Tennessee was the beneficiary of twenty Carnegie Libraries. Fifteen of them still stand. Four of them lay along a fifty-mile stretch in the far east of the state in a valley of a sort just west of the Appalachian Mountains. Amidst this stretch of Carnegies is the birth place of Davey Crockett on the outskirts of Limestone, also the new home of artist friends from Chicago, Michael and Wendy, who moved there a year ago seeking warmer climes and cheaper property values than Chicago and also within range of the Appalachia Trail, which Wendy had hiked from start to finish a few years ago. It continues to beckon her and inspire her painting.
They found a luxurious home built into a hillside on a quiet rural road of pastures and forests and small churches. Ever since their move Janina and I have been eager to visit their new idyll. We had contemplated joining them for Christmas, as we have done over the years, but opted to delay until more amenable weather for outdoor activities. It would have made a nice 1,300-mile bike ride there and back, but we didn’t have the time for such a luxury, so made a drive of it.
We were able to go via Shelbyville, outside of Indianapolis, where Michael had recently erected a towering sculpture that has been receiving accolades world wide. It stands in front of the town’s visitor center along the Big Blue River and represents the wind and rain that characterize the region. We could see the swirling metal tubes representing thunderheads atop the edifice from half a mile away as we approached. It was magnificent even in the overcast afternoon gloom, and positively spectacular when illuminated after dark.
We had helped load more than a dozen of Michael’s smaller sculptures, including a cooker and a couple of fountains, that had dotted their yard in Berwyn for their move to Tennessee and were curious to see them in their new habitat. The sculptures hadn’t been fully arranged, as their property is still taking shape as they finish building a studio and plug away at other projects, including restoring the original farmhouse that they plan to convert to a retreat for artists.
Before searching out the area’s Carnegies we devoted Day One of our visit to a rigorous five-hour hike up a rugged steep trail ten miles from their home that brought us to within a few miles of the Appalachia Trail. We didn’t encounter another soul, allowing Wendy’s dog Max to scamper along without leash. As we approached the summit we noticed an article of clothing beside a boulder. It was Max’s sweater that Wendy had removed to sit on when they last hiked the trail three weeks ago. She hadn’t realized she left it behind.
Janina and I would have stopped at the Carnegie in Johnson City, twenty-five miles north of their home, before we arrived, but we missed a turn and didn’t care to double back. I was happy to make a bike ride of it, and luckily I did, as we would have been needlessly delayed trying to find the Carnegie. I had to ask half a dozen people where it was, including two people at the city hall, before I found someone who knew.
It was a mystery to most, as the Carnegie Library hadn’t been the town library, but rather the library on the grounds of a large complex for disabled veterans. It wasn’t until I dropped in on Johnson City’s library that an older librarian, summoned by a younger, did I find someone who knew of the Carnegie, though she had to resort to the internet to find its precise location. As always, my search allowed me to explore the environs, stopping in at an art gallery of work by veterans and also at the town’s original library that bore a resemblance to a Carnegie. It now served meals to the needy. I was there at lunchtime and was invited to join them when I ducked my head in to see if this could possibly have been the Carnegie even though it bore the name of a judge with a plaque out front honoring him, not Carnegie.
There was no mistaking the Carnegie a couple miles away, not only by its pillars and stately elegance, but also with “Carnegie Library” chiseled into its facade. It was now a lecture hall and was in use when I slipped in to give it a peek.
The other three Carnegies were to the south of Wendy and Michael, another fifty-mile circuit that I did the next day. The riding was fabulous on the lightly travelled hilly roads. I could positively romp along with my bike free of panniers and some 3,000 miles on my legs from my recent ride around California and Arizona.
It was another circuitous effort to find the first of this set of three Carnegies. It was on the campus of Washington College in an isolated outlying area of Limestone. There was no direct route to it through the hilly terrain. When I found the small campus of just a handful of buildings early in the morning there was no evidence of anyone being there other than a lone parked car that could well have been abandoned. It looked as if the school had closed down. It wasn’t until later that I learned it had become an evening school for adult education. There was an empty lot at the location I understood to be the address of the Carnegie. It was actually up a hill and camouflaged by two wings added in the 1920s converting it into an administrative and classroom building.
It was built from a grant given to two college libraries in the area, the other Tusculum College in Tusculum. The latter was a still breathing, fully-functioning college and so was the library, which had had a large expansion to it in 2004.
A few miles down the road the larger city of Greeneville complete with a Walmart and a recently opened Aldis had outgrown its Carnegie over forty years ago. The local newspaper had taken possession of it and used it for storage. One of the librarians at the new library had been a member of the Girl Scout troop that helped transport the books from the old library to the new, half a mile away. She was very happy to share her memories of that experience and her youth in the Carnegie. She felt lucky to have become a librarian in the town she grew up in. I often meet librarians who grew up in the town where they serve and have had a long-time intimate relationship with their library. There is no holding back their fond recollections.
I had visited ten of the other Carnegies in Tennessee on my two rides through the state to the School of the Americas Vigil. The only one remaining is in Jackson in the far west of the state. If we didn’t have to be back to Chicago in time for a class Janina has been taking at the University of Chicago on Moby Dick, coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, we might have included it on our drive back. Fortunately not, as I do prefer to arrive at a Carnegie after a long bike ride. It’s not far from the Mississippi and a few other Carnegies on the other side of the river that await me. Jackson will exert some pull, as it will allow me to complete my fourth state in this Carnegie Derby tomgo alomg with Illinois, Indiana and Colorado.
On my return circuit to Michael and Wendy’s I met up with Janina and Wendy at Davey Crockett’s birth place, a state park along the Nolichucky River. It’s campground was nearly half-filled with RVs. The cabin of his birth in 1786 had been replaced by a replica. The small visitor center had a map showing the several places Crockett had lived In Tennessee before his death in 1836 at the Alamo. He served in Congress after he had moved to the far west of the state. When he lost his seat in 1835 after voting against the Indian Relocation Act pushed through by Andrew Jackson, he ventured to Texas and joined up with those living in territory seeking independence from Mexico. He was a well-known, virtual folk hero even then, but his martyrdom at the Alamo truly elevated him to a larger than life figure. There have been more than twenty films about his life, including four silent films while he was still alive and another with John Wayne playing him.
He is neck-to-neck with Daniel Boone as the most glorified frontiersman. Boone was a Kentuckian who died in 1820. Though they were both painted by the renowned portraitist Chester Harding, they never met. A plaque near his birthplace stated that Crockett was two or three inches taller than the 5’8” Boone, as if that settled the issue of who was pre-eminent.
We could have spent days hanging out with Wendy and Michael and further exploring the region. We’d especially like to join them when they set up Michael’s portable cooker on the Appalachia Trail and offer barbecued chicken and more for all the hikers. It’d be fun too to spend a couple of Sundays dropping in on the multitude of small churches that abound in the area to hear their preachers and size up their congregations. Wendy caused a stir when she suggested to the church she chose to join that they put up a sign saying “Welcome to All” with a rainbow on it.
We were afforded a glimpse into the local culture when we dined at a restaurant that had a Wednesday senior catfish special of $6.99. The place was packed. We were so absorbed in our meal we hardly had time to study the many wall hangings and our fellow diners, though Janina had the sense they were all staring at us. We biked the six miles to the restaurant and had nothing but pleasant reactions with what little traffic there was. Wendy is already making a name for herself, being the lone member of her church who bikes to the services. She and Michael will soon be integral members of their community. Janina and I will try to make an annual visit.