By Dr. Susan W. Knowles, Digital Humanities Research Fellow, Center for Historic Preservation
Inspired by Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes: A Traveler’s Guide (University of Tennessee Press, 1995), a pioneering study of historic architectural and industrial remains in Tennessee, I approached its author, Dr. Carroll Van West, nearly ten years ago about a project involving the Tennessee marble in the United States Capitol. Trained as an art/architectural historian and librarian, I had written two guidebooks (Kentucky-Tennessee Travel Smart, John Muir Publications, 1995, and the City Smart Guide to Nashville, John Muir Publications, 1996), both based on my personal explorations of place. I discovered Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes just in time for the second edition of my Kentucky-Tennessee book, which made me appreciate West’s sense of discovery, engrossing writing, and brilliant scholarship all the more.
My parents were great travelers and book-lovers. They often read historic guidebooks prior to leaving home or brought the books with us so they could look things up as we drove. In retrospect, I grew up with an appreciation of the concept of “cultural landscape” long before it was called that.
So, in 2004, while engaged in a research fellowship on Tennessee art and architecture at the U.S. Capitol, I learned that Tennessee marble from Hawkins County in East Tennessee had been used in the 1850s interiors of the building. What? I had grown up in Washington, D.C., driven down through Virginia and East Tennessee on the way to summers spent in Middle Tennessee many times, and yet I knew nothing about Tennessee marble. There had once been a thriving marble industry in East Tennessee, but little had been written about it.
Tennessee state memorial stone (Washington Monument interior).
When I returned to Nashville, I knew exactly whom to contact: Dr. Van West. He offered a short-term fellowship at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP), during which I gathered enough resources from the Tennessee State Capitol Construction files, which are held at the Tennessee State Library & Archives, to support the beginnings of a long-term research project. I could see that it would have two lines of inquiry: the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings in Washington, D.C., and the Tennessee State Capitol and other state houses, court houses, and federal buildings across the country. And I knew that I wanted to work with the CHP on fieldwork and intensive follow-up research.
Fortunately, my timing aligned with the creation of the Ph.D. program in Public History at MTSU. I entered in fall 2006 and made a poster for presentation at the American Historical Association in January 2007. Meeting another historian at that session prompted me to extend my research into the twentieth century and include the National Gallery of Art, a building whose exterior is clad in marble from East Tennessee.
National Gallery of Art (aerial view). Courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection/Knox County Public Library.
Another early key discovery was that Tennessee has three “memorial stones” inside the Washington Monument. One, bearing the inscription “Hawkins County, Tennessee,” is a close-grained crystalline “pink” marble, which was sent as a sample of Tennessee’s finest stone. The official Tennessee stone, which is inscribed with a quotation from Andrew Jackson, is a slightly darker pink marble, also from Hawkins County.
Hawkins County memorial stone (Washington Monument interior).
Linking the geographic source of marble to its architectural use became a goal of my research going forward. Pouring over geological publications, including maps, was the focus of my “residency” year of the Ph.D. program, and I took a GIS course in order to learn how to attach historic data to place.
Layered historic map showing Asbury Quarry.
Yet, four and a half years later, with the dissertation completed, I began to understand that the real work had just begun. With the CHP as sponsor, I wrote a grant application to the Tennessee Historical Commission, proposing to conduct a historic resources survey of the East Tennessee marble industry. Under the masterful guidance of a field expert (Dr. Van West) and with assistance from two Ph.D. students (Angie Sirna and Lydia Simpson) who had already acquired professional skills in the documentation of historic sites, I conducted a three-county survey of the former marble-quarry districts.
The John J. Craig Company’s Marmor Quarry, Friendsville, Blount County, TN, was one of the sources for marble at the National Gallery of Art.
These observations, along with public information-gathering meetings, oral interviews, GPS tracking, GIS mapping, and research in public records, were combined into a National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Submission for the East Tennessee Marble Industry that traces its development over four periods, from the 1830s to the 1960s. This background context was used to support individual property nominations for two former quarries that now belong to an extensive public nature preserve, the Ijams Nature Center, in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Keyhole tunnel at Ross Marble Quarry, Ijams Nature Center, Knoxville.
Pouring over land ownership using property deeds, wills, mortgage deeds or deeds of trust, and other legal instruments, and matching current geography to historic maps and photographs, proved to be a painstaking process. For me, it was akin to lab science, in which one must keep track of one’s information and sources, follow each one to its end result, and prove one’s case by explaining anomalies or discrepancies encountered along the way. The process took many more months than I ever would have imagined. And the experience has given me new respect for the wisdom behind the National Register requirements.
Because this work involved scant remaining architectural evidence, and because a great deal of time has elapsed since active quarrying took place in most of the locations, we had to prove our case using a combination of historical detective work, discerning mapmaking combined with on-the-ground identification of geographic features, and public outreach to find direct human connections to the land. Thanks to new National Park Service protocols, we were able to create the supporting documentation in electronic form. Thus, by overlaying historic photographs and maps onto contemporary geography, we could be absolutely certain of our findings.
The Ross and Mead quarries were listed on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year, and the first steps have been taken for a late 2015-early 2016 exhibition on the marble industry at the Museum of East Tennessee History. My next challenge, as a museum professional, is to help locate and borrow artifacts and objects that will make this landscape-altering industry come alive. How to convey the ear-splitting noise and choking dust of the quarries, along with the dangerously tall cranes, deep quarry pits, enormous pieces of sawing and finishing machinery, and blocks of stone so dense that their weight is much more than one would imagine at first glance?
Not knowing how it will all turn out hasn’t stopped me yet. Looking back, I could never have predicted what would happen when I proposed to study Tennessee-related painting and sculpture at the U.S. Capitol. And, by the way, that project was inspired by an invitation from Dr. Van West to write a long-form research essay on Tennessee sculpture in 200 Years of the Arts in Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press, 2004).