Today started with another scenic drive and it got me really thinking about the value of such a concept in our busy, hectic modern lives. The drive from Pickett State Park down to Wartburg in Morgan County was surprisingly beautiful. Although we didn't drive through the heart of it, the Big South Fork National Recreation Area was immediately north of us for most of the drive and the views coming around every bend were spectacular. So far, for scenic value alone, this was our most impressive drive of the tour. I previously lived in the beautiful rolling hills of Northern Virginia for several years and this was the first time I've seen a part of Tennessee that had that same look. In that part of Virginia, most of the “view-sheds” are permanently preserved by farm owners voluntarily tying up their lands in scenic easements. This prevents the land from being sub-divided, and that is the key to preserving the sweeping vistas. Some would argue that this practice holds back economic “progress” by making land for development and industry more scarce. I argue that you can have a healthy local economy and preserve open spaces at the same time, it just requires leadership, cooperation and vision. Instead a of massive chicken farm operation located right along a scenic corridor, well-thought rural planning would place such an operation far off the main arteries and out of sight behind a hill. The industry and jobs are still there, but they are not marring the experience of the indigenous natural beauty for everyone else. Hopefully, this area of Fentress and Morgan counties will one day be permanently protected with conservation and scenic easements.
All of the benefits of a long-term conservation easement strategy come into play in the Northern Virginia county of Fauquier where I used to live, and it is a truly beautiful place with breathtaking views in all directions. In Virginia, landowners are assisted in preserving open spaces primarily by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation . Virginia has had great success in land conservation in recent decades and has set a very high standard for the other southern states to follow. I've crisscrossed Virginia many times and just about every region has preserved its natural beauty with the one exception of the area of Northern Virginia immediately adjacent to Washington, DC. The Virginia Department of Recreation and Conservation has a wonderful on-line map that clearly shows the lands protected in the state. It's a dramatic way to see how effective statewide conservation efforts can be. Look at it here and be sure to check the “Managed Conservation Lands” box.
In this map of Tennessee conservation easements, you can tell we have a lot of catching up to do, and leading the charge is The Land Trust for Tennessee. It is non-profit land trust who's mission is to preserve farms, woodlands, view-sheds, scenic corridors and open spaces in Tennessee, working cooperatively with landowners. Not everyone owns beautiful farmland that can be protected by making a voluntary conservation easement, but everyone can scrape together a few dollars to support the work of this organization.
When we arrived at our clean-up destination in Wartburg, Liberty Baptist Church, there was a torrential downpour. Tt appeared for certain that we were going to have to cancel the clean-up. But, just as we assembled the volunteers to make a decision, the clouds parted and the rains suddenly stopped. It was easy to call it divine providence. So without hesitation, we commenced the clean-up and afterward were treated to a tasty barbecue lunch by the local litter pick-up organizers.
After lunch, we drove north to Huntsville in Scott County to meet up with Gary Sexton at the Scott County Museum of History, located on the grounds of Scott High School. Gary is a fascinating man. He actually grew up in the mid west, but spent many summers as a boy living with his grandparents in Scott County. He fell in love with the beauty and culture of the area and decided to move here permanently to start his teaching career. Since then, he has put down roots in the community and has been on a mission to preserve local history, traditions and culture. His vehicle for doing this is the local high school where he teaches, and his students have created a one-of-a-kind, student-run history museum. It may be the only such museum in the world – designed, built and curated by students. Gary's passion is fueled by the idea of giving young people in this economically-depressed area a strong sense of place and pride in their community and its traditions. He wants them to be stakeholders in the future of the area and I believe he is succeeding admirably.
The museum complex on three acres includes a children's learning center, a World War II museum, exhibits about the area's natural history, a blacksmith's shop, a garden, and 12 historic buildings that have been saved from demolition and re-built on-site by summer school students. The museum also has livestock and produces sorghum, tanned hides and other traditional products for sale in the general store. And if that is not enough, there is the Highlander Bluegrass Band that keeps the area's traditional music alive. We filmed two of their performances which you can check out here.
Our experience at the Museum of Scott County was almost overwhelming, so much to see and experience in such a small area, and definitely on par quality to any museum I have been to. If you are in the area, it is imperative that you visit and be sure to devote at least half a day there. If you see Gary, be sure to shake his hand and thank him for the wonderful work he is doing. Gary's exceptional efforts deserve to be nationally recognized. What he has done for the students and the local community is above and beyond what one expects from a busy high school teacher. This is the kind of innovation and leadership in public education that America needs.
Our last destination on this busy day was the Norris Dam State Park in Campbell County. As befitting the name, the park is immediately adjacent to TVA's Norris Dam, the first dam constructed by TVA in the 1930s. The TVA was an FDR New Deal program during the Great Depression to control flooding and to bring electricity and economic development to the Tennessee Valley. It is hard to not feel its tremendous impact in this region to this day. It controls 29 hydroelectric dams, 11 coal-fired plants and 5 nuclear reactors. At over 12,000 employees, most of them in Tennessee, it is also one of the largest employers in the state. There is an excellent little museum at the dam that has an exhibit about TVA and the dam's construction.
Prior to the TVA era, some pioneers in the area, including James Rice, operated gristmills. Rice opened his mill in 1798 and it was in nearby Union County. When the dam was built, the mill was dismantled by the Civilian Conservation Corps and moved to the present site on Clear Creek. Its previous location is now permanently flooded. This is the second mill we have seen on our tour and I can't help but be hypnotically drawn to the steady rhythm of water pouring and creaking wood rotating. It is such a symbolic throwback to a simpler time and way of life. I'm very happy efforts were made to preserve the mill and situate it in a setting that generations of people have been able to enjoy. I've decided I'm going to seek out mills in my future travels. Like lighthouses and battlefields, they hold a certain allure for me. This website is the closest thing I could find to a “national mill directory” and I'm going to consult it next time I hit the road.
The construction of Norris Dam and the creation of TVA itself was not without controversy. The project displaced thousands of people and permanently inundated whole communities. Needless to say, traditional ways of life in the region would be forever altered. Although we did not have time to stop for a visit, the Museum of Appalachia is right near the dam in the nearby town of Norris. It was founded by a man with deep roots in the region and has a collection of over 250,000 artifacts and over 30 historic log structures showcasing the traditional, pre-TVA Appalachian way of life. From what I have read and heard about it, the museum is well worth visiting. I'll have to be sure to catch it on my next trip to the area.