The Heritage Center consists of a museum and a library and research center. The museum includes eight galleries that depict themes of history that grew out of the plateau that had national or international impact. The library focuses on the people who lived on the plateau for family, cultural, and historical research with sources and proper equipment to access sources for such research.
The first gallery of the museum shows how the plateau developed through geologic eras with an emphasis on the formation of coal during the Pennsylvanian period.
The second gallery portrays the Chickamauga Native Americans, their alliance with the British during the Revolutionary War in 1775, and their development of five towns along the Tennessee River. The gallery shows how the Chickamauga strove to prevent white American settlement into Middle Tennessee by attacking boats on the Tennessee River heading to Middle Tennessee and by using the ancient Cisca Trail from St. Augustine, Florida. The trail crossed the plateau at what is now Monteagle and descended into Middle Tennessee on a section known as Nickajack Trail. From the trail the Chickamauga attacked settlements that had been established at Nashboro, Murfreesboro and other sites in hit and run raids.. The gallery tells the story of Joseph Brown, a white boy captured in 1788 from one of the boats heading for Middle Tennessee. He was taken into captivity and placed with one of the families of the Chickamauga. He learned the trail system. In a prisoner exchange he was released to the American settlers. In 1794 he guided the militia led by Major James Ore along the Cisca Trail to Nickajack Town where the militia destroyed the principal Chickamauga towns. The Chickamauga dispersed, many to the plateau, where they were when the plateau was opened for white settlement. In time many of them intermarried or otherwise cohabited with the settlers and took their surnames. By 1828 they were so mixed into the settler population that they were bypassed by the Trail of Tears removal. Their descendants are today a significant part of the population of the plateau.
The third gallery is Summerfield. Summerfield is where Lilian Johnson developed an agricultural cooperative in 1915 known as KinCo., described by her as “a co-operative association of city and mountain folk with a kindred purpose”. She initiated the Grundy County Fair there, and brought May Justus and Vera McCampbell to Grundy County as teachers. The Gallery contains a collection of the writings of May Justus, poet, storyteller and author of children’s books that impart wisdom from life in the Appalachian Mountains.
In 1932 Lilian Johnson turned her property over to Myles Horton and Don West for the development of Highlander Folk School. The galley depicts her active support of the school and the support and involvement with the school by May Justus and Vera McCampbell. The history of this unusual institution is told with words and spectacular photographs. The school, devoted to economic justice and social equality, developed bottom up education methodology. It was active in labor organization training in the 1930s and 1940s and later in the 1950s and 1960s in non violent civil rights training. Most civil rights leaders attended seminars at the school including Rosa Parks shortly before she triggered the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. The school has been acclaimed to be one of the seven most important sites in the civil rights movement.
The fourth gallery tells the story of Monteagle Sunday School Assembly. Southern leaders in the Sunday School movement selected Monteagle in 1882 for a southern Chautauqua patterned after the one established in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua, New York by a Methodist Bishop, John Heyl Vincent, and Lewis Miller, a Methodist layman who was an inventor and manufacturer. Both had a passion for education strengthened by circumstances that deprived them of the education they would have liked to have completed. Initiated as a place where Sunday School teachers could come to learn how to teach, the movement influenced the cultural history of United States in education, in religion, in concern for reform, in discussion of important issues, in the arts, and in entertainment. Those who partook of the movement were largely middle class people who came for a summer day, or a week, or an entire season, to study, to enjoy idyllic surroundings, to be fortified and instructed in their Protestant faith, or to be innocently amused. The first Chautauqua program was held on the grounds of Monteagle Sunday School Assembly on July 17, 1883. Assemblies for programs have been held every summer since then. In 1982 the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Secretary of the Interior.
