Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

It tolls for thee

A news item out of Georgia.  I’m never happy to see potentially significant ground torn up, but one can’t help but be impressed by this developer’s honesty.

The Jonesboro City Council cleared the way this week for a funeral home to be built on about 11 acres on Ga. 54 just off Tara Boulevard after a contentious fight to preserve what is believed to be the last piece of unspoiled Civil War battleground in the county.…

Representatives for Weisbaden told city officials and residents at Monday’s meeting Jonesboro is a sensible place for a new funeral home because of its aging population.

Hey, all you elderly folks in Jonesboro—the people at Weisbaden Investments have big plans for you!

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A jaunt through Jonesborough

If you want to see a stellar example of what happens when a community embraces historic preservation, you should visit Jonesborough, TN.  It’s the oldest town in the state (founded in 1779, when eastern Tennessee was still part of North Carolina) and a history lover’s paradise.  My cousin and I paid a visit the other day, after our tour of Carter’s Mansion in nearby Elizabethton.

The first thing you’ll want to do is stop by the visitor center to pick up a walking guide.  These brochures are only $1.00, and they point out all the important historic structures and locations, most of them within easy walking distance.  The visitor center also has a nice little exhibit on various aspects of Jonesborough’s past, including some nifty antique fire pumps.

Jonesborough has, at various times, been the seat of Washington Co., created by North Carolina out of some of the western districts across the mountains; a capital of the abortive State of Franklin, which ceased to exist in 1788; a government and economic center for the Southwest Territory, when North Carolina ceded her western lands to the federal government; and finally, a county seat for Tennessee.  A monument in front of the current courthouse building marks the approximate spot where a log courthouse sat over two centuries ago.

One of the oldest structures you’ll see in Jonesborough (one of the oldest structures you’ll see in the whole state, actually) is the log home of Christopher Taylor, built in 1788.  A young backwoods lawyer named Andrew Jackson lived there for a short time before moving on to Nashville and national fame.

Later, after his election to the presidency, Jackson was a guest at the Chester Inn.  Built in the late 1790’s, this building has also hosted Presidents Polk and Johnson, along with various other historic luminaries.  Now it’s the home of the National Storytelling Festival.  Check out the exhibit on the first floor; it offers a fine overview of the town’s history, and includes some pretty neat artifacts.

Next to the Taylor cabin is the site where Elihu Embree published two anti-slavery newspapers, The Manumission Intelligencer and The Emancipator.  The latter was the first newspaper in the country devoted solely to promoting the eventual eradication of slavery.  The son of Pennsylvania Quakers, Embree was actually a slaveowner himself until age thirty, joining a Tennessee manumission organization in 1815.  The Emancipator circulated as far as Boston, but its run ended when Embree died at a young age in 1820.

Our last stop was the town’s old cemetery, which sits on a hill near the historic district.  Noticing a couple of small Confederate flags on one monument, I walked over to have a closer look.  Turned out to be the grave of Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson, who served as a quartermaster and paymaster before spending much of the rest of the war engaged in the small-scale actions that often flared up in the mountains of Appalachia.  Jackson was quite unpopular among other Confederate officers; subordinates in Thomas’ Legion (which constituted part of his brigade) considered him “morally and physically unfit” for command and asked Jefferson Davis to give him the boot.  The end of the war found this formerly prosperous businessman farming rented land in southwestern Virginia.  He was eventually able to recover some of his antebellum prosperity and died in Jonesborough in 1889.

There are plenty of other stories and buildings to check out in Jonesborough, along with quite a few historic inns and small restaurants.  The town is just a short drive from some of Tennessee’s best parks and historic sites—Sycamore Shoals, Rocky Mount, Andrew Johnson’s home, and Tipton-Haynes Historic Site, to name a few—so if you’re looking for a place to spend a history-soaked weekend, it’s hard to beat.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Princeton Battlefield Society sues to stop construction

From Planet Princeton:

Opponents of the Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build faculty housing have filed a lawsuit to block the project, arguing it will destroy the site of Washington’s counter-attack in the Battle of Princeton, the historic battle that changed the course of the American Revolution.

The lawsuit, filed in Mercer County Superior Court by the Princeton Battlefield Society, also claims the project is barred under the terms of a 1992 settlement agreement between the Institute and Princeton Township.

