Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

Killing public history in Illinois

Last month it was the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project under fire.  Now the Illinois State Museum is closed indefinitely.

The Illinois State Museum was scheduled to close to the public after Wednesday, but staff whose layoffs have been postponed by a lawsuit are still expected to work.

The closure to the public is a prelude to closing the museum system entirely, a highly controversial move pursued by Gov. Bruce Rauner and strongly opposed by museum staff and unions.

The proposal to close the museum system was announced earlier this year, part of a package of contentious cuts Rauner is seeking to the state budget. Rauner, a Republican, vetoed several appropriations bills passed by the Illinois General Assembly, but despite a supposedly veto-proof Democratic majority in both chambers, the Illinois House has been unable to muster enough votes to override most of Rauner’s vetos. The House and Senate Democratic majorities refuse to pass several anti-union laws Rauner is pushing as part of the budget process, leaving the state with no budget. That has crippled social service providers and put the popular Illinois State Museum on the chopping block.

The Springfield staff of the Illinois State Museum, and its Research and Collection Center at 11th and Ash streets in Springfield, were due to be laid off on Sept. 30, but the union members of the staff received a stay of execution on Sept. 18. Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, said the union was notified by the Rauner administration that the layoffs would be delayed until litigation over state cuts is resolved. The lawsuit in question started as a motion to make the state issue employee paychecks, but it has since been amended to include layoffs and state employee health insurance claims, which the state stopped paying earlier this month.

“Good news!  We’re not laying all of you off…yet.  So even though we’re locking the doors, we expect you to be at work tomorrow.  Oh, and thanks for being stewards of all our cultural and natural resources, I guess.”

For a country that supposedly loves history and embraces its heritage, we’ve got a funny way of showing it.

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It’s going to be a John Sevier September at Marble Springs!

This month will mark 200 years since John Sevier’s death, and we’ve got a whole slew of things going on at Marble Springs State Historic Site.

Sept. 19-20 is our annual living history weekend, John Sevier Days.  This is one of our most popular events, with reenacting, period demonstrations, interpretation at our historic buildings, and more.

Sept. 19th is also the night of our third Sevier Soirée, the annual fundraising dinner and silent auction that I posted about not too long ago.  Tickets are $50.00 per person, and include open-hearth appetizers, a Southern-style dinner, and live music by Guy Marshall.  Reserve seats by Sept. 14th, either via snail mail or online.

On Sept. 24th, the actual anniversary of Sevier’s death, we’ll have a special one-time commemorative event.  At 2:00 P.M. we’ll be doing a wreath-laying ceremony at Sevier’s grave on the lawn of the Old Knox County Courthouse in downtown Knoxville.  Thanks to a generous benefactor, we’ll also be hosting a cocktail event at Marble Springs at 7:00 that evening, followed by dinner.

This will be a very special month for aficionados of Tennessee history, historic sites, the American Revolution, the early frontier, good food, and good music.  Hope to see some of you there!

200 Sevier Poster

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Marble Springs in the news

The Knoxville News Sentinel did a story on some of our fundraising and programming efforts a few days ago.  Check it out:

Tucked away just down a gravel driveway from a busy highway lies a piece of history that some Knoxville residents don’t even know exists.

Marble Springs State Historic Site, located at 1220 W. Gov. John Sevier Highway, was the home of John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee, from 1796 until his death in 1815.

The 35-acre property includes five historic structures, an arboretum and hiking trails and is open year-round for tours as well as special events such as a weekly Farmers’ Market, living history events, and workshops on everything from knitting to stargazing.

The site also can be rented for events such as birthdays, reunions and weddings, and yet visibility is still a challenge, according to Anna Chappelle, executive director.

“I don’t think they realize we’re here,” says Chappelle, a fourth generation Knoxvillian who is Marble Springs’ only full-time employee. “As a result, we’ve created this diverse programming to reach the community and to make an impact on the local economy.”

But you don’t have to be a history buff, a Scout or a student to enjoy Marble Springs’ third annual Sevier Soiree, which will be held 6:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19.

