Jonesborough is billed as the oldest town in Tennessee. And it is – now. But it was born as part of North Carolina. And, for four years was part of the State of Franklin, a territory vying to become the 14th state.
In any case, today it is a well-restored small town in Washington County, Tennessee, jam-packed with history. Along with two other couples, we decided to check it out for a day.
From the 1700s the area attracted many, as it became an important stop on the Great Stage Road and a town that grew as many provisioned for the trip west or came from eastern states to seek a new life farther west and decided to stay.
Daniel Boone surveyed the area, Andrew Jackson practiced law and fought a duel, and the first periodical devoted to the abolishment of slavery – The Emancipator, was published here. Davy Crockett, who became a folk hero known as “The King of the Wild Frontier” was born in the same County and was a soldier, politician, and vocal opponent of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.
Another famous resident and rival of Jackson, John Sevier, fought in the Revolutionary War as a Colonel in the Battle of Kings Mountain (where his brother Robert was mortally wounded). He served as a member of the House of Representatives representing North Carolina’s District of Washington (which included most of what is now Tennessee) and became the only governor of the short-lived State of Franklin.
As support for Franklin collapsed, the NC governor issued a warrant for Sevier’s arrest. He was captured in Jonesborough after attacking a store owner for refusing to sell him liquor, and transferred to Morganton, NC to be tried for treason. The sheriff, a fellow veteran of the Kings Mountain battle, let him go. He was eventually pardoned and went on to become the first governor of Tennessee.
You can tell the pandemic had a bit of effect on the town, but shops and restaurants are open and thriving, and the Tennessee Hills Distillery, housed in the old salt factory is one of the area’s growing businesses. Restoration work is ongoing at one of the town’s historic bed & breakfast inns, and work is underway to re-open a fine dining restaurant housed in a historic church. Every October, Jonesborough hosts the only National Storytelling Festival. The small town’s population swells by tens of thousands as visitors arrive to hear storytellers from all over the world.
Restoration has been meticulous, with brick sidewalks re-created and utilities buried. An excellent library of archival photos has driven specific guidelines and historic accuracy, earning the Historic District a place on the National Registry of History Places.
The Chester Inn opened in 1797 and now houses the Jonesborough Heritage Alliance. History buffs can check in there to view exhibits and follow a town tour guide or schedule a private tour like we did, hosted by a costumed volunteer. Tours are generally 1-1.5 hours and cost $5pp.
I promise you will be surprised by just how much American history you didn’t know.
One thing I can say about Wilmington is that I would love to go on their spring historic home tour. With 875 contributing buildings, the Historic District is 230 blocks on the National Register of Historic Places and features beautifully restored and maintained landmark homes from majestic mansions to quaint cottages. As you wander through the many brick-paved streets you can easily spot the historic black plaques, indicating the home is 100-150 years old and gold plaques designating an age of more than 150 years.
As for the rest of Wilmington, I was less impressed. We were there during the week and many restaurants along the riverfront were closed. Finding one open with seats along the river one evening had possibilities, until the mosquitos attacked . . . And the walk back to our riverfront hotel was very sketchy and not enjoyable.
They are working to improve the riverfront area, so there are construction fences and barriers along the way. When it is complete, hopefully, things will improve. While in town we had a couple of mediocre meals but did enjoy an upstairs balcony seat for dinner one evening, giving us a perfect view of the vibrant sunset over the Cape Fear River.
Weather during this mid-September visit was hot and humid, limiting our stamina to some degree. We did a horse-drawn trolley tour and walked around downtown, activities that required an ice cream break. It was nice to support the trolley tour since they used rescued pack horses. We had Mike (1800 lbs) and Jeff (2,000 lbs) on duty for this week. The stock comes from Amish communities who replace the horses at age three and sell them to processors in Mexico and Canada. I don’t think I need to tell you what horrors horse-processors are responsible for. The organization has 18 horses they have saved. Rotating them to pull the trolley is actually light work for these large animals, and gives them the exercise they need to keep fit. Tours last about 30 minutes and are cash only, $14 per adult.
Wilmington has a rich history going back to the 18th century, and there are numerous walking tours of various types as well as self-guided tours. I used the free app Wilmington History for some self-guided info and tips for places to see.
