Jonesborough; Abolition, Tall Tales, and Whiskey in Tennessee’s Oldest Town

Tennessee’s oldest town was founded in 1779, nearly two decades before it officially became a state. Jonesborough, once spelled as Jonesboro, is part of the Tri-Cities region of East Tennessee that includes Johnson City, Kingsport, and Bristol.

Jonesborough was named after Willie Jones, a politician from North Carolina who was known for his support of exploring and expanding westward in the 1770s when very few people had even been. It serves as the seat of Washington County and was the first official county of any state west of the Appalachians.

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The bulk of historic Jonesborough runs along Main Street (aka Old TN 34) between the Corner Cup at Spring Street and the Blair-Moore House at 1st Street, with Courthouse Square in the center.

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Downtown has dozens of interesting historic sites and architecture with a mix of Greek Revival, Federalist, Victorian, and other styles. Because of this, Main Street and its surrounding blocks look a little more like New England than the average Tennessee or North Carolina mountain town.

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My song for this entry is a Queens of the Stone Age remix of “I Wanna Make It Wit Chu” since QotSA and The White Stripes were always on repeat among friends. Listen to the original here if you like.

My first time in Jonesborough was privileged. I used to see someone who was a close friend of an Alderman and the owners of Tennessee Hills Distillery. I had the honour of spending time with them all about town, in the distillery, and at their lovely home.

That visit was during the National Storytelling Festival and the whole town, especially the distillery, had come alive. I had behind-the-scenes access and transportation/rock star parking in a snazzy golf cart.

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International Storytelling Center
Each October, Jonesborough hosts the National Storytelling Festival. The International Storytelling Center is the hub of activity, including the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, Jimmy Neil Smith Storytelling Park, and the historic Chester Inn.

There are many simultaneous events, exhibits, performers, and activities going on in the town center just for the occasion. Parking can be hard to come by in this small downtown area but locals open up their yards for (paid) parking and sometimes run golf carts back and forth for tips.

If you can’t make the trip this year, they are excited to offer online event tickets here.

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Tennessee Hills Distillery
Speaking of stories, I was impressed by how the owners met. If I recall correctly they met in college for chemistry/chemical engineering and were both working at Eastman Chemicals when they fell in love, then later decided to pursue their distillery dream in 2013.

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Jonesborough is possibly even more famous around the country for Tennessee Hills Distillery than for its storytelling, so definitely make time for a tour and tasting. Tennessee Hills Distillery is in the restored, historic Salt House building at the top of the hill on Fox Street.

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Some of their spirits include the comical Red Hot Pecker, Corn Liquor, Dark Roast Coffee, Coconut Rum, Pecan Pie, Lemon Drop, newer flavours like Oatmeal Spice, Blood Orange & Honey, and classics like bourbon, rye, gin, and vodka.

My personal favourites are the Lavender Lemon and the Pineapple Upside Down Cake (woof, woof).

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Historic Sites
Since downtown Jonesborough is on the National Registry of Historic Places, you can count on rich history in places like the Chester Inn, Christopher Taylor House, the Blair Moore House, and the Courthouse.

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Chester Inn State Historical Site & Museum
When the first white settlers in this part of Tennessee formed a system of government called the Watauga Association, they soon wrote their own Constitution, the first of its kind in North America.

Later on in 1784, Jonesborough served as the capitol of the State of Franklin for its first year and the most prominent officials, politicians, and other high profile guests that came to Jonesborough stayed at the Chester Inn.

The Chester Inn has been a downtown staple since it first opened a little over a decade later, though it no longer hosts guests. Chester Inn has been converted into a historic site and museum about Jonesborough, the Lost State of Franklin, and other prominent local events of the past.

It is now owned by the State and managed by both the Tennessee Historical Commission and the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

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Christopher Taylor House
The oldest and longest-surviving structure in Jonesborough belonged to Major Christopher Taylor, who built this cabin in 1777. Originally it was located a mile from Main Street along the Old Stage Road and often housed travelers, but it was moved to Main Street in 1974 as part of the town’s preservation efforts.

Part of the draw to this cabin is that former President Andrew Jackson lived in it for a few months. I bet he was good and comfortable there, long before he signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into effect. Bastard.

There is no website for the house, just a landmark sign.

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Blair-Moore House
The Blair-Moore House website may be a bit hard on the eyes but the house itself is lovely. Built in 1832 with additions in the 1860s and 1900s, it passed through the ownership of a few different individuals before the Moore family took it over in 1993. 

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The Moores gave it new life as a Bed & Breakfast, made almost all of the renovations themselves, and even built a large amount of its antique style beds, tables, and other furniture. I have not been able to get in yet because they are continuously booked, so shoot your shot way in advance. 

