April 20, 2024

Voyage into Spectacular Travels

Unveiling Authentic Journeys

Heritage tourism continues to attract visitors to Jonesborough |

11 min read

At the November 1778 meeting of the Washington County Court, court members appointed a committee to “lay off a place to erect a courthouse, prison and stocks.” This committee consisting of Jacob Womack, Jesse Walton, George Russell, Joseph Wilson, Zachariah Isbell and Benjamin Gist, chose a site half way between the Watauga and the Nolichucky Settlements and “near the watershed between the two on Little Limestone Creek” on land owned by David Hughes. On Jan. 26, 1779, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill for the creation of the town of Jonesborough, the county seat of the new county.

Voices from the past: New interactive play to begin at Chester Inn

An early photo of the Chester Inn on Main Street, Jonesborough.

By the 1790s, Washington County had become a commercial center. According to Paul Fink, “In 1793, Andre Michaux, the celebrated botanist, passed by on one of his collection tours, and in his journal reported: ‘The 19th (March) passed by Johnsborough [sic], 25 miles from Greene. Several merchants are established at Johnsboro [sic], which obtain their goods from Philadelphia by land.’” With merchants beginning to increase in Jonesborough and transportation to the town also increasing, places to stay the night also were needed. In 1797, Dr. William P. Chester built the Chester Inn. The Chester Inn housed famous guests including Presidents Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson.

With this increase in goods and services, Washington County continued to see an increase in population as well as travel through the region via a branch of the Great Stage Coach Road from Abingdon, Virginia to Jonesborough to Leesburg. By 1794, Leesburg was to become the next Jonesborough, a town plan outlined and streets plotted. By 1820, Frederick DeVault along with hired workers and slaves built the DeVault Tavern on the Great Stage Coach Road 10 miles southwest of Jonesborough. Like the Chester Inn, many famous guests stayed at the tavern including Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and James K. Polk as well as John C. Calhoun.

By the 1860s, construction of railroads throughout Washington County had begun to change transportation within the county as well as Jonesborough. The newly constructed railroads provided a new means of transportation within the county and town, as well as a shift of the commercial center of the county from Jonesborough to Johnson City.

The scholarship of David C. Hsuing, C. Brenden Martin, and Tom Lee claimed that the opening of the area known today as Northeast Tennessee in the mid-nineteenth century to industrialization caused residents’ sense of place to shift from a local focus to a regional and national focus. Hsuing, in Two Worlds in the Tennessee Mountains: Exploring the Origins of Appalachian Stereotypes, writes,

One hundred years earlier, the inhabitants of upper East Tennessee did not see themselves as different from one another or from those living outside the region. Threats of Indian, British and Loyalist attacks during the revolutionary period created webs of relationships that united the residents. This cohesiveness fostered a localist perspective and prompted individuals to depend on their immediate neighbors for physical, material, and psychological support. Yet developments in the late 18th century set into motion events by which these people came to grow apart physically and perceptually.

Hsuing’s research showed that as early as the late 18th century, local residents had begun to feel the internal and external changes affecting Northeast Tennessee communities. In the late 18th century, white settlers claimed a type of solidarity in which they worked together for the benefit of the local community against those whom settlers considered opposing forces such as Native American attacks, the British threat, and white Tories infiltration within their communities.

Similarly, Tom Lee’s “The Tennessee-Virginia Tri-Cities: Urbanization in Appalachia, 1900-1950” demonstrates the continual change from a local perspective to a national perspective as the area became more open to industry. Lee suggests:

“Born from a desire to integrate more fully into the vast national economy, valley towns served as gateways between two worlds. As they grew rapidly after the 1870s, they increasingly became centers of a network of nodal points drawing the rural hinterlands into the vast national economy. The entry of railroads and access to previously unavailable goods and services were reflective of the growing ties between rural communities and valley towns, but more far-reaching socioeconomic changes were underway. Even prior to the Civil War, economic distinctions differentiated the inhabitants of the valley from the inhabitants of the most mountainous sections of northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. . . . By 1953, every community in the Tri-Cities area was dependent on industrial employment to some extent.”

Both Hsuing and Lee pointed to rapid changes in the Northeast Tennessee landscape within different periods. Lee pointed to railroad as well as residential and commercial development, while Hsuing pointed to the development of road and rail networks in and out of the area. Each of these examples shows that industrial, manufacturing, and commercial entities influenced on Northeast Tennessee communities.

