A hard rain pours down as I make my way to Leiper’s Fork. In fact, it’s raining so hard I decide to pull over. I look over a peaceful field hedged on all sides by dark hollows and strong, old trees. Verdant stretches of farmyards, shrouded by mist, sleep on the horizon. Drinking in a scene so pristine, so untouched by suburban sprawl, I do not have to worry that it might change someday.
Fourteen years ago, Aubrey Preston was sitting on a friend’s front porch surveying this same scene. He realized that he needed to protect the diminishing Tennessee countryside. He started fighting to preserve the integrity of rural towns. He enlisted friends to purchase all property that might be of interest to developers and placed conservation easements on his properties with the Land Trust for Tennessee.
Anyone who has visited Leiper’s Fork has seen the success of this venture. The architecture and lifestyle of the area have been preserved. The local economy has been revitalized. Celebrities, painters, and musicians have flocked to this quiet little gem of a town for its inspiration and authenticity.
Some would have stopped there. But Preston is not the type to stop anything. He is a lanky, wide-eyed force of pure energy. He thinks big but acts practically. Preston seems to dream smart. His latest idea is the direct outgrowth of his success with Leiper’s Fork.
The Tennessee Department of Tourism was so excited about it that they have launched a statewide initiative based on his plans. Nashville Arts Magazine has the distinct pleasure of introducing the Discover Tennessee trails to our readers. Fifteen driving trails will be established across the state as part of this new program. In the current issue, we focus on the trail that includes the greater Nashville area: the Old Tennessee Settlers to Soldiers Trail.
Settlers to Soldiers
The Old Tennessee Trail takes drivers on a circular route from the Town Square of Franklin through Leiper’s Fork, Mount Pleasant, Columbia, Spring Hill, and Thompson’s Station on an 84-mile loop that finally ends in the same place where it began. It was developed in order to take travelers on a journey through the rich history of this region.
Most Nashville residents and visitors possess some level of awareness about the Civil War attractions or country music legacy of Middle Tennessee, but many would be surprised to find out the deep roots of early American history that can be experienced minutes outside of Nashville proper. The powerful, succinct narrative of regional culture provided by the trail is perhaps its greatest attraction.
Preston claims that his inspiration came in part from an early trip to the Carnton Plantation and Carter House in Franklin. Touring these historic Civil War battle sites, he felt he saw “the end of the movie” in terms of the significant Battle of Franklin in the American Civil War. By taking drivers through Leiper’s Fork and down to Mount Pleasant, the trail allows visitors to glimpse both the early homesteads of the first settlers of this region and the entire dramatic saga of John Bell Hood’s disastrous final campaign that resulted in a tragic dénouement at the Battle of Franklin.
How many times have you wanted to do something different for a Saturday or wished to show visiting friends around town? Maybe you have been meaning to tap your feet to a real country bluegrass jam or taste caramel pecan pie at a decades-old country store? Are you a weekend hiker? A fisherman? One of the many who had to cancel a planned vacation because of the tough economy?
Friend, you are in luck. The Old Tennessee Trail rolls out before you. There are no tickets to buy, no deadlines to meet. Just get in your car and drive.
By the time the trail nears its end, ghosts seem to walk the lonely hills behind desolate country fields or recently constructed nail salons and chain stores. An experience of the trail is real—“the unvarnished truth” of the rural South as Preston likes to call it. The State of Tennessee’s hope for it is just as real. Parts of the rural regions covered by the path boast rising state unemployment rates.
Trail organizers believe that bringing residents and tourists to the small towns and local stores on the trail will help them survive. They do not want to create a polished Disney World of country life. The hope is that people will enjoy and participate in authentic rural America while experiencing a powerful narrative of Tennessee history. The goal of the Old Tennessee Trail is to remind us of who we are both historically and existentially by leading us on an invigorating country drive through a compelling journey to our current times.
