2 Weeks, 1500 Miles: 1 Epic Roadtrip around Tennessee!

While I’ve been noticeably missing from my blog, newsletter and social media for the month of May, I’ve been out exploring the length and width of the great state of Tennessee, and we never once took an interstate. I’ve taken the time to visit some fantastic historic sites (look for a newsletter soon about our amazing visit to the Green- McAdoo Cultural Center.) We stepped off well-travelled paths to see monuments and museums, state parks, murals, and some truly beautiful views. Along the way we stayed in historic and luxury cabins, ate some delicious meals, and met some truly incredible people. I’m finally unpacked, and have enjoyed some time with all of my adult kids back at home, and now I’m ready to organize my thoughts and start sharing all of my amazing adventures with you! (Well, I have a few June trips in the works, but I hope to write more on the road this time!)

My May travels took me in a giant figure eight around the edges of TN, with our Lynchburg home at the center, tying our West and East Tennessee adventures together. I hope you enjoy following along on my travels that ventured from Union City in the Northwest corner of the state all the way to Carvers Gap in the very northeast portion of the Tennessee mountains at the very spot where they meet both North Carolina and the Appalachian Trail.

This trip was the first time my husband and I have been away alone together for this long since we were married 23 years ago. It seemed like it was time to get out there, do some exploring of the state we’ve called home this whole time, and just get reacquainted with each other as we move into this next phase of life together. We had so much fun! I can’t wait to share all of my reflections on our travels; especially the day a WWII soldier stepped out of the fog and asked for a ride, the day I learned what “tall people secrets” were, and the afternoon we spent tracking down a church in Crossville, TN built from an old army surplus building from right here in Tullahoma.

While neither of us are from Tennessee, we have learned to love this place we call home, and both truly enjoy exploring its history, nature and beauty from north to south, and east to west. One thing that I have definitely learned from my travels so far is that every place, no matter how big or small, has a history. There are stories of the men and women who came before current generations wherever you go, and every single one of those stories is worth hearing. If you get a chance, get out there and explore your local area, see what’s there, talk to the people you meet, and your life will be richer for it. Meanwhile, keep following along here as I explore further and further afield from my own home base, and you never know, maybe I’ll see you out there.

What does chasing women’s history look like?

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I find myself feeling constantly behind on writing, blogging, and posting about what I’m up to, so I thought I would explain a little bit what this whole thing looks like to me right now. I’ve had this fantastic idea to find and record these women’s camps, and to learn more about women’s history in general. Every book I read, every site I visit, every web page I dig through, I’m constantly repeating in my head: “But where are the women.” It turns out this is not an easy question to answer. Any given day finds me annotating musty library books, original archived documents, or more recent web articles about women’s camps and other lost facets of women’s history, primarily from the 1930’s and 1940’s. However, it seems that for every stone I turn, there are little snippets of information that start to scurry off in every direction like an army of so many pill bugs when exposed to the light when their hiding places are disturbed.

Here’s an example: I recently revisited the great little book Camp Forrest (Images of America) which I had read before from a local interest perspective. This time, I took notice of women in the pictures, gleaning every little bit I could about who they were, and what their roles were at the training center during WWII. I noted that while the book discussed how women worked in the 9000 square foot laundry, and then later the POW’s interred there did the same, the connection was never made that if the inmates were now doing the work that had previously been done by local women, then those women most likely lost their jobs and were simply dismissed. With most of America’s men off fighting the war, it was the women left at home trying to make ends meet. It’s these connections that are important to me when piecing together women’s history.

Here’s how an average recent week went for me. First, I read the book. Something I read made me curious about maps if the area at the time, probably about how there were so many troops (including Women’s units?*) arriving in Tullahoma during the war years, that the railroad station wasn’t big enough, and so a second, larger one was built a few blocks away to accommodate the increased traffic. Well, that made me wonder where that second, larger station was? Is the building still in existence today? Suddenly I found myself cruising around downtown Tullahoma looking for answers. Then, I did the next logical thing- using the Avenza mapping app that I originally got for hiking maps, I uncovered maps of the local area from 1936 and 1941. While I didn’t find the depot I was looking for (yet*) I made two new discoveries. One was a collection of buildings on the outside of town described as the Girls Vocational School* (on the grounds of the present day Correctional Training Facility) -very interesting. Second, I noticed a section of land on the western edge of Tullahoma (technically in Moore County) listed as the Camp Forrest Motlow Annex. I had already been curious about the photos showing troops training at Cumberland Springs and learning how to float tanks and trucks across Cumberland Lake (both not far from our house) and so my next stop along this wandering trail of discovery was to use Google Maps to compare modern Cumberland Land Management Company holdings to the vintage maps from Avenza. 

Imagine my surprise the very next day when an article in the Lynchburg Times about the new solar farm going in on this same property mentioned in passing that this land was formerly leased to the federal government as part of Camp Forrest training facility. Since I was already out in the area, I took the long way home, starting at the far end of Cumberland Springs Road, looking for evidence or hints, not only to this bit of WWII history, but also taking a moment to appreciate what I have always thought was one of the most beautiful spots in our area before it is changed forever by the incoming solar farm. Today’s progress is tomorrow’s history, after all.