Many Northeast Tennessee communities welcomed the changes of progress due to the increase in employment opportunities. C. Brenden Martin concluded in “To Keep the Spirit of Mountain Cultural Alive: Tourism and Historical Memory in the Southern Highland,” Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity, “To Americans ambivalent about the rapid changes brought by industrialization, immigration, and urbanization, Appalachia represented a symbolic counterpoint to the progressive thrust of modern urban society. Searching for the source of national uniqueness, many Americans looked to the southern highlands as a source of folk heritage.”

By the mid-1940s, the town of Jonesborough was on its way to a new prospective in which it would preserve its buildings and history to save itself economically. The first influential building to be saved as part of the later historic district plan was the Chester Inn. On November 12, 1945, an article entitled, “More About Saving the Old Chester Inn,” appeared in the Jonesborough Herald and Tribune. In this article, Professor Charles Hodges of East Tennessee State Teachers College wrote about the plans to demolish the Chester Inn. He wrote, “The current rumor that the historic Chester Inn, the oldest building in Jonesboro, is probably to be torn down to make way for some sort of business structure should be deep concern to all citizens of Jonesboro and Washington county, and indeed, to the people of the entire State.”

Hodges continued, “Surely our neighbors in the beautiful county-seat town must realize that their chief material asset, the one thing that lends distinction to the town, is to be found in its historic monuments. Remove these things from Jonesboro, and the village will become simply another way-station on the Southern Railway between Johnson City and Knoxville. The text-books may still record that it is ‘the oldest town in Tennessee,’ but the visible witnesses to that fact will be so few that the tourist and vacationist will have no reason to lesson the speed with which thy hurry on to a more inviting stopping-place. . . With less outlay of cash, the old Inn could be put in good repair and converted into a combined historical shrine and museum for Jonesboro and Washington county, which if properly planned and supervised, would attract visitors and antiquarians from far and near and, with a nominal admission-fee, would bring in sufficient revenue to keep the shrine in permanent vogue and ever-increasing popularity. Incidentally, also it is obvious that anything that cause tourists to ‘stop and look’ is also certain to induce them to linger to eat, drink and make purchases in the local establishments.”

In 1945, Bennett, lawyer Jess G. Smith, and merchant Justus T. Whitlock purchased the inn. By 1950, Bennett had bought out both men, renovated the historic inn to house apartments, and sublet the apartments to boarders. Today, the Chester Inn Historic Site and Museum, the oldest commercial building in Jonesborough, had developed into an important educational site in Jonesborough where visitors can step back in time while viewing the interpretive parlor, dining room, and guest room as well as museum. The saving of the Chester Inn only set the town’s historic backdrop into further need for preservation and saving. Only a decade and half later, the 1960s brought economic and social change to the whole nation, as well as to Washington County. With the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act, new highways, by-ways, and roads opened new internal and external transportation routes, while the Civil Rights Movement saw the rise of minority groups seeking expanded civil rights and liberties. By the 1950s and 1960s, Johnson City became the commercial center for Washington County leaving Jonesborough with a void to fill. Jonesborough’s economy, like those of many small towns, declined due to businesses moving locations and new businesses appearing in new locations. According to Lee, commercial migration caused businesses to begin sprouting along main arteries and locating at points near new residential sections in a pattern of ribbon development. Moreover, the nodes of shopping centers and markets made shopping increasingly convenient in the suburbs. Residential, commercial and even industrial sprawl all reinforced one another at the expense of traditional central business districts that had for so long served as the common wellhead for whatever unity of development and thought had existed in the Tri-Cities.

In the 1960s, the Tennessee Department of Transportation reconstructed U. S. Highway 11-E to bypass downtown areas, including Jonesborough, Johnson City, and Greeneville, in neighboring Greene County. The new bypass continued to bring traffic to the Jonesborough area, but led right into the heart of Johnson City. According to Lorraine Rae, “The town was on a major highway, U. S. 11-E and drew some business from visitors, but most of them went to the younger, more vibrant, Johnson City.” In addition to the new highway, Lee writes, “Along new access highways, bypasses, and existing major thoroughfares spilled a growing plethora of urban fringe development and subdivisions.” These developing commercial and residential areas drew visitors and residents away from the prominent centralized districts used in times past.

