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.