The event will include a catered dinner, live music and silent auction to raise funds for the Gov. John Sevier Memorial Association, the nonprofit that operates and maintains Marble Springs.

“Many people assume, because Marble Springs is a state historic site, that it is fully funded by the state,” Chappelle explains. “We get a stipend from the state that covers about 50 percent of our expenses.”

For $50 per ticket, event attendees can walk among Marble Springs’ historic structures as the sun is setting, enjoying open-hearth-cooked hors d’oeuvres served by re-enactors in period costume and listening to live music by local Americana band Guy Marshall.

The silent auction will feature items such as tickets to area attractions, from Dollywood and Wilderness of the Smokies to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. The biggest draw, the one that causes “a bidding war,” Chappelle says, is a signed and framed photograph of Marble Springs’ own Sevier Cabin by photographer Michael Byerley.

Dinner, catered by Bradford Events, is a Southern-inspired meal this year, with fried chicken, cheese grits, squash casserole and sweet potato casserole, among others, served in the pavilion.

If you’d like to come out for the soirée, you can order tickets by clicking here.  Deadline for reservations is Sept. 14.  It’s gonna be a blast!

And don’t forget about our living history event the weekend of Sept. 19th.  You can rent the site for your wedding or family reunion, too.

By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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A visit with the Ramseys

Francis Alexander Ramsey was a Pennsylvania native who arrived in Tennessee around the end of the Revolutionary War, got involved in the Franklin movement, served as clerk of the Southwest Territory, and was a founding trustee of what eventually became the University of Tennessee.  About the same time that Tennessee became a state, he hired an English carpenter named Thomas Hope to build a fine home of pink marble and blue limestone at Swan Pond, his plantation near Knoxville at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers.  The house is still there, and a few days ago I decided it was high time I saw it in person.


Ramsey House is one of the most beautifully constructed and restored of all the historic house museums I’ve visited.  Once referred to as “the most costly and most admired building in Tennessee,” it would have been quite a bit more substantial than most of the other homes on the frontier near the turn of the nineteenth century.  The quality of Hope’s craftsmanship is evident in the limestone trim and the carved corbels underneath the roof corners.


Cabins and small homes on the early Tennessee frontier typically had kitchens that were either detached from the main house or linked to it by a covered dogtrot.  Ramsey House’s kitchen, by contrast, is attached to the main structure.  The tour guide told me this was at the insistence of Francis Ramsey’s wife.


The interior is just as impressive as the exterior, furnished with period pieces that include some Ramsey family items, like the Chippendale chairs and tea service in one of the downstairs rooms.


When Francis died in 1820, the house passed to his oldest son William, Knoxville’s first elected mayor.  William later sold the home to his brother, the eminent doctor, historian, and public works booster J.G.M. Ramsey, who in turn gave it to his son as a wedding present in 1857 and moved a short distance away to his own estate of Mecklenburg.

The house’s link to J.G.M. Ramsey was one of the main reasons I wanted to see it, since every aficionado of early Tennessee history is bound to cross paths with him sooner or later.  Although his contributions to the state’s transportation development and finance were considerable, Ramsey’s role as chronicler of Tennessee’s past was probably his most important legacy.  Some of the most prominent players in Tennessee’s formative years were guests at Ramsey House when J.G.M. was growing up, and he developed a passionate interest in the Volunteer State’s history, reflected in his massive collection of manuscripts and books.  The crowning achievement of this historical work was his massive Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century, published in 1853 and still an invaluable resource for students of the early southwestern frontier.

Above all else, he was a committed believer in states’ rights and a defender of southern interests, serving as a Confederate treasury agent on the outbreak of the Civil War.  His zealous support for secession ended up taking a tremendous toll on his family.  The Union occupation of Knoxville in 1863 forced him to flee Mecklenburg, his daughter was exiled from the city, and his youngest son Arthur was one of the many Tennessee troops killed in action at Piedmont, VA in June 1864.