The fifth gallery is a mural of Beersheba Springs. It was the first white settlement on the plateau. A chalybeate spring was discovered there in 1833 by Beersheba Cain. Believing the water to have medicinal value, a tavern was built in 1837 to accommodate travelers and visitors. John Armfield, a retired slave trader, in 1854, purchased 1,000 acres, the original tavern, proprietor’s room, a row of guest cabins and Buck White’s residence. He proceeded to enlarge the tavern into a fashionable watering place hotel. He further built twenty cottages to the specifications of persons to whom he leased lots. Two of the cottages were given to Episcopal Bishops James Otey and Leonidas Polk in an effort to influence the selection of the plateau as a site for The University of the South. In this he was successful as well as in influencing Eugen Plumacher to recommend the plateau as the site for a Swiss Colony at Gruetli. Beersheba Springs under John Armfield’s influence became a summer resort for southern plantation owners in the lower south. The Civil War interrupted the fortunes of the southern plantation owners and the cottages acquired by them were taken back by John Armfield. Many of the cottages were later acquired by successful merchants and professionals from Nashville and other places in Middle Tennessee. Many of their descendants own the cottages today. The hotel struggled after the Civil War and in 1941 was acquired by the Methodist Conference of Middle Tennessee who operates it as a conference and retreat center. Beersheba Springs has been placed on the National Register as a historic district.
The story of the development of the southern steel and iron industry begins in Tracy City at the Wooten Coal Mine. This story of the New South is told in the sixth gallery. The Sewanee Mining Company had been formed in 1852 to develop coal mining on the plateau. It built the Mountain Goat railroad from the Nashville to Chattanooga main line in Cowan up the mountain to Sewanee and began mining operations at Coal Bank (near present day St Andrews – Midway) in 1856. There was little coal there and what coal was there was of poor quality. The company then extended the railroad tracks ten miles through the forest to the site where coal had first been discovered about 1845. The Wooten Mine was opened with the first load of coal shipped on November 8, 1858. The Sewanee Mining Company had exhausted its financial resources by 1860 and filed for reorganization as Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company. It faced lawsuits from Tennessee creditors in a Tennessee state court and foreclosure of bonds in federal court by New York bondholders. The Civil War intervened with first the Confederates taking over the mine and in July 1863 the Federals securing control of the plateau and the mine. By the end of the war the mining operations at Tracy City were in shambles. In 1866 Arthur St. Clair Colyar, an attorney representing the Tennessee creditors, effected a settlement wherein, in a reorganized company, $400,000 of common stock was issued, purchased by him, and used to pay off the Tennessee creditors. The New York bondholders agreed to take new mortgage bonds from the reorganized company to settle their claims.
Colyar was one of the architects of the New South. These advocates believed that the future of the South following the Civil War depended on the South moving from economic dependence on a single agricultural crop with occasional cottage industry to diversification of agriculture and a more industrialized modern economy that could produce products in mass. With this objective in mind, Colyar and those associated with him set about to determine if the bituminous Sewanee Seam coal mined in the Wooten Mine could be converted into coke with sufficient heat intensity to be used in blast furnaces with iron ore and limestone to produce pig iron. Pig iron is the basic ingredient for the manufacture of iron and steel products. The Fiery Gizzard makeshift blast furnace was erected to determine if coal from the mine would coke. The Fiery Gizzard produced fifteen tons of pig iron before it fell apart, proving that coke burned from Sewanee Seam coal could be used successfully in blast furnaces to produce pig iron. One hundred and twenty coke ovens were built at the Wooten Mine site in 1873 and Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company contracted for the use of convicts from the Tennessee State Penitentiary to work in the mine and tend the coke ovens.
The gallery depicts how Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company grew into a reorganized Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company that by 1892 controlled 60% of the coal and iron ore reserves in Tennessee and Alabama and most of the iron and steel production resources between Chattanooga and Birmingham. It had become an industrial empire. In 1904 it moved its offices from Tracy City to Ensley Town near Birmingham. In 1907 it was acquired by United States Steel Corporation in a transaction approved by President Theodore Roosevelt as not to be in violation of the Sherman Anti Trust Act.