Thus, these changes caused Jonesborough officials, community members, and merchants to look for something to supplement the town’s economy. In 1965, the Tennessee Legislature passed the Enabling Bill for Historic Preservation, which allowed the town to seek funding and legal authority to save its downtown. After the passage of the bill, town leaders, community members, and private organizations began transforming Tennessee’s Oldest Town into a tourist attraction by creating a historic district in 1969. The efforts of the Jonesborough Civic Trust and the Historic Jonesborough Foundation saved many of the buildings within the new historic district important to those who held and had held power in the town. In 1969, the town of Jonesborough hired Dr. Richard W. Hale, Jr. to conduct a study and plan for the future. In 1971, Hale published his plan, Jonesboro Historic District Report, which urged Jonesborough to consider its uniqueness and make decisions toward the preservation of the historic district. These decisions included determining historically and culturally significant buildings that should be interpreted as well as the boundaries of the historic district.

In 1972, James Wagner and the Tennessee State Planning Office issued another report entitled Historic District Plan, which emphasized Hale’s ideas and answered several of Hale’s questions. Wagner’s report emphasized the importance of community support and response including the founding of the Jonesborough Civic Trust and the renewed focus of the Jonesborough Planning Commission, which became the Historic Zoning Commission, to work together to provide and maintain a preserved Jonesborough. Wagner went further by stating, “all citizens, societies, and the public and private institutions have certain responsibilities” in the implementation of successful programs. Wagner categorized these responsibilities into four major categories that include individuals’ responsibility to preserve their heritage for future generations; landowners’ responsibility to understand the historic value of their property and restore said property to the best of their abilities; government’s responsibility to help in the preservation of sites through enacting legislation to regulate and monitor such programs; and historical societies and other organizations’ responsibility to participate in and promote preservation plans within a region or community.

The Tennessee State Planning Office issued another report in 1977, in which the planning office staff reemphasized Wagner’s visions and goals mentioned throughout his 1972 report. By the 1990s, many of the visions of the town’s tourist trade had begun to fade and in 1990, Jonesborough was part of a study that would help guide civic leaders into the next millennium. Direction 2000 was a report that determined some goals and visions for the year 2000 in Washington County, which included Jonesborough and Johnson City. Direction 2000 researchers conducted a SWOT analysis on Tennessee’s oldest town. Findings include strengths and weaknesses, but very few threats, which included local politics, loss of historical integrity, loss of community uniqueness, and actions by Johnson City, and apparently, no opportunities listed. The loss of community uniqueness and the loss of historical integrity could perturb the town’s identity overall. Researchers documented apathy within the community as a weakness; for example had the town’s citizens lost interest in this endeavor? How could the community be energized? These were just a few questions that officials had to answer as Jonesborough reevaluated its historic district’s plan and looked toward the future.

In 1996, Patricia C. Oldham wrote a report for the town entitled, The Jonesborough Historic District Sector Plan, 1996. This document reevaluated the town’s master plan created over two decades earlier. By this time, cultural and artisan events started to be added to the town’s tourism plan. This plan includes the first mention of the International Storytelling Center’s construction on the site of the “circa 1940 old Farm and Supply and Lavender’s Market building.”

The Storytelling Festival, a phenomenon in Jonesborough since 1973, became a part of Jonesborough’s tourism plan. From Joseph Sobel’s perspective in The Storyteller’s Journey: An American Revival, the emphasis on storytelling has allowed the town to revive itself. Tourists who visited the town of Jonesborough to see the historic preservation efforts had begun to slow; instead, the emphasis on storytelling helped create a new sense of place within the town through a cultural art form created centuries ago. According to Sobel, “No one believes that storytelling actually died any more than the town of Jonesborough died. …These precious things [the art of storytelling and the town of Jonesborough] are perceived as having been abandoned, turned from, denied, their values obscured by ignorance and neglect (which is sin). We are then invited to repent.”

According to Elizabeth Van Horn in “The Impact of Tourism on Space and Place in Jonesborough, Tennessee,” “The National Storytelling Festival has enhanced the awareness of the need for historic preservation in Jonesborough, and there is recognition of the potential of the history and the small town atmosphere to attract tourists. At the same time, the historic preservation of the town has provided the National Storytelling Festival with an idyllic backdrop for the stage of events.” The tents of the festival attach a cultural experience — storytelling — to a space — the town of Jonesborough. Tourists and residents, who attend the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, thus have the potential to create their own memories, traditions, beliefs, and values attached to the space of Jonesborough.

Yet, heritage tourism has not ended there. Today, with the addition of the Heritage Alliance and the McKinney Center, the town has a way to continue to prosper its culture, history, and heritage through the telling of stories, preservation of stories, and the continued development of stories for the future.


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