Daily Archives: April 21, 2009

The view from Rocky Mount

Last time I related the results of the weekend’s successful TomTom field test, and promised to post one of my historic site reviews for the destination.  It was one of those Tennessee frontier museums that I’d intended to visit for a long time and had just never gotten around to seeing.  I’m pleased to report that it exceeded my expectations.

Rocky Mount Museum is a historic house and farm in Piney Flats, up in Tennessee’s history-saturated northeastern corner.  The really surprising thing about the house is the fact that it’s still there at all.  William Cobb built it for his family in the early 1770’s, when permanent settlement in what became Tennessee was still in its infancy.  It’s got to be one of the oldest homes in the entire state.  It’s also quite a substantial structure.  If you’re expecting a tiny frontier cabin, you’re in for a surprise.  The main house has a good-sized parlor, two upstairs bedrooms, a dining room across a covered dogtrot-style passageway, and an additional room converted into an office.

This office is one of the things that makes Rocky Mount so significant.  After the State of Franklin dissolved in the late 1780’s, North Carolina finally and permanently ceded its western lands to the Federal government.  The area that’s now Tennessee was organized into the Southwest Territory, with North Carolina’s William Blount appointed governor.  From his arrival in 1790 until 1792 (when he moved to a new frame house in Knoxville that’s also become a nifty museum), Blount stayed with the Cobb family and conducted the territory’s business out of the downstairs office.  Rocky Mount was therefore the first capitol of the Southwest Territory, and Blount’s time here figures significantly in the tours and programming.

There are several other buildings to see besides the main house.  A detached kitchen, a smaller building that functions as a smokehouse and cloth-making area, and a slave cabin are also located on the grounds, along with a barn and livestock fields.  It’s a beautiful site with a gorgeous view; “Rocky Mount” wasn’t just Cobb’s creative nickname, because the house actually does sit on a high hill topped with rocky outcroppings.

The interpretive scheme relies heavily on first-person techniques and hands-on demonstration.  Teams of costumed interpreters conduct groups through the buildings.  All the guides working on the day we visited were extremely knowledgeable, not just about the site but about the Tennessee frontier and early American history in general.

In fact, the quality of the interpretation is one of Rocky Mount’s greatest strengths.  All too often I’ve found myself visiting a historic building and being led from room to room by a bored intern with the weary delivery style of a telemarketer.  You won’t find that here.  Rocky Mount’s guides are very engaging, and they know their stuff.  Ask a question about the most minor object tucked away in a corner, and they’ll not only identify it but also weave it into the larger story of life on the eighteenth-century frontier.  Is it homemade?  Yes, we make it out of such-and-such.  Where do you get the materials?  Well, this part comes from Mr. So-and-so’s store in Jonesborough, and then we get that part in monthly shipments from Virginia. 

And Mr. So-and-so’s store, and all the rest of it, is actually documented.  It’s not so much a tour as it is a step into a fully realized, fully recreated world, all based on painstaking research.  You get a sense of the household’s place within a genuine, living frontier community.

This is living history in its fullest sense—not just clothes and personas, but actually doing the kinds of things necessary to keep a 1790’s farm going.  After seeing the house, we headed over to the kitchen, where a guide showed us how to bank the cooking fire to keep the coals smouldering while she explained techniques for preparing practically every food and medical remedy you’d find on an eighteenth-century plantation.  Later, she took us past the garden, where we held the herbs up to our noses and smelled them, and then into an outbuilding to watch different kinds of fabrics being prepared, running them through our fingers to feel the difference.  I’ve toured a lot of historic home sites, and I’ve seen a lot of first-person interpretation, but rarely have I seen any of this done so well.

I’ve also got to say that the way the buildings are stocked and furnished is incredibly convincing.  Rocky Mount looks like a place where people live; if the Cobb family happened to show up, I imagine they could find everything they’d need to get by here.  Because the tours are guided, there aren’t barriers and cases all over the rooms to remind you that you’re in an artificial environment.

A museum and orientation film offer an introduction to the history of the Tennessee frontier, from the French and Indian War to the early statehood period.  Some of the exhibits are pretty dated, but they’re in the process of being updated, and they’re still worth a look, despite the wear and tear.  As You’ll be able to get an overview of the major events and personalities in early Tennessee history.  (Seeing the powder kettle Mary Patton used to supply the King’s Mountain expedition was a real treat for me, and one I wasn’t expecting.)

There is one thing I found a little odd, and that’s the selection of books for sale in the gift shop.  There are quite a few hard-to-find titles on local and nineteenth-century Tennessee history, but many of the works on the frontier that you usually see in Tennessee museums aren’t there.  I was particularly surprised not to find a copy of Walter Durham’s history of the Southwest Territory, which seems like such a natural fit.  But this is a minor point, and I don’t intend it as a criticism of the site’s overall quality.

I’d enthusiastically recommend a visit to Rocky Mount Museum to anybody who’s planning a trip through northeastern Tennessee.  And if you’re a Tennessean within driving distance of the Tri-Cities, you owe it to yourself to go.  My only regret is that I didn’t make it there sooner.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History