Please heed warnings like these when you are out exploring- sometimes history can be dangerous!

Not only did I find evidence that I was indeed looking in the right area, but there were new signs labeling the fields on both sides of the road as former Camp Forrest property (along with unexploded munitions warnings.) Note that through all of this I wrote nothing more than a few jotted notes here and there, but I was excited to dig into more local history that would possibly be tied to my research in some way. I honestly love every minute of the hunt, and cant wait until I am able to get out even more often and find more of these types of places, all over America. So, go find your passion- and follow wherever it leads you- no matter who your detractors are. Life is supposed to be an adventure that inspires you, and you never know what you might find out about the world and yourself along the way. Maybe I’ll see you out there.

*Everything marked with an asterisk (*) is another research area that I’m now looking into. It’s a never ending process, and I’m enjoying the ride.

Retrospection, Dresden, TN FAP Mural

Minnetta Good. 1938, Retrospection, [oil on canvas]. USPS, Dresden, TN.

This is the second mural I found on my way to Martin last month, and this is the third Post Office I have visited with this particular layout, which I’m finding almost as interesting as looking for the murals themselves. As you can see from the photo below, this particular building was erected in 1936, as part of the New Deal program to bring modern post offices to rural areas and small towns across the country. This particular mural looks back at the history of Tennessee, showing a log cabin with a person assumed to be Davy Crockett and the purchase of land from the Native Americans on the left side of the panel, moving through the plantation era in the center to the state’s industrialization period with the depiction of a stage coach and the coming railroad in the right portion of the piece. According to The New Deal Art Registry, artist Minetta Good received this commission as well as a second one entitled Evangeline in the St. Martinville, LA Post Office- which can be viewed at the link above.

While there is certainly an oversimplification of Tennessee’s tumultuous past in this painting, I do like how Good included people from various groups that made the state what is is today: Native Americans, Scotch- Irish Pioneers, African Americans, railroad workers, farmers, men, women, even a small child down in the bottom right corner. I feel these people observing the scene can be interpreted as the past, present, and future generations of Tennesseans. I enjoyed visiting the little town of Dresden quite a lot, and took the time to explore the grounds of their courthouse while I was there as well. I’m learning that every little town has an interesting story to tell, if we just stop and take the time to listen. I invite you to go explore a small town in your corner of the world, and look to see what stories it holds. Who Knows? Maybe I’ll see you out there.

Post Office, Dresden, TN
Dresden Post Office Cornerstone

Gleason Agriculture: Gleason, TN FAP Mural

Anne Poor. 1942. Gleason Agriculture., [tempera on canvas]. USPS, Gleason, TN.

On a recent trip to Martin to see my daughter, I mixed business with pleasure, and took the time to find two more of the FAP murals that were painted by women. (Though I should confess that is doesn’t feel like business at all to me, because I love these adventures I’ve been on lately, and am thoroughly enjoying spending hours immersed in research.)

The first of two murals I found that day, was this one in the tiny town of Gleason, TN. I have quickly learned that one of the greatest things about going to find these murals in person is that I’m visiting little towns that I don’t otherwise see. In TN, as in much of America, the highways now go around small downtown areas, and unless you go out of your way to find them, there are some really great places you will otherwise never experience. Technically, I drive through the edge of Gleason on Rt. 22 every time I go to Martin, but I had never seen the town itself. It had a time stands still feel to it, with a little square that was completely charming on the beautiful day that I visited, where I literally watched neighbors stop to catch up with each other. (I forgot to get pictures of the square, but maybe I’ll make a return trip someday to explore more.)

Post Office, Gleason, TN

While the exterior of the post office has a more modern look than the one in Livingston I had previously visited, as soon as I stepped through the doors I knew where to find the mural, because on the inside the layout was exactly the same as the first post office, which seemed quite a lucky coincidence. There the mural was, hanging over the postmaster’s door, for the people of this tiny town to enjoy every day.

This particular mural was painted in 1942 by the Artist, Anne Poor, who would go on to join the Women’s Army Corps during WWII as one of the only female war correspondent/ artists. (Look for more on her in a later post.) This mural was one of the last to be installed in Tennessee before the nation’s focus shifted to the war effort. In it it shows the history of the agriculture in the area, based on the cultivation of sweet potato plants, developed by Mr. W.R. Hawks.1 with a classic Train Depot in the background, and a market scene in the front.

I really liked this one, in the way that it reminded me of The Wizard of OZ movie, where it starts in black and white and then changed to color once they reach OZ. On the right is the representation of Hawkes the “father” of of sweet potato culture.2 In my opinion, much like in the movie, I feel like the black and white section is showing how the area was undeveloped and experiencing hard times, and then Hawks comes in and hands the planter a sweet potato slip, and the rest of the colorful portion of the painting is showing Gleason as a place of progress and prosperity after the town began cultivating this profitable crop. I feel like this technique really helps Poor tell a story of the area in one panel, and I think it’s well done.

