By Ginna Foster Cannon, Graduate Research Assistant
I can distinctly remember telling my three-year-old daughter Lolly that the babysitter would take her home from school because “Mommy has a field trip.” She immediately picked up on my excitement and wanted to know more. A long explanation followed about traveling to Knoxville, measuring and photographing the inside and outside of buildings, and learning more about Tennessee’s history. She nodded and then made me promise to tell her stories when I got home. That was an easy promise to make and keep. History, and field work in particular, is all about making stories come alive.
I find that I too feel more alive after a day in the field. There is something about getting outside your comfort zone and letting the landscape and the “otherness” speak to you. Thank goodness there is high-definition digital photography. It makes it cheap and easy to capture tons of photos. There are too many details, large and small, to absorb at the time. It is only later, with careful study back at your computer, that the photos reveal details you missed or did not appreciate the importance of at the time.
I am also grateful for teammates–fellow graduate students and staff at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP)–who make project work fun and enlightening. Learning flows quite effortlessly from person to person in such an environment. The intensity of projects–from twelve-hour days in the field to weeks of work in writing a single report–adds to the satisfaction of a job well-done.
A request from the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association for an assessment of Marble Springs State Historic Site prompted our early morning drive from Murfreesboro to Knoxville on October 25, 2013. Located in Knox County, Marble Springs, the former homeplace of John Sevier, was purchased by the state in 1941, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and has been operated by the association since 1979. There were five of us on the project team: Brad Eatherly, Ashley Poe, and myself (public history graduate students); Jessica White (Heritage Area Fieldwork Preservationist at the CHP at the time); and Dr. Carroll Van West (Director of the CHP).
We measured, photographed, and assessed the condition of the principal historic buildings on the site (the Smokehouse, Building One–the kitchen, Building Two–the John Sevier House, Building Three–the Walker Tavern, and the Springhouse). We also inventoried the historically significant furnishings. Work on the project was broken up as follows: Brad and Dr. West assessed the exteriors, Jessica and I the interiors, and Ashley and Jessica the furnishings.
Each group came up with a number of recommendations related to safety, preservation, and conservation. For example, the interior group recommended sealing gaps in the roofs, walls, and windows that allow in moisture and pests. We also recommended that an electrician examine the wiring in Building Three. The recommendations provide a laundry list of major and minor issues for the association to consider in managing the site. This is just one way in which the CHP partners with organizations across the state.
In future reports, the CHP will recommend changes that could impact the stories told at and about the site. We will recommend amending the 1971 National Register nomination and interpretation for the site to reflect recent findings, most notably that the oldest building on the site dates from the early-to-mid-1830s–more than fifteen years after the death of John Sevier. (See The Historical Dendroarchaeology of Two Log Structures at Marble Springs Historic Site, Knox County, Tennessee (2007), conducted by University of Tennessee, for more information.) Does this timeline change with regard to the buildings diminish the site’s importance? Far from it–it merely highlights another aspect and reframes its significance. The new focus would be architectural (circa 1830s-1850s) for a farm in Tennessee on the eve of the Civil War. Secondary significance would be ascribed to the land being owned by John Sevier. The Marble Springs project reinforces the notion that making stories come alive is foundational to what we do as public historians.