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Behind the B&B, Mr. Moore has a home goods and gift shop called the Looking Glass Maker if you are interested in purchasing or commissioning some of his work.

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You can also tour the English-French style cottage gardens along the creek.

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The Historic Eureka Inn and Eureka Bites Restaurant is just next door to the Blair-Moore House B&B, seen below.

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Mauk’s,
Since1970, Mauk’s has been Jonesoborough’s source for specialty Ekornes recliners, exclusive brands, and home goods/furniture store.

If you visit someone in Jonesborough, they will have at least one of these recliners in their home but I have yet to experience an Ekornes for myself.

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Mail Pouch Building
The Mail Pouch Building, aptly named because of the giant Mail Pouch mural on its exterior, began as a saloon in the 1880s. In the 1890s, the mural was added to advertise Mail Pouch Tobacco and another local grocer and businessman, Augustus Cummings, who is credited for inventing the plow.

Over a decade later, the building was restored. Crafty Peddler is its current inhabitant, the source for locally made crafts, jewelry, art, home/garden decor, pottery, gifts, and anything else you could want.

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Sister’s Row
This large and unsymmetrical building was created by a local man Samuel Jackson for his three daughters back in the 1820s. Now it hosts one of Jonesborough’s many antique shops.

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Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia
Just a short walk or drive from Main Street, the HANTSV is an incredible resource for all things past and present of the region. The website is filled with fascinating archives, photographs, and other recordings as well as Historic Preservation, Racial/Social Justice Resource Sheets, and other outreaches.

It was also an excellent resource for identifying and learning about many of the homes and abandoned buildings I found around town.

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May-Dishner Home
Jonesborough prides itself on having been the center for the Abolitionist movement and stronghold of Unionist sentiment among Confederate states during the Civil War.

In fact, in 1819-1820 a local Quaker man named Elihu Embree printed his Manumission Intelligencer and The Emancipator at Jacob Howard’s print shop, which we now know as the May-Dishner home below. The Emancipator was the first ever publication strictly dedicated to the abolition of slavery.

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Mansion House
This home was built in 1829, became the home of Jonesborough mayor Robert May’s widow and it has remained in the family since.

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It was once an inn on the Old Stage Road but is a private residence now.

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Chuckey Depot
This historic depot is home of the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society and Museum.

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Since 1981, it has been a home for this chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society Chapter and is a must for anyone interested in the region’s extensive railroad history.

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You can see remnants of the railroad and tracks throughout town, a testament to how much the creation and endurance of this town once relied on the rail industry.

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If you are hungry, or maybe history isn’t your jam, check out any of the dozens of local restaurants and shops in Jonesborough.

Main Street Cafe, Jonesboro Barrel House, Main Street Pizza Co, Old Towne Pancake House, Krazy Krepes, Texas Burritos, Gigi’s Pantry, and Depot Street Brewery have all been calling me, but many places have been closed or had limited hours during the era of Covid-19.

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Corner Cup is a friendly café near the Courthouse, perfect for a quick to go drink before exploring.

Just slightly outside of the town center, Black Olive‘s specialty Chicken Milano was a hit. Chicken stuffed with ham, cheese, and basil is served with creamy mushroom pasta.

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Jonesborough Farmers Market is held in the Courthouse Square every Saturday between May through October, with the exception of Independence Day weekend and the first Saturday of October when the National Storytelling Festival takes over the town.

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The Jonesborough Visitors Center and Emporium, Jones Antiques & Artisans, the Lollipop Shop, several boutiques, and other businesses line Main Street.

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Two new additions I found on my last visit were the East Tennessee Hemp Company and Crystal Raven, a metaphysical supply/herb shop with crystals, home decor, and eclectic gifts.

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Jonesborough Historic Walking Tours feature knowledgeable locals and costumed reenactments. You can schedule one through the Heritage Alliance or take a self-guided tour using this map.

Seasonal and annual events like Brews & Tunes, Music on the Square, Movies on Main, Made Around Here Market, and the town’s Fourth of July or Christmas celebrations would be excellent times to visit.

Jonesborough also has seven city parks and lots of outdoor expedition options. I will never forget the day my friends took me “Jeeping” to a place locals call Bumpass (“Bump Ass”) Mountain near Erwin. We nearly flipped over dozens of times, got beat up as hell, and were completely covered in mud before we reached the overlook of the Nolichucky River.

They made fun of me for being a city girl but I rolled with the punches. I was cool.

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In the area for a while? Check out some other great places in the Tri-Cities area like Bristol and Johnson City, or check out Rogersville, Morristown, and Greeneville.

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