  1. Hull, Howard. Tennessee Post Office Murals. Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 1996.
  2. Ibid.

Horse Swapping Day: Manchester, TN FAP Mural

Minna Citron. 1942. Horse Swapping Day,. [oil on canvas]. USPS, Manchester, TN.

Last week, while enjoying my youngest daughter’s college spring break, we kicked off our mural hunting adventure on our trip to Standing Stone State Park. We were able to view two of the Modern DMA Walls For Women murals, the FAP mural in Livingston, TN, and this one, located in the Manchester, TN post office on our way back. We have found it’s fun to pop into a post office and ask to photograph their mural, and most locals seem to still be proud to have such beautiful works on the walls of their small rural post offices. I’ve compared it to playing Pokémon Go for history nerds.

This mural was part of the “Forty-Eight State Competition” of 1939 which required that the murals reflect the “American Scene.”1 American Painter Minna Citron, accomplished this by featuring the Manchester square in the background, and by giving a nod to Tennessee Walking Horses. One of the horses in the painting is said to be modeled after Gene Autry’s famous horse, Champ, Jr. Already an accomplished artist by this time, Minna Citron, participated in several New Deal programs both as an instructor and as an artist. I look forward to seeing her other Tennessee mural located in Newport, TN, in the future.

The original Manchester post office was located at the intersection of McLean and Spring Streets, from 1921 to 1931, when it was moved across the street to the intersection of North Spring and East Fort streets. Originally, the mural was installed at the 1939 WPA constructed post office located at 200 N Spring Street, on the side of the Manchester town square. Today, the mural is housed in the modern postal facility located at 1601 Hillsboro Blvd.2

  1. Hull, Howard. Tennessee Post Office Murals. Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 1996.
  2. Campbell, Jane Banks, and Lori Jill Smith. Manchester. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013.

The Newcomers: Livingston, TN FAP Mural

Margaret Covey Chisholm. 1940.The Newcomers. [oil on canvas]. USPS, Livingston, TN.

On our recent trip to Standing Stone State Park, we visited the post office in Livingston, TN to see this fantastic mural, the first of the 10 painted by women that I’m looking to visit across Tennessee. It was painted in 1940 as part of the Treasury Section of Fine Arts (TSFA) program. The Section, as it was known, held a competition for artists to submit their work to be chosen to decorate hundreds of new post offices across the country that were built as part of WPA work projects. In an attempt to create jobs for artists as well as laborers, it was agreed that one percent of the building funds for each new federal building project would go to ornamentation.1

This particular mural was created by artist, Margaret Covey Chisolm, who chose the classic image of a cabin raising and new pioneers being welcomed to Tennessee by their neighbors, who come bearing gifts of livestock as her subject matter. Despite being painted on the same wall as two other murals I have since visited, this one felt much larger due to the way it extends down between the postmaster’s door and the bulletin boards, and also all the way up to the ceiling. All of the records I have found of the artwork say that it is oil on canvas, but I wonder about that a little, with the way it extends down the wall. Perhaps this one was painted directly on the wall, or maybe the canvas was applied somewhat like wall paper? I’m not sure but it’s interesting trying to find out, either way.

Closeup of the artist’s signature just above the bulletin board frame.
Livingston’s New Deal Era Post Office, located at 105 S. Court Square

The woodwork and architecture of these old post offices are nearly as interesting as the murals themselves, and I find it interesting that three of the four I’ve visited so far have identical layouts. I’ll have to check and see if they were all designed by the same architect or not. (That’s right, I’ve already visited two more post offices since last week, so you know there will be more tales of my adventures coming soon.) As always, thanks for reading, and maybe I’ll see you out there.

Cornerstone of the Livingston, TN Post Office

The WPA Mural Project: A Surprising Opportunity for Women Artists.

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Minna Citron. 1942. Horse Swapping Day. [oil on canvas]. USPS, Manchester, TN.

One part of The New Deal Program that I find particularly interesting is the murals that were commissioned as part of the Federal Art Project (FAP) under the WPA. The works were often installed in newly constructed post offices or other public buildings, and the program was responsible for returning thousands of artists back to work during the Depression years. According to the book Tennessee Post Office Murals one of the interesting things about this program was the way in which the artists were selected to do the work. In an effort to control favoritism and cronyism, there was a blind selection process, where artists submitted their ideas for the project anonymously, therefore their work was selected based on its merit alone. This opened up opportunities for women and artists of color that were otherwise limited to them in the Depression Era. As a result, there are a number of wonderful murals out there that were created by some famous, and some not so famous female artists.

In Tennessee alone, there are twenty-eight murals in TN post offices that were created as part of the FAP project. Ten of these were created by women. Knowing me, you probably see what is coming… I’ve started visiting post offices that contain the murals to see them for myself. There’s something inspiring for me about standing in a Depression Era building viewing a piece of public art that also gives a sense of history of that time. Below you will find a list of the towns in TN with women’s murals, and I will include links to photos from my adventures as I get a chance to visit each of them. If you are curious if there might be a FAP mural near you, be sure to go check out the Living New Deal website, which is a fantastic database of nationwide New Deal projects. Keep exploring, and maybe I’ll see you out there.