One wartime loss was as devastating for later Tennessee historians as it must have been to Ramsey personally—a Union arsonist put Mecklenburg to the torch, and its priceless collection of historical papers and relics went up in smoke.  Ramsey himself blamed his nemesis William Brownlow, an outspoken Unionist with whom he had been at odds since before the war, for instigating the arson.  One of the reasons Ramsey’s Annals is such an important resource is because much of the primary material that went into the work went up in flames along with his home.  (Speaking as somebody who could’ve made use of those documents, I can tell you that if I find the arsonist in the afterlife, there’s going to be trouble.)

After the war, Ramsey was able to get a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson.  The family eventually returned to Knoxville, but J.G.M.’s son sold the ancestral home in 1866.  The Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities acquired it in 1952 and furnished it to match the period of Francis Ramsey’s occupancy, using items donated by descendants and an inventory of the patriarch’s estate.

In addition to the house, the site has a small visitor center with a gift shop, an exhibit of family relics and archaeological materials excavated on the grounds, and a short film.  I definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the Knoxville area; it’s an architectural gem and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of one of Tennessee’s most important families.

You might also want to visit the site of Lebanon-in-the-Fork Presbyterian Church, just a couple of miles from Ramsey House.  Rev. Samuel Carrick established Lebanon-in-the-Fork in 1791, making it the oldest Presbyterian church in Knox County.  The church building is gone, but the graveyard is well worth a look.  The grave of Carrick’s widow is Knox County’s earliest marked burial, dating to 1793.


Several generations of Ramseys are also buried here: Francis…




…and young Arthur.


Also in the Ramsey plot is a memorial for Reynolds Ramsey, father of Francis and a veteran of the Revolutionary War who was at Trenton and Princeton.  J.G.M. remembered his grandfather as a “tall and graceful” man who “never entered a room with his hat on and never retired from it without a graceful bow and a modest and sincere adieu.”  I suspect it was J.G.M. himself, with his interest in history, who made sure his grandfather’s tombstone mentioned his Rev War service.


Reynolds isn’t the only Rev War veteran buried at Lebanon-in-the-Forks.


Jeremiah Jack, another Rev War vet buried in the churchyard, was one of Knoxville’s early settlers.  Ramsey’s Annals includes a brief account of a canoe trip Jack and another man made to Coyatee to purchase corn from the Cherokees:

During the infancy of the settlements on Nollichucky, corn had become scarce, and availing themselves of a short suspension of hostilities, Jeremiah Jack and William Rankin, of Greene county, descended the river in a canoe, for the purpose of bartering with the Indians for corn. They reached Coiatee without interruption. The warriors of that place refused to exchange or sell the corn, and manifested other signs of suspicion, if not of open enmity. They entered the canoe and lifted up some wearing apparel lying in it, and which covered their rifles. This discovery increased the unwillingness of the Indians to trade, and they began to show a disposition to offer violence to their white visitants. The beloved woman, Nancy Ward, was happily present, and was able by her commanding influence to appease their wrath, and to bring about friendly feelings between the parties. The little Indians were soon clad in the home made vestments brought by the traders—the canoe was filled with corn, and the white men started on their return voyage well pleased with the exchange they had made, and especially with the kind offices of the beloved woman. On their return, the white men landed and camped one night, a mile above the mouth of French Broad, on the north bank of the little sluice of that river. Mr. Jack was so well pleased with the place, that he afterwards selected it as his future residence, and actually settled and improved it on his emigration to the present Knox county, in 1787.


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Have public history degree, will travel

One of our Marble Springs staff members is moving on to a position at a Civil War-related site, the T.R.R. Cobb House in Athens, GA. Cobb was a lawyer who figures prominently in Georgia’s legal history, but he’s best remembered as a member of the Confederate congressional committee responsible for drafting the CSA’s constitution and as the organizer of the Georgia Legion.  His military career didn’t last long; he bled to death from a mortal wound received at Fredericksburg, but the Legion went on to serve in many of the war’s bloodiest battles.  I don’t know if he was any relation to Wilbur Cobb of Ren & Stimpy fame, but I desperately hope so.

Anyway, we had a little send-off for our colleague (who we were very sad to lose) a few days ago, and she mentioned that she’s about to start studying up on Cobb’s life and times for her new job.  After years of working on the Tennessee frontier, it’ll be quite a change.