Although we could have driven over to the USS North Carolina Battleship across the river, it was more relaxing (although not cost-effective at $12pp) to take the water taxi over. The 45,000-ton battleship was interesting to see, and I have a greatly enhanced respect for those dedicated sailors who worked in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The ship was the most recognized American battleship of WWII, earning 15 battle stars. As we climbed down steep ladders into the bowels of the ship, the temperature went up even more, making it a bit claustrophobic. They say the engine room was usually about 130 degrees. Today, there are a few fans and cooling vents placed throughout the ship, so at least visitors like me can take a break standing under one for a minute or two.
It was nice to see Wilmington again after so many years, but I think I’ll stick to the beach areas, although I sure would love to see much more of the historic residential area and inside some of those gorgeous homes.
My Scottish ancestor left Fordell Castle in Fife, Scotland in the mid-1660s and migrated to the colonies. After several generations in Maryland, the Henderson family headed south to Onslow County on the coastal plains of southeast North Carolina. Today, this county is best known as the home of Camp Lejeune Marine Base.
In 1748, records show the first of my ancestors born in Onslow, a county only a few years old after being created in 1734. It was carved from Carteret and New Hanover Counties and named in honor of a British politician. For the next 150 years, through seven generations, my ancestors worked, lived, were born, and died in Onslow County. During the Revolutionary War, they fought to defeat the British. Land and business interests sometimes overlapped in the nearby areas of Wilmington or New Bern, but Onslow County remained a constant.
After following vague info about a land deed on NE Creek in Jacksonville, and ending up at what may have been an old quarry (I clearly have a lot more research ahead of me), we decided to move on to the quaint, historic town of Swansboro. The town has many charming, well-marked cottages, and the shops and restaurants all looked inviting but were (sadly) closed since it was a Monday. We settled for an ice cream break at the local candy shop. I left word at the Visitors’ Center for the area’s historic expert.
Advancing the ancestral clock forward from my first ancestor’s arrival in North Carolina to my birth in nearby New Bern 205 years later, I am now very curious about their lives. I know there was a substantial Scottish population in the area but have so far, failed to find out much in the way of enlightening information. So for now, it’s up to my imagination.
As we headed east to the North Carolina coast, we left the mountains in torrential rain with temperatures in the 50s. The forecast was not promising. But after hours of driving in the rain, when we turned south from Wilmington, the sun came out to play.
Our good friends have bought a home at Kure Beach and I can see why. On Pleasure Island, just after passing through the more touristy Carolina Beach, with its tee shirt shops, hotels, and boardwalk amusements, you enter an area of lo-rise colorful, beautifully maintained homes. Not only is Kure Beach lovely, but we were fortunate to meet our friends’ wonderfully funny and engaging neighbors (I was also envious of everyone’s amazing tans).
Sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Cape Fear River, Kure Beach extends south to the entrance of the Fort Fisher State Historic Site at the tip of New Hanover County. It’s easy to drive onto a car ferry for the half-hour ride to visit the charming historic town of Southport. Once there, we enjoyed a dockside seat and a delicious seafood (shrimp for me) lunch at the Fishy Fishy Café. I loved the all-American small-town feel of the restored homes and majestic oaks.
On Kure Beach, the shoreline sand has been recently replenished and is nice and wide, with dunes protecting the homes. Since it’s after Labor Day, lifeguard stands have been taken in for the winter and there weren’t too many people around this breezy afternoon. A few people were fishing, kids playing in the surf, and one lone surfer-gal. I was content to walk on the edge of the surf; for me the water was chilly, and I could feel a gentle undertow. (I’m a bathtub-warm, Gulf-coast girl). Walking along the waters’ edge of any beach is one of my favorite things in the world, and it was a perfect way to end a day.
After another delicious meal (crab cake, this time), we took an evening walk on the old wooden Kure Beach Pier. Originally built in 1923, the 711-foot pier is privately owned and is the oldest fishing pier on the East Coast. Filled with hopeful fisher-folks casting lines, you gotta love the pier slogan “Man! You should’ve been here last week!”
I couldn’t imagine what people were doing when I saw them searching the dark shore with flashlights. Turns out, some were catching sand fleas for bait, and others looking for shark teeth. If I had more time and a good light, I would’ve happily joined the hunt for shark teeth.
Maybe next time.