Coal mining on the plateau continued with the formation of Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company by E. L. Hampton, the railroad station agent at Tracy City. In 1905 the Mountain Goat Railroad, by then owned by Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad, was extended to Coalmont. In 1917 it was extended again to Palmer where coal mining operations were continued until the 1990’s when mining ceased on the plateau due to labor discord and environmental issues with the coal. The Mountain Goat Railroad tracks were removed in 1973 from Coalmont to Palmer and in 1985 from the rest of the route.
After Sewanee Mining Company in 1857 found coal mining unprofitable at Coal Bank and the area that is now Sewanee, it offered 5,000 acres of its holdings in that area to trustees of the Southern Dioceses of the Episcopal Church for the establishment of a Southern University. Had not the mining company’s railroad up the mountain from Cowan and the Nashville and Chattanooga main line been in existence, the site would not have been considered even with the generous offer of land. Thus, land unsuitable for the mining of coal but with a railroad for access became the site for The University of the South.
This university brought many people with cultural experiences different from those who had pioneered the area. There was a thin but well distributed native population of about 150 people in the vicinity. To this native population were added clergymen, academics, administrators, civil war widows, construction workers and even a Negro servant group. The mix produced a new culture with the university being the major economic force. There were clashes within the cultural mix but in time they resolved differences. Today the university has, among other things, become a renowned center for learning that includes environmental and ecological study of the Cumberland Plateau through its Environmental Studies Program, a Landscape Analysis Laboratory, Forestry and Geology Programs as well as through other disciplines and endeavors. Today its campus has grown from the initial gift of 5,000 acres from Sewanee Mining Company to over 13,000 acres, much of which is used for environmental learning and lessons in preservation and conservation of the land.
Gallery 7 tells the story of the government of Switzerland, facing chronic economic depression and overpopulation during the mid 1800s, conceiving the notion that if it could depopulate itself, its economic plight might improve. It sent emissaries to the United States to locate places where willing Swiss citizens might move or colonize. Eugen Plumacher was commissioned with such a mission. Introduced to the southern Cumberland Plateau by John Armfield, Plumacher recommended to the Swiss authorities an area of the plateau in Grundy County, southeast of the Beersheba Springs resort. The Swiss were farmers. The land was divided into 100 acre parcels. It was heavily forested and required clearing. The Swiss upon arrival cleared the land. They took the thin plateau soil, enriched it with lime brought from the base of the plateau, and made it surprisingly productive. They established an Agricultural Society and kept extensive records that are today housed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
The immigrants flowed from Switzerland from 1869 to about 1920. It was written 25 years after the establishment of the Colony:
There is a Swiss Colony in Grundy County, Tennessee, which seems
like a part of a foreign country, so perfectly have they kept their native habits and customs, and style of architecture in the building of their little cottages. There are carvers there whose quaint work finds ready sale. Market gardening is a feature of the colony, and those who can talk English take the produce to town and sell it. Their wines have taken several premiums, and it is a rare treat to go through their-well kept vineyards. One of the remarkable phases of life is the great age to which they attain, there being several centenarians among them and nonagenarians not being at all uncommon. The mountains surrounding them, while not so high or grand as their native Alps, are sufficiently steep to keep them from being lonely for the sight of their native hills, and none of them has
ever returned to Switzerland, although a number of them have grown quite wealthy and could go if they wished.
As observed by Clopper Almon in the Preface to the 2010 Edition of The Swiss Colony at Gruetli by Frances Helen Jackson, When the mechanization of agriculture began to induce massive, nationwide out-migration of farm labor, the young Swiss were in the position to move into the American mainstream. The first realm of out-migration was within Grundy County where descendants of the Swiss have become business, professional, political and community leaders. The descendants of the immigrants have formed the Swiss Historical Society of Grundy County that owns an intact Swiss farm of about 30 acres that it preserves and from which it conducts an annual celebration supported by the Swiss embassy in Atlanta. It further maintains artifacts from the period the colony existed in a gallery at the Heritage Center.