“The development, intended to provide housing for 15 faculty members, will completely obliterate the Battlefield site that has remained untouched for the last 235 years,” said the group’s attorney, Bruce Afran. “The Institute housing plan will destroy what is probably the most significant Revolutionary War site left in the United States, along with critical archaeological and historical evidence.”

The suit alleges that the construction, intended to build housing for 15 Institute faculty members, is barred under the terms of a 1992 settlement that the Institute reached with Princeton Township that was intended to preserve the Battlefield site from future residential development.

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What better time than the sesquicentennial

…to slash federal funding for Civil War battlefield acquisition in half?

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Leftovers

Here are a few items of interest to digest along with your microwaved turkey remnants.

  • Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill is hosting an exhibit of old North Carolina textbooks and the bizarre material contained therein.  The First Dixie Reader, published in Raleigh in 1863, extolled the idyllic lifestyle of the elderly female slave: “Many poor white folks would be glad to live in her house and eat what Miss Kate sends out for her dinner.”
  • The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is approaching, and the bureaucrats in Albany, NY couldn’t care less.
  • Some interesting stuff turned up when a bank employee opened up a box that had gone neglected.
  • The fate of (what’s left of) the historic K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, TN is in dispute.  The Department of Energy had promised to keep part of it intact, but now they want to tear down the whole thing.
  • Think historic preservation doesn’t make economic sense?  Think again.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Public treasures, private turf

The always-readable Knoxville historian Jack Neely weighs in on the disappearing Farragut monument, and considers the wider implications.  His assessment is that we East Tennesseans have been pretty lousy stewards of our historic resources, and I heartily agree with him.

“Laws of probability suggest that every privately owned historic site will eventually end up in the hands of someone who doesn’t care much about history,” he writes.  “Independent-minded property owners have an advantage over preservationists: one property owner can cancel generations of care. Without some permanent enforceable protections in place, a community will erase its own history.”  Of course, “permanent enforceable protections” will mean curbs on doing what we darn well please, which is anathema to a great many people.

I’ve been a conservative for quite a long time, and historic preservation is one of those areas where I often find myself in disagreement with fellow members of my political persuasion.  Look, I’m all for a robust conception of property rights.  The notion that a man can be told what to do or what not to do with what he owns gets my blood boiling; if you can’t do what you want with your property, one wonders if it’s really your property.  But I also believe there is such a thing as responsibility to the common good, and protection of historic resources is very much a part of that common good.  Few people ask for the onerous responsibility of stewardship over these resources, but a responsibility is never abrogated just because it isn’t desired.

We conservatives are a rather schizophrenic lot.  We cheer when our leaders pose for photo-ops at museums and historic sites to spout platitudes about our heritage, and then we cheer just as loudly when they make decisions that deprive those museums and sites of the resources they need to maintain and share the heritage they invoke.  We preach about looking back to our predecessors who sacrificed to secure the freedoms we enjoy, and then we exercise these freedoms by erasing all trace of those predecessors whenever it serves our immediate self-interest. 

Oh, we absolutely love to invoke the past, so long as it doesn’t cost us anything.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Fifteen kilotons of misplaced outrage

We just marked a significant but somber anniversary here in East Tennessee—the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, an event in which the town of Oak Ridge played an indispensable role.  Charles Johnson and Charles Jackson tell the story of the wartime city which sprang up virtually overnight in their fascinating book City Behind a Fence.

For some time now the National Park Service has been mulling over the possibility of a new park devoted to the Manhattan Project with sites in three states, including historically important locations at Oak Ridge, and last month the Secretary of the Interior gave it his recommendation.  The idea has some people pretty upset, for reasons that I think are not only mistaken but downright odd.

These critics seem incapable of distinguishing between preservation and celebration, and between interpretation and glorification.  Here’s a recent sample of the brouhaha from The New York Times:

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week offered his support for the establishment of a Manhattan Project National Park, and top leaders on Capitol Hill have already vowed to move a plan developed by the National Park Service through Congress in the coming months. But Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Maryland-based Nuclear Information Resource Service, said today that the effort runs contrary to the goals of the national park system.

“National parks are national treasurers, and glorifying a weapon of mass destruction is certainly not among the purposes of a national park,” Mariotte said.