It occurred to me that this is one of the differences between public historians and their academic counterparts.  Academic historians have the tremendous luxury of specialization.  They spend years immersing themselves in the literature and primary sources of a particular field, and their success depends on how well they can navigate within it.  Of course, they’ll end up teaching courses that fall outside their specialization.  When it’s their turn to teach the survey course, they’ll have to have a working knowledge of a tremendous swath of historical knowledge.  And the academic who can rework his or her specialization to fit a particular department’s strengths and expectations will be at a great advantage on a job search.  But if they’re lucky, academic historians will spend much of their time on whatever it is they’ve chosen to study.

Public historians, on the other hand, have to learn to adapt.  Their reading and research will depend much more heavily on the job they find themselves in than on their own inclinations.  Again, the differences aren’t absolute; some public historians will be fortunate enough to find a position that suits their particular interests and expertise, just as some academic historians will find it necessary to adapt quickly to meet the needs of a department looking to hire new blood.  But adaptation is more likely to be a fact of life for the public historian.

A change of job doesn’t just mean a change of zip code and getting to know a new city.  It also means getting acquainted with a new mental geography: new contexts, new historiographies, new themes.  It might mean a crash course in World War I for your first job, labor history for your second, the antebellum South for your third.  One of my former bosses has worked at museums specializing in subjects as varied as the Trans-Mississippi West, the history of firearms, and Abraham Lincoln.  I know people who have been posted at sites dealing with the pre-Columbian Southwest and the Kentucky frontier, Jacksonian canals and the Civil War, twentieth-century education and eighteenth-century Appalachia.

On top of all this, remember that public historians have to be generalists in another sense, too.  They have to be familiar with the tenets of historical research as well as all the practical know-how required to manage a museum or a site: preservation, exhibits, budgets, pedagogy, and so on.

Adaptability and versatility just might be the two most important qualities for the aspiring public historian.  It’s not a career choice for the faint of heart, but if you like learning new things, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

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From women’s history to Ripperology: museum mission creep

From New York magazine:

A former Google diversity head decided he wanted to build a museum dedicated to women’s history in London’s East End, so he submitted a proposal outlining his goals last October. But after the proposal was approved and construction on the museum began, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe promptly switched tactics, and instead decided to build a museum dedicated to the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who exclusively targeted female sex workers. His excuse? Jack the Ripper is less boring than exploring women’s history and accomplishments.

I’ll grant that Jack the Ripper is “less boring” than the social history of women in England, but holy cow.  This is like setting out to do a documentary on the decline of the American auto industry and making Transformers 5 instead.

Opening a museum entails more than hanging a sign out front with the word “museum” on it.  Not every building with immersive galleries, mannequins, a few artifacts, and a gift shop is actually in the historical interpretation business.  There are museums, and then there are what we might more properly call “historical tourist attractions.”  Such attractions are common at gunfighter-related sites in the American West, and they’re all over the place at Pigeon Forge here in East Tennessee.

The Jack the Ripper Museum opens on Tuesday, and then Londoners will be able to see if the exhibits really do interpret the Whitechapel murders in their historical context, or whether this is another of those museums in name only.

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The continuing threat to the Princeton battleground

Here’s an update on the ongoing preservation issue at Princeton.  You might recall that the Institute for Advanced Study’s initial plan to build faculty housing on land adjacent to the battlefield got shot down because it encroached on a local drainage.  

The institute later received approval for a revised building plan, but preservationists claim the planned construction still threatens land involved in the battle.

Now comes news that an archaeological survey on the site found artifacts associated with the battle, supporting the preservatonists’ argument that the land in question is historically significant.

The fact that archaeologists hired by the institute itself have noted the historical importance of the ground ought to indicate that putting buildings there is a bad idea.  But it looks like the institute is moving forward anyway.

If you’ve been to Guilford Courthouse, you’ve seen the impact that encroaching development can have on a Rev War battlefield, and how much harder it is to understand and interpret sites that are suffocated by buildings.  Americans deserve to have the places where their country was born kept whole.

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