What would that English classic, Tom Brown’s School Days, have to do with the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee?
Lots, as you will learn. The author, Thomas Hughes, was a very successful writer and statesman, and – as it turns out – a bit of a dreamer. He had the idea to start a utopian community here for the English upper-class second sons, who had poor prospects at home after they had had the bad judgment to be born too late.
He found a beautiful spot, named it after his own public school, then began promoting the notion of coming to the new world, working hard to build something of your own where no one looked down on you, and getting a fresh start. And lots of them came!
The “working-hard” bit didn’t sit well with all of them, judging by the fact that one of the first things built in 1880 when the town was dedicated was the tennis court. But the community persevered and it survives today as an English oasis in the heart of Tennessee. Charming Victorian houses, an Episcopal church, school and Victorian lending library are all remnants of a dreamer’s view of what America could mean. Bangers and mash with sweet ice tea, anyone?
Further along the plateau is another footnote to history, and another attempt at social engineering. During the Depression, there was a move to resettle rural families in about 100 communities struck hard. In Crossville, Tennessee, the Cumberland Homesteads project was born, the time of second chances. It ultimately allowed about 250 families to come down from the mountains and build a home of their own, which they would ultimately own through the sweat equity earned by helping each other homestead and farming, with part of their crops going back to the government. It sounds a bit like sharecropping actually, and it wasn’t always fairly run. People could get kicked out of their homes for little reason.
I share the negative side of this story, because we were discussing it with a tour guide at one of the original houses, who suddenly came unwound and started ranting about the government and (badly) explaining why she joined the Tea Party. I tell you, when she got to the part about having guns, my blood chilled. We left on pleasant terms, but we did leave quickly, apologizing for being Yankee liberals. No shots were fired.
Our final stop of the day outside of Nashville was at The Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson. Lots of things that you probably don’t want to know about our seventh president, but one thing I found fascinating. He was the last president to know all of his predecessors personally. Isn’t that something? I thought so, too.
And if you had a vision of Old Hickory living in a log cabin, dismiss it. Okay, they lived in a log cabin with French wallpaper while the main house was being built, but this guy lived high. Speculating on Indian lands just when you are throwing them all out of your state is profitable, for sure, but he had many other irons in the fire.
Have you ever heard of his wife, Rachel? She was the love of his life and a political hand grenade when it was revealed that she hadn’t been properly divorced from her first husband. They said very nasty things about her in those days. He loved her dearly and they are buried together in the garden.
So that’s all for tonight. No more seconds!