No kidding.  Glorifying a weapon of mass destruction isn’t among the purposes of any sane person or institution. But we’re not talking about glorification; we’re talking about a national historical park.  National parks preserve and interpret.  Neither of those activities necessarily involves glorification.  I doubt the Polish government had glorification in mind when it set aside Auschwitz-Birkenau as a historic site.  It doesn’t amount to a statement about whether something is good or bad, only that it’s important.

Workers at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge during the war. From the American Museum of Science and Energy via Wikimedia Commons

Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group in New Mexico, shares those concerns.

“We have to bracket a healthy historical interest with our moral sensibilities and with common sense, and that’s what’s not happening here,” said Mello, whose group has been lobbying against the effort for several years as the National Park Service has conducted a feasibility study ahead of making its official recommendation.

“What we risk is harming the national park system as a whole and the idea of national parks just when we need to protect the environment the most,” Mello said.

Setting aside significant places for stewardship will harm the idea of national parks?  That’s weird, because I thought it was the idea of national parks.  These guys do know that the NPS maintains historic areas, right?

Mello and Mariotte said honoring the atomic bomb with its own national park would set a poor precedent.

Again with the celebratory language.  Who said anything about “honoring” the bomb?  Does Ford’s Theatre National Historical Site “honor” the practice of political assassination?

“Once you open the gate … a national park can be anything,” Mello said. “Why don’t we have a Disneyland national park or NASCAR national park; what’s the limit?”

The limit is that a national historical park or site must be deemed significant enough to warrant federal ownership and administration.  Within those guidelines, you can have national parks dedicated to any number of aspects of American history—textile manufacturing and whaling, to name just two examples.

Here’s a rather bizarre line of argument from a recent editorial by Russ Wellen at Scholars & Rogues:

It’s always a mistake to assume that much of the public favors the United States leading the way on disarmament when other states retain nuclear weapons. But you can be fairly certain that the public either lacks knowledge of the extent to which nuclear weapons still exist since the end of the Cold War or it locks said existence in a tiny room in its mind. In other words, isn’t the Manhattan Project National Park a vast investment of money in an attraction for an audience that’s strictly niche?

Wellen chastises the American public for their ignorance and indifference regarding the important issue of nuclear weapons, and uses the fact of their ignorance and indifference to discredit a measure that would inform them and engage them with that very issue. It’s as if someone blew off a proposal to encourage literacy by arguing that people didn’t care enough about reading books for it to work.

In any case, I think Wellen’s assessment of the American public’s indifference is off the mark.  Elsewhere in his editorial, he refers to Richard Rhodes, whose prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb has been in print for twenty-five years and sold hundreds of thousands of copies despite the fact that it deals with highly technical subject matter and clocks in at some 900 pages.  The success of this volume indicates that there is indeed a public interest in the historical aspects of this issue.  The tremendous popularity currently enjoyed by WWII literature and media of all kinds also bodes well for the success of the proposed park.

A piece in The Oak Ridger applies some much-needed good sense:

Creating this park provides an opportunity to interpret and discuss an incredibly important piece of American and world history, and to allow contemporary society to better understand the complex and difficult decision to use the bomb.

Experts with divergent views will be consulted during the development of the educational materials to ensure the materials are balanced and informative. Park rangers can share the stories of participants and decision-makers with visitors to allow them to be better informed about these decisions.

“The decision of whether the bombs should have been dropped will always be subject for intense debate, and the public should have access to the places instrumental in the development of atomic power so they can reach their own conclusions,” said Ron Tipton, senior vice president at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Because the government already owns the land and historic Manhattan Project properties, the costs associated with the creation of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park will be modest. In fact, the Department of Energy will be saving an estimated $100 million or more by preserving the Manhattan Project facilities such as the famous B Reactor at Hanford, Wash., rather than destroying and disposing of them. The National Park Service study recommends that it make use of existing museums and interpretive centers such as the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, and the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum in New Mexico.

The story of the Manhattan Project isn’t just the story of the bomb, but of the people and places involved and all the momentous consequences that followed.  The NPS has been in the historic interpretation business for quite some time, and they’re rather good at it.  Let’s at least see how they plan to tell these stories before condemning the effort altogether.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Tennessee History