David Burrell inspects newly renovated gates at the old Deery Inn in Blountville. David Grace photo.
BLOUNTVILLE - There's a lot of history connected to Blountville. Some of it started here. Some of it was just passing through, on the Great Stage Road.
And some of it - like a 2,500-pound cast iron gateway - ended up staying here.
Oh, not that the gates haven't had other options - and they have traveled a little. They're back just this week from a two-year-plus trip to Covington, Ky.
The gateway has quite a history, in fact. Local folks are hoping it helps open a future filled with tourism, educational opportunities and economic development.
"The Smithsonian Gates" were reinstalled earlier this week at the Old Deery Inn by workers from Stewart Iron Works in Covington.
The gates were sent to Covington more than two years ago to be repaired as part of a larger restoration project at the Deery Inn and the next-door Rutledge House.
The first phase of the restoration is drawing to a close - the public will get a "sneak peek" inside portions of the Deery Inn next week - so it was time to get the gates back up, said David Burrell, with the Sullivan County Historical and Preservation Association (SCHPA).
Restoration of the gates cost $34,000. Most of that came from two private contributors: King Pharmaceuticals donated $15,000 to the project, and Wayne Basler donated $14,000. The SCHPA made up the $5,000 balance.
"We knew they needed to be restored," Burrell said. "They were in very bad shape. We had to search to find the appropriate company to do the work, because not everybody could do it. We quickly found out that the process when these were made, back in the 1800s, used lead and allowed the metal to be more malleable. When they started working on some of the pieces, they found out that was going to cause some problems, so they had to go about it in a different way."
That included laser-cutting some of the ornamentation on the gates, Burrell said.
The gates are a sort of centerpiece for the overall restoration and preservation effort at the inn and surrounding properties, Burrell said. They have their own centerpieces as well: a unique design - meant to be the symbol of the "National Museum" back in 1879 - a large circle with a stylized flower, Burrell said.
"Those sections of the gates were the most solid parts when we took them down to be restored," Burrell said.
According to an article published in the Washington Post in July 1979 and on file with the SCHPA:
•One hundred years earlier, in 1879, the Smithsonian contracted for work on the new "National Museum" building in Washington, D.C., including construction of "wrought work for the four main entrances."
•The completed work stayed in place until 1910 when the building - now known as the Arts and Industries Building - was updated. Four sets of Victorian gates were removed from the entrances and sold.
•The gates came to be owned by a family in Arlington, Va., and they were installed on the grounds of the family's 375-acre estate called "Alcova."
•In 1915 "Alcova" was purchased by attorney George C. Byars, whose daughter Virginia was a fixture of Washington society, a well-known hostess, and wife of the commander of the U.S. fleet during World War I.
•During the Great Depression, the family moved from Alcova. Virginia moved to Tennessee, bringing with her two pairs of wrought iron gates. She bought the Old Deery Inn in Blountville. She married a county judge: Joseph Caldwell. She installed one pair of gates on the inn's east side, facing Highway 126 - as the Great Stage Road had come to be known.
•In the mid-1970s, Virginia Caldwell offered the second pair of gates for sale to the Tennessee State Museum (TSM). Asking price: $1,000. She believed that before they stood at the entrance to her family's home in Northern Virginia, the gates had adorned the U.S. Capitol's grounds. The TSM contacted Smithsonian officials hoping to confirm the gates were from the Capitol. That theory was rejected pretty quickly, but eventually the right person saw the gates and recognized they were from the Smithsonian's earliest days.
•He traveled to Blountville, crawled under a porch at the Deery Inn, and retrieved the dismantled and damaged pair of gates that Caldwell wasn't using and was willing to sell. That pair of gates went back to the Smithsonian, and the man later told Caldwell they were being restored at a cost of about $22,000. He was curator of the Smithsonian Castle building at the time, and the Washington Post quoted him as saying only one other pair of gates in Washington, D.C., could rival the quality of those returned to the Smithsonian from Blountville.
"It is unique and unusual that they ended up here in Blountville," Burrell said. "They're a centerpiece and certainly a point of interest for the whole project."
The SCHPA will open a limited portion of the Old Deery Inn for public tours on May 25.
The limited tours are being offered that day to coincide with dedication ceremonies for a Tennessee highway marker honoring Ralph Blizzard.
Those ceremonies are set to begin at noon on May 25 near the Anderson Town House, just across the street from the Old Deery Inn and the Smithsonian Gates.
Blizzard, who died in 2004, was a nationally recognized master of the "long bow" and performed throughout the United States and in Europe. He was a founding member of the Traditional Appalachian Musical Heritage Association, which seeks to preserve the music and arts of the region.
The Old Deery Inn and the Rutledge House are on Highway 126 next to the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.