Why are there Arts and Crafts-style mansions in Mount Pleasant? Why did two American presidents come from this area? Why did more Confederate soldiers die at the Battle of Franklin than at the Battle of Shiloh? Curious? Well, read on. Drive on. The story is a tank of gas away.
? Well, read on. Drive on. The story is a tank of gas away.
Native Americans and Early Explorers
The Old Tennessee Trail begins in Franklin, which also doubles as its final destination. Traveling back roads toward Leiper’s Fork, one passes burial mounds of early Native American inhabitants that are preserved on local farm property. The original residents of this region were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee. Artifacts belonging to their ancestors that date back over 4000 years have been found in the area.
In Leiper’s Fork one finds the ruins of the early settler’s cabin belonging to Thomas Hart Benton. His slave cabin, still intact, stands on private property down the street. These monuments mark the first chapter in the history of the developing American nation.
Original settlers bought this land illegally from Native Americans. According to treaties between the Native Americans and state and federal governments of the colonies, white settlers were prohibited from purchasing land in the Southwest Territory that encompassed Middle Tennessee. In the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, a group of merchants obtained the land through the trade of 10,000 pounds of material goods.
Afraid they would lose their new acquisition under government scrutiny, a company of 300 men, women, and children eventually made a treacherous 1000-mile journey by river and stream to lay hold of this new territory. Among these travelers was the young Rachel Donelson, who later became First Lady of the United States alongside President Andrew Jackson. Local Fort Donelson also boasts her family’s name.
Monuments such as Benton’s cabin remind travelers of the early lives of the first inhabitants of this region. The Natchez Trace Parkway runs through Leiper’s Fork. It provided an initial pathway to trade with places as far away as Mississippi. The land in this area is hilly, and the soil is hard. Timber was their most valuable export. As one drives south on the trail, the presence of vast, green fields indicates the richer farmland of these areas—a fact which led to the next chapter of Middle Tennessee’s regional development.
Dynasty on the Duck
As one rolls south out of Leiper’s Fork, Nett’s Country Store in Bethel offers a refreshing break with a selection of homemade pies. The former site of local town gatherings, the general store appears to belong in an earlier time. Leaning against the counter one waits for a Model T or a swaggering WWII GI to appear outside the window. Across the street, the Community Center in the old schoolhouse hosts a foot-stomping bluegrass jam the third Saturday of every month.
Traveling onward, one crosses the Duck River, one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the world. This provides a scenic stop for nature lovers and amateur photographers. Farther down the road, the historic community of Canaan was founded by freed slaves after the end of the Civil War. Its Clayborne AME Church is a beautiful 1923 building nestled among the trees just off the highway.
Mount Pleasant punctuates the halfway point of the Old Tennessee Trail. The historic town provides a great place to stop for an ice cream float or Sunday brunch at the Mount Pleasant Grille. Most importantly though, its stunning, varied architecture allows visitors to observe the evolving history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Middle Tennessee. It also provides the dramatic entry point for Hood’s doomed military venture in the days leading up to the Battle of Franklin.
Many Nashville residents are familiar with Andrew Jackson’s connection to the area. Mount Pleasant offers residents and travelers a connection to the world of President James K. Polk. The Polk family counted among early farmers in the area of the Duck River. The acorn, their family symbol, still dots driveways along the trail, and the region bears their powerful signature in its layout and architectural heritage.
Plantation farmers were drawn to the Mount Pleasant area surrounding the Duck because of its fertile soil. They did not realize that this earth was so rich because the topsoil rested atop the largest phosphate deposits on the face of the earth. Mining of these phosphates defined twentieth-century life in the town. Barons of the industry erected mansions in the Arts and Crafts style, fitted the local First Presbyterian Church with Tiffany stained-glass windows, and built a railroad out of the town to support this booming yet ultimately short-lived business.
The mixture of antebellum Old South plantations and cutting-edge early-twentieth-century houses makes a sweep through the streets around downtown Mount Pleasant a must-do detour for all trail drivers.
