East Tennessee History Museum Beckons


The East Tennessee Historical Society's plans for its new history museum are still on the drawing boards, but they're far enough along to begin to get excited about the museum's scheduled opening next spring.

The museum should be the crown jewel of the $18 million East Tennessee History Center that seamlessly combines a new marble-clad edifice that fronts on Gay Street with the historic Customs House, whose westerly front faces Market Street. It took several years of trying before ETHS finally succeeded in getting a $2.5 million state grant last year for the exhibits that will go into the ornately columned 8,500 square foot gallery.

Under the direction of ETHS's Curator of Exhibits Adam Alfrey, work has been underway since then on the selection of artifacts and on the scripting of video, audio and narrative panel depictions that, along with maps and other graphics, will highlight East Tennessee's distinctive epochs from the time of earliest white settlement to the present. The PRD Group, a museum-design firm based in Chantilly, Va., has been heavily engaged, and an RFP is about to go out for a video production firm.

An introductory video, Voices of the Land, the People of East Tennessee , sets the stage for all that follows in about a dozen themed sections.

The first one â“The Land Beckonsâ” includes a painting of a Cherokee village, touch panels of Cherokee faces and voices, maps of early trade routes, deerskins, and a conversion chart for determining the value of a deerskin in terms of things like thimbles.

Next comes a section â“Foreign Claims Spark Conflictâ” that mainly tells the story of Fort Loudoun, which English colonists established in 1756 for protection during the French and Indian War. Artifacts will include a cannon from the fort and a rendering of it by artist Ken Smith. Narrative panels trace how a hostile band of Cherokees laid siege to the fort in 1760 and then massacred its inhabitants after an abortive surrender treaty that had promised them safe passage back to South Carolina.

A â“Claiming the Landâ” section focuses primarily on early settlements along the Watauga River that led to the formation of the Watauga Association in 1772. An imposing Virginia road wagon will be stationed there, along with a model of a typical frontier home, maps and touch screen depictions that give a feel for who those people were.

That segues into a Revolutionary War section that will feature an audio recreation of the Rev. Samuel Doak's famous sermon to some 1,100 Wataugans at Sycamore Shoals (now in Elizabethton) as they prepared to go off to fight what became the Battle of King's Mountain. There's also a pistol that belonged to then Col. John Sevier and a turkey bone and silver ring believed to have been worn by Nancy Ward, the Cherokee woman known as the Pocahontas of the West, who sent warnings to Sevier of impending Indian attacks.

A â“Road to Statehoodâ” section will include a touch screen panel with pictures of leading figures of that time and voice-over. There's also a lawbook of William Blount's and Davy Crockett's â“Old Betsy,â” a gun he sold for the money to get married.

Spanning the period between statehood and the Civil War are sections on the removal of the Cherokee, antebellum life, and slavery and abolition. The plight of the Cherokee is told through personal accounts of people who were removed. The treatment of the period leading up to the Civil War stresses how different East Tennessee was from the rest of the South topographically, economically and attitudinally. Portrayal of anti-slavery sentiment features portraits and quotations of several leading abolitionists including the Rev. Isaac Anderson, founder of Maryville College.

A video setting the stage for the war itself stresses the divided loyalties of the region that often spilled over into family feuds. Exhibitry includes a bloodstained, bullet-holed nightshirt worn by Alfred Greene of Hancock County when he was shot to death in one such feud. A section of a bridge that was burned by Confederate sympathizers in Greene County attempting to forestall a Union invasion is also on display, as is a sketch of Gay Street depicting separate rallies of Union and Confederate supporters. Finally, there are coats worn by veterans from both sides at a Blue/Gray Reunion in Knoxville in 1890 that's believed to be the first such joint reunion anywhere in the South.

A late 19th/early 20th century section stresses Knoxville's preeminence as a railroad and wholesale center. Maps show all the rail lines that connected here, and wholesaling is exemplified by wares on the shelves of a recreated of Albers Drug Co.  

A country music gallery tells the story of how music from this area became the nation's music. Folk traditions, the showcasing role of the Midday Merry-Go-Round, and the success of celebrities such as Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins will all be highlighted in a video. Indigenous instruments including a box banjo and a tin dulcimer will also be displayed.

The final section stresses the importance of the federal government in the region's 20th century development through creation of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, TVA and Oak Ridge. Exhibits include the chair in which President Franklin Roosevelt sat during the park's dedication, TVA power switches, and crates labeled Clinton Engineering Works (as Oak Ridge's uranium-processing facilities were originally known). What sounds like a fascinating picture is of the Calutron Girls seated on stools in front of a Calutron panel that monitored the processing.    â" Joe Sullivan


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