By Torren Gatson, CHP Graduate Research Assistant
About two weeks ago, I received an energetic e-mail from Leigh Ann Gardner, interpretive specialist for the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area. Her enthusiastic message was directed to any student who wanted to venture into Bedford County to hunt for a stone building believed to be possibly a slave dwelling. After reading the first three sentences of the e-mail and seeing the words “slave dwelling,” I immediately replied and informed Leigh Ann that I would love to join her on this quick trip.
Only once our journey began did I learn how the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) had first found out about this location. The owner of the property had contacted our director, Dr. Carroll Van West, noted that the structure was old, and asked if someone could come inspect it at some time. Our journey to Bedford County and the town of Shelbyville was interesting, to say the least. I was in awe of the tranquility of the countryside. Rolling hills dot acre after acre of rich Tennessee agricultural land with accompanying livestock.
When we arrived at the landowner’s property, we began our hunt for the structure. We both knew that we were close as the navigation system (GPS) simply told us to “turn off the main road” onto a winding, narrow, dirt road. Immediately encountering a large yellow sign labeled “Dead End,” we quickly stopped the car and then proceeded to maneuver down the road carefully. It was clear that only one vehicle could (barely) drive down the road at a time. There were several clues riddled throughout the landscape that alluded to what may have once been there. The remains of a layered stone wall in the streambed quickly grabbed our attention. At the very end of the road, there were four homes secluded within the hills; each dwelling had signs clearly stating that they were private property. We decided to turn around and check out the farm area we had seen next to the road as we entered the property.
On our second pass down the road, we could see through a few trees a medium-sized stone structure. From the road, it appeared to be in excellent condition. The log roof appeared to be caved in partially, yet the building was a complete stone structure. Next to it was a 1960s-style camping home and what appeared to be twenty head of cattle. We parked the car and approached the area, only to be stopped by a locked gate with another sign warning off hunters. Leigh Ann decided that we should call the landowner and ask if we could venture onto the property to take better pictures and inspect the structure. The landowner answered the phone and was delighted to know of our arrival. He then gave us permission to get closer to the structure.
At this point, the real fun began. Immediately after walking onto the property, we looked down and realized that we were stuck in at least two inches of a mud-and-manure mixture. We knew that to reach this structure would not be easy. We plotted out the best route and worked our way through the mud. Our boots sunk deeper and deeper with each step closer. Once we finally reached the house, we both stood on old wood that was on the surface of the mud.
Standing in front of the structure, two things were noticeable immediately. First, this completely stone structure from foundation to walls was evenly proportioned, with one door and only a carved-out window. Second, whatever purpose this structure served, it was an old building. Leigh Ann noted that she wouldn’t be surprised if the structure predated the Civil War.
If you have ever had the feeling that you are being watched, that feeling suddenly came over me. As I turned to my left, less than one hundred yards from the structure were cattle mindlessly staring at us. Wherever we moved, they followed us around the property and made sure that we knew that they were watching us and protecting their turf. After we had taken several photos and made sure that we had captured all of the necessary documentation of the site, we attempted to retrace our steps back to the entrance of the property. Once out, we knew that there was no way we could set foot in the state vehicle until we placed our boots in the adjacent stream. We carefully lowered our boots into the stream and did our best to clean them.
The next step in this process will be to review the documentation collected and add it to the CHP’s archive for possible future use. As is the CHP’s policy, Leigh Ann told the landowner that she would correspond with him and share any pertinent information gathered from the visit. This is how partnership and collaboration often begin between the CHP and the community.
Although the trip took less than two hours, it was packed with informative insight into just how random, yet historically fulfilling, projects are that fall into the lap of the CHP. I have been at the CHP now for one official year. This trip afforded me the right to say that the CHP truly believes in the saying “boots on the ground”–or, in our case, “boots in the mud.”