The most breathtaking and worthwhile feature of the entire trail can be located in the graveyard at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Constructed by the Polks in the prewar splendor of the Old South, it is a Gothic building with sculptures in its graveyard laboriously imported from New York City. Hand-carved, elaborate marble tombstones are scattered across a churchyard that impresses visitors with the sensation that they are treading in a sacred grove. Although the church is closed to visitors, its grounds, marked by the Polk acorns, are open to the public. Be sure to pull the car over and venture out for this stop. It will not disappoint.
Hood’s Fatal Mistake
Mount Pleasant marks the gathering point for John Bell Hood’s doomed military campaign to Franklin. Realizing that the Confederates were about to lose the war after Sherman’s march through Georgia, Hood decided to make a dangerous and gutsy play to take back Nashville and effectively “restart” the Civil War. It was a crazy scheme that might have changed the tide of the war if it had worked. His big idea turned out to be one of the grandest failures of the entire war.
On the final leg of the trail, visitors pass by every site that was a part of Hood’s venture, because his soldiers took the path that was to become the current U.S. Highway 31. For those unfamiliar with the saga of the Battle of Franklin, Hood and his soldiers were striding towards Franklin to surprise Union troops. Believing their work to be done for the day, they paused for a night of rest east of Spring Hill.
While the Confederates slept, Major General John Schofield, with over 25,000 Union troops and 600 wagons, traveled past them. Hood’s army somehow slept through the entire event. When they awoke, the Union troops had dug trenches and taken position on the banks of the Harpeth in the heart of Franklin. Unable to access their weapons because the road had been so badly damaged by Union wagons, Hood’s troops were unarmed in a low-lying region directly facing their enemy.
After an emotionally charged breakfast full of fighting and disagreement at Rippavilla Plantation, Hood controversially determined to march his unarmed soldiers into the gunfire of Union troops for hand-to-hand combat. The decision was desperate but potentially necessary to any dream of Confederate chances in last chapters of the war.
At Rippavilla, Carter House, Carnton Plantation, and the Lotz House, one encounters the deadly effects of Hood’s decision. There were over 10,000 casualties and six dead generals at the end of five hours of fighting.
After driving the trail and experiencing the history that led up to Civil War America and the minute details of Hood’s final decision, the powerful stories of the Carter House and Carnton Plantation take on new drama and accessibility. Preston’s vision that visitors see more than “the end of the movie” of the Battle of Franklin becomes a reality. Exiting the site where soldiers’ bodies were stacked outside of homes at the end of the battle, one drives through the quaint, peaceful town square of Franklin. The battle sites so enlivened by a journey down the trail stand in sharp, quiet contrast against the city now bustling with families and businesses.
The Here and Now
Back in Leiper’s Fork, I sit with Preston at the Country Boy Restaurant. Pointing to farms visible across the street, he describes the homes and birthplaces of original Opry stars. The loss of the Civil War marked the beginning of Reconstruction in the South and a dismal period of economic stagnation for many inhabitants of the region. It was out of this poverty and brokenness that the powerful folk music we now label “country” was born. Framed portraits in local stores feature early Opry stars that captured the imaginations of rural inhabitants throughout the region.
Just down the road from Benton’s log cabin and somewhere between the plantations of Mount Pleasant and the battle monuments of Franklin, one senses the full scope of the Old Tennessee Trail. It tells a dynamic narrative of evolving American identity—an identity that is still developing today. One experiences towns and peoples who have changed and rearranged continuously—a historical process of figuring themselves out over time.
For residents or travelers, the trail urges its visitors through a similar process. By situating contemporary observers in a sequential historical narrative, the trail whispers something to us of our own identities. Starting off with a map and a set of stops, visitors to the trail begin with a destination—an idea of where they want to go. By the finish, one sees that just the opposite has taken place. In the end, the trail tells us less about where to go and more about how we got here.
by Deborah Walden