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Historic preservation could boost tourism in Sullivan County seat

June 30th, 2007 12:00 am by Sharon Caskey Hayes

Historic preservation could boost tourism in Sullivan County seat



Visitors look over the renovated Deery Inn in Blountville recently. Ned Jilton II photo.


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BLOUNTVILLE - Careful if you take exit 69 from Interstate 81 - you might catch something.


Folks around Blountville, Sullivan County's county seat, have gotten the ball rolling on historical preservation, and their enthusiasm seems to know no boundaries - as restoration projects at public-owned buildings are under way side-by-side with projects at private homes.


"It's contagious, once you start it," said Dennis Houser, a county commissioner and founding member of the Sullivan County Historical and Preservation Association (SCHPA).


Houser and others, including Sullivan County Director of Tourism Krisna Goodwin, see it as the start of something "huge" from an economic development standpoint.


According to the state's department of tourism, Tennessee's $12.4 billion-a-year tourism industry drew 48.9 million overnight and day-trip visitors in 2005.


Tourism dollars already pour into Sullivan County - more than $219 million was spent here countywide in 2004, according to state figures, generating $6 million in local option sales tax revenues - but county officials are hoping to grow that even more with development of the Blountville Historic District.


A restoration and renovation project at the Old Deery Inn, years in the planning and more than a year in the works, is nearing completion: an official opening is set to coincide with this year's Appalachian Heritage Festival in late September.


The festival is itself a revamp. Prior to last year it was simply a "harvest hoedown."


Goodwin, on board since January 2006 as the county's first tourism director, took the first steps last year to expand the event to a celebration of the region's historical heritage, with a focus on traditional music.


Even to the casual observer that seems a natural fit for the soon-to-be-home of the