Today was a whirlwind tour of Crossville and the surrounding Cumberland County. Tonya Hinch is a local booster and was our gracious hostess for most of the day. She moved back to her hometown several years ago after a twenty year career in marketing with Proctor and Gamble in New York City. While she still maintains an apartment in Manhattan, her main residence is a two-story condo she created out of an old liquor store just off Main St. in downtown Crossville. She explained a bit of the history of the area and again, being a Civil War buff, I was intrigued to learn that the town was pretty evenly divided during the Civil War between native sons who served in blue and those who served in gray. The war memorial on Main Street bears stark witness to this brother against brother reality of 150 years ago. The names of the veterans are written together on a long vertical column for all the wars, except the Civil War. Those veterans are honored on a separate memorial with two groups of names.
Flash forward 120 years from that conflict and Crossville leaders strategizing about the economic future of the area, focused on two key areas – attracting retirees and promoting tourism – while other communities in TN fixated on recruiting heavy industry and auto plants. 30 years later, Cumberland County is one of the most popular retirement destinations in the country and one of the most affordable. It is not hard to see the appeal. This area of the Cumberland Plateau is gorgeous with gently rolling green hills and a general absence of urban congestion.
Perhaps the greatest local attraction is the Cumberland County Playhouse, which has been staging professional productions for almost 50 years and is considered one of the top 5 regional theaters in the nation. According to the theater website, it is now the only major non-profit professional performing arts resource in rural Tennessee, it is one of the 10 largest professional theaters in rural America and it serves more than 145,000 visitors annually. Two very active volunteers for the Playhouse are Ken and Junie Hobbs, who happen to be very dear family friends. My mother and Junie were sorority sisters in college and when I was growing up in Miami, the Hobbs family was often part of our family gatherings. I don't ever remember a Christmas Eve gathering at our home when they weren't part of the celebration. They had retired to Crossville in the late 90's, having been lured by early retiree recruiting efforts in the region. They immediately fell in love with the area and had been urging me for several years to come up for a visit from Chattanooga. I was glad to finally have an opportunity to visit and promised them I will come back for a weekend in the near future when me and the family can take in two shows at the Playhouse.
Our next visit was to the Stonehaus Winery which is a model for sustainable eco-tourism. The winery is owned and operated by the Ramsey family, which has deep roots in the area. They produce over 15 varieties of wine including the classic chardonnay, merlot and pinot gris but also specialty and regional wines such as a Blackberry Summer and a Cumberland Gold. They source their grapes from over 100 different vineyards in East and Middle Tennessee and select vineyards that employ sustainable farming practices. Presently, they are unveiling a semi-dry white table wine commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Tennessee state park system. It is made with a blend of Seyval blanc grapes. In a group tasting we did in the RV later in our campground, Linda, Marge and myself compared tasting notes. We all liked the wine and can say it has a distinct Southern flavor with notes of green apple and a slight sweetness. The wine is available from the winery and also from eight state parks restaurants, including the nearby Cumberland Mountain State Park. One dollar is donated by the winery to the Friends of Tennessee State Parks for every bottle sold. This is not only a great way to support the parks, but you're also supporting TN business and agriculture, helping to create and local sustain jobs.
We should all do our part to choose Tennessee-made products because of the obvious benefits to local communities. Such products may be slightly more expensive than a comparable product at Wal-Mart, but the long-term, sustainable benefits far outweigh the modest price difference. If everyone just shifted 5% of their grocery shopping budget towards locally produced products, it would cause a monumental shift in the food production system in the US and it would force stores such as Wal-Mart to carry more locally-produced products in their stores. I am daily reminded of the challenges local farmers face when I walk into just about any grocery store in Chattanooga and the produce is being shipped in from North Carolina, Florida, California and even South America! I have to really hunt for food grown within 100 miles of the city – and its usually only available at a farmer's market – not in a grocery store. This is a sad situation that can easily be reversed if people made a little extra effort to buy local. The state department of agriculture has a Pick Tennessee program that spotlights homegrown agricultural products. You can learn about wines, cheeses, baked goods, barbecue sauces and other foods produced near you on the Pick Tennessee website. To find a farmer's market in your community, you can go to this webpage on the site.
Our litter pickup for the day was along a beautiful stretch of Peavine Road which locals are working hard to get designated as a scenic parkway by the state. Friends of Peavine volunteers are behind that effort and they turned out today to help keep the road clean. If they are successful in their quest to get the state designation for the road, it can mean wonderful things for the community such as preserving the view shed, increasing tourism and enhancing property values. It's nice to see citizen volunteers coming together to do something that is a win for everyone in the community.
The Tree House, a famous example of a folk art shrine, was our next stop. It has been a 15 year passion project of a local minister, Horace Burgess. A few years ago, Linda and I produced a film for the Tennessee State Museum about southern folk art, a subject of which I previously knew little about. But, as is often the case in documentary filmmaking, one becomes an “expert” when making a film about a particular subject. For that film, which you can see at this link, we were exposed to the work of a wide variety of “self-taught” artists in the South, working in every medium from finger painting to log carving. The work these folks produce is extraordinary, especially when you consider that what they all have in common is that they never had any formal training. They also tend to be located in mostly rural communities, are often driven by religious convictions and tend to rely on ingenuity, scrapyards and donations for creating their works because they almost never have the means to pay for supplies. Anyway, if you're wondering if a tree house counts as “art,” I would say that is undeniably the case with this unique structure. I have never seen anything like it in my life.
Although it is no longer accessible to the public due to order of the local fire marshal, our guide Tonya was able to secure a private invitation to explore this landmark. After ascending a spiral staircase that wraps around an ancient oak, one is rewarded with a spectacular view, 90 feet above the treetops in all directions. Upon glancing down, the word “Jesus” is revealed in carefully mowed grass in a pasture below. A smile broke upon my face when I noticed this as I suddenly realized the motivation behind the creator of this amazing structure. Kids are drawn by natural curiosity to explore the many rooms and passages of the tree house and they all eventually will find themselves at the top. Knowing this, Mr. Burgess probably wanted them to get his religious message in a creative and original way – that they are bound to never forget.
Our long day ended with an impressive performance from the young entertainers from the Main Stage who dazzled us with a clogging square dance routine with musical accompaniment from a band featuring two mandolins, three guitars and two fiddles. The topper for the performance was a solo clogging finale by a little boy who could not have been older than three. The setting in the patio area of the restaurant at Cumberland Mountain State Park was picture perfect, with beautiful Byrd Lake visible through the trees in the background as the sun began to set.