was known for his bold efforts to reunite southern states that had seceded while holding office in the government center of that very secession. He was also known for his hard stance against citizenship and rights of enslaved African Americans.

Johnson notoriously proposed and passed legislation against what little autonomy the few freedmen had carved out for themselves back then, and he worked diligently to undo any civil progress anyone had made or tried to make anywhere else. 

Johnson even convinced his cousin Abe Lincoln to exempt the state of Tennessee from his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 so that he and his fellow Tennessee slave owners would not have to release theirs. 

What an absolute bastard. 

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Various documents and plaques around the site boast about Johnson’s heartwarming purchase of African American siblings and families who were auctioned as slaves in order to help them stay together… as if they were not being auctioned in the first place as a direct result of Johnson’s own commitment to perpetuate slavery. 

This man literally went on government-sponsored tirades to keep other humans on the market to be trafficked and sold, then accepted all the accolades for picking up the bill. 

Johnson came around in some ways, though his motives seemed to be pure political strategy. Over time, he was elected Mayor, Senator, Vice President, and the 17th US President after Lincoln’s assassination. When Johnson served as Tennessee’s military governor he ruled that all enslaved African Americans were to be set free, but without rights.

The move was mainly lip service to keep African Americans from becoming idle and rebelling while the states’ officials were busy fighting yet again. Freedom without rights or resources kept former slaves in place as low-paid servants.  African American labour maintained plantations and estates while owners were off doing whatever. 

218304670_292169559352491_2297153505690119259_nAfter touring the Johnson Homestead and visitors center, take a walk around the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery. Johnson bought this land in the early 1850s and enjoyed the peace and serenity it provided sitting high up on a hill overlooking the mountains.

Johnson was buried here in 1875 and his wife was laid to rest beside him three years later. The family owned the property until 1906 when it was taken by the US War Department and used for veteran burials. 

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National Park Service took ownership of the land in 1942 and the cemetery remained one of only two active NPS cemeteries until 2019. No one may be buried here from now on unless they previously reserved a plot before their death. 

The hill formerly called Signal Hill was renamed Monument Hill for the large obelisk monument above the Johnson couple’s graves. 

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Countless surveys unanimously agree that Andrew Johnson was one of the top three worst US Presidents, yet a NPS site is named after him and a statue of his likeness stands by the town jail. His homestead continues to draw visitors under the guise of him being a great emancipator, and the Street Dance on Davis festival is held in Greeneville each August to commemorate the day Andrew Johnson freed his slaves.

I am all for preserving history and its monuments as long as it is truthful, so I was thrilled to learn that the Black/African American communities in and near Greeneville have a heavy hand in selecting the festival speakers, musicians, artists, exhibits, and events that make Street Dance on Davis a real and honest celebration of their history, and their whole story in East Tennessee. 

The festival is open to everyone and has been ongoing for almost a decade now.

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Afterward, or if you opt out of Andrew Johnson tourism altogether, be sure to visit some of the more interesting architecture in downtown Greeneville and learn about other facets of the town’s past. 

General Morgan Inn towers over the main intersection where the former DeWoody Tavern stood in the 1790s. It was later renamed Bell Tavern then Lane House. Almost a decade later, Colonel Doughty bought the property and demolished the old wooden tavern, then commissioned construction of the giant Grand Central Hotel. 

Mrs. EJ Brumley purchased the hotel years later after Doughty’s death and renamed it Hotel Brumley. Ownership passed through various Brumley relatives after Mrs. Brumley’s death but Hotel Brumley closed its doors in the early 1980s.

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It was reopened over a decade later and called the General Morgan Inn & Conference Center, as part of a multi-organization historic preservation effort. A key player was the Main Street Greeneville which maintains a lot of the active properties downtown. When Greeneville was selected as one of the Main Street project pilot towns, MSG went to task. 

You can visit the Brumley Restaurant & Lounge inside with or without reserving a room at the Inn. 

Pictured below is the Valentine Sevier Home, aka the Sevier-Lowry House and/or the Susong House, and it is the oldest house still standing in the town. Sevier built this home in 1795 and it was owned by Andrew Johnson decades later. Subsequent residents included Quincy Marshall O’Keefe and Edith O’Keefe Susong, a decorated mother-daughter team of journalists.

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The “Bird Bros.” building was constructed in 1912 and held the businesses of two brothers, the Grover C. Bird Store and the Bird Brothers Hardware Store among others. Its design includes three separate storefronts that rotated businesses and displays as needed. It sat empty for decades until a furniture store moved in for a few years.

I found an article from Greeneville’s paper The Greeneville Sun that said its publisher Gregg Jones owned the Bird Bros. building from 1991 until 2019. The couple who purchased it from him claimed they were bringing it back to life in the interview, but sadly this is how I found it a few months ago (April, 2021). 

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I found the old Snapp’s 5 and 10 Cent Store building in a similar state. 

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The Running Journal Newspaper has or had its home in the building below. It was closed up and I can not find any information about it online. 

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Greeneville’s Capitol Theatre is a downtown staple and its vibrant signs breathe life into the spaces between other deserted buildings. Capitol Theatre screens new releases daily and can be rented for private or community events. It opened in 1934, was renovated in the 1970s, then was rescued from being demolished in the 1990s by Main Street Greeneville. 

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St. James Episcopal Church immediately caught my attention with its towering steeple, black gothic windows, and bright red door. It is very unlike its neighbouring buildings or other churches nearby.

Behind the church, in the center of the block, Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan was murdered. Morgan is the man mentioned earlier whose memorial stands in front of the Greene County Courthouse, and this site is on the Civil War Trails route. 

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Another fun fact about Greeneville is that Oliver Perry Temple, avid critic/opponent of Andrew Johnson, was born in Greeneville. Temple helped found the Rugby Colony which I have previously written about, and worked as a lawyer in Knoxville. His daughter Mary Boyce Temple purchased her own house in Knoxville in 1922, died there in 1929, and that house eventually became the home of one of my bandmates in the early 2000s.

Our period-piece vaudeville band hosted several shows and events in the Mary Boyce Temple house. I stood on a box and sang into a tin can microphone at the top of my lungs many times about my days of shooting cheating husbands, burning down saloons, and train-hopping in the 1930s. We sang campfire songs and watched fireworks over the Gay Street Bridge from the windows and sprawling porch. I hope the Spirit of Mary Boyce Temple found us to be good company. 

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Be on the lookout in Greeneville for murals painted across some of the old building facades, and for little antique stores tucked into the lower levels. 

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See how many quilt square you can find while pursuing the Quilt Trail scavenger hunt, a tribute to the town’s beloved artist and seamstress Imogene Bible Cobble. 

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The City Garage Car Museum was a fun stop too. Inside there are over 40 different hot rods, NASCAR champions, and classic cars. Many of them have made appearances in films and races, or gained fame for other reasons.

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Sometimes they have outdoor exhibits like current projects and this old Greeneville Sheriff car. 

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Niswonger Performing Arts Center and the Dickson Williams Mansion are popular sites in Greeneville. 

Margarette Falls in the Cherokee National Forest is less than a twenty-minutes drive from downtown if you want to see a beautiful waterfall. The hike to the falls is only about 1.2 miles each way but it was way too hot out for us. Check back later for a review on that. 

In the area for a while? Follow me to Morristown or Rogersville

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One thought on “Greeneville, with an E.

  1. Pingback: Monkeying Around Rhea County; Evolution, the Scopes Trial, and a Secret Garden | Fernweh

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