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Ready, Willis and Able – Preserve local farm history (April 15, 2015 issue)

Good speakers are like good farmers. They cast their words like seed over an audience. Some of these seeds sink into fertile, prepared soil, while others hit barren ground. At the March meeting of the Unicoi County Historical Society, President Chris Tipton cast seed that hit good ground among those in attendance. Chris pointed out that we have done a great job of preserving and celebrating our county’s early industrial history, especially that of the Clinchfield Railroad and Southern Potteries. But what have we done to preserve 150 years of our history prior to that? And what is that history?
The history of many of our ancestors in Unicoi County began with the penetration of white settlers into the area in the late 1700s. It is the preservation of our history from this time to the coming of the railroad in the early 1900s that Chris and the historical society would like to see better preserved. Of course, this is easier said than done and how do we do it? Many of our more prized artifacts from this early period are already in museums such as the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee or the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. An example of this is the old grist mill, owned and operated by George Frank Tilson at Coffee Ridge, now on display in Nashville. It is wonderful that the Tilson grist mill and other items are being preserved in such prestigious places. But wouldn’t it be nice if Unicoi County had a place to display items from our early farming history, which aren’t already in another museum? This is the question Chris raised at our March historical society meeting.
If you are familiar with Unicoi County, you know that different sections of our county are still associated with the families that first settled them. Many of these families became well-known farm families because of the particular crops they raised. Some parts of the county are still known for the crops raised there. Think about Coffee Ridge and its apples or Unicoi and its strawberries and tomatoes.
The Appalachian Studies department at ETSU recently did a huge project that focused on early farming in Unicoi County. In conjunction with this, the Carroll Reece Museum featured displays and artifacts along with old photographs and oral histories of our county’s farm history. So obviously, this part of our history must be worth preserving. And what better place to preserve it than in our own county? The Heritage Museum and Railroad Museum located in the Fishery community are wonderful facilities. But they don’t have room to accommodate our early farm history.
The seed that could grow into Unicoi County’s own museum for preserving our farming history has been planted. It will take a community to nurture it to fruition.
If you are interested in this project, please consider joining us at our next historical society meeting April 20, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall in Erwin.