Pioneers on the Cumberland Plateau as well as their Native American predecessors were dependent on the forest. The forest was their habitat as well as the habitat of the wildlife that they hunted for food. The forest provided them with materials with which to construct their homes and shelters for their livestock. The forest was a most important part of their environment. It provided them with the isolation that supported their independence.
The timber industry has become a major economic driver of the Cumberland Plateau and has had a significant impact on the people and their culture. Its story is told in Gallery Eight. There was a major harvest of timber on the plateau from 1880 through 1920. Lumber mills were established and provided employment for people who began clustering in community centers. Isolation of the people began to disappear but their independent spirit remained. Dinky narrow gage trains were run from the coves to transport timber to the mills. Large tracts of land were acquired by timber interests. Most of the large or virgin timber was cut; only timber in the most remote areas was spared. Salvage Gulf in Grundy County was one area that was not cut over.
One of the largest lumber mills in Tennessee, complete with carpentry shop, was Sam Werner Lumber Co. in Tracy City. It was owned by a family that had originated in Switzerland. 15,000 acres were under the ownership of the family at the height of the company’s operations, including 3,400 acres in Savage Gulf, 500 of which were with virgin timber. In 1974 the grandchildren of Sam Werner, Sr., the immigrant founder of the lumber mill that bore his name, sold the Werner holdings in Savage Gulf to the State of Tennessee to enable the forest to be conserved as a part of the newly created South Cumberland State Recreation Area (South Cumberland State Park). This launched an era of land conservation on the South Cumberland Plateau that preserves substantial areas of the plateau for conservation and public benefit. This same family in 1997 extended their concern for conservation through a sale of 1,200 acres adjacent to Grundy Forest State Natural Area for incorporation into the Fiery Gizzard Trail portion of the State Recreation Area.
Another timber/lumber family in Grundy County, the Greeters, aided the conservation efforts of the State of Tennessee by selling lands owned by them for inclusion in the newly formed South Cumberland State Recreation Area.
The trees cut throughout the 1880 – 1920 period were by manned cross cut saws and snaked out of the coves and hollows with mules and teams of horses or oxen. Thirty years later the chain saw had been developed which facilitated clear cutting of the forests with removal of the cut timber with tractors and other machinery. This process often impaired the landscape with significant ground impaction and attendant soil erosion. Persons employed in the industry fiercely defended the accelerated timber cutting practices but others living within the plateau culture abhorred it and began protests movements.
Paper companies established pulp mills in the 1970s and thereafter became the principal consumers of the timber harvesting. This was now secondary growth timber harvesting. The paper companies further acquired vast land holdings on the plateau. After clear cutting the hardwood, pine plantations were planted. The fast growing pine was harvested for pulp in the paper mills. At the beginning of the 21st century a pine bark beetle infested the pine plantations. The paper companies began divesting themselves of their land holdings on the plateau and the State of Tennessee has acquired some of the former paper companies’ land incorporating it into the state park system. These timber land owners have been much less generous with the divestment of their holdings for public use conservation purposes than were the Werner and Greeter families before mentioned. They tend to favor sale for development or for investment by large pension funds.
The South Cumberland State Recreational Area has grown to 23,386 acres with ten parts. It is managed by a Park Manager with a staff of park rangers. They lead hikes and interpretative programs for the public.
The histories of families on the plateau are a major focus of the Heritage Center. Its library and research center provides the means for the public to learn about themselves. One such case involved a family with Native American heritage. They thought their grandmother of Native American heritage had been abandoned by her biological father. Using the facilities of the Heritage Center library, they found that the father of the grandmother had not abandoned her but had made arrangement for her adoption into a well to do family. An adoption certificate and photograph of the adoptive parents was found. Through the research the family was able to accomplish at the Heritage Center, the spirits of the family were uplifted to learn that their ancestral great grandparent had made a good effort to find a proper home for the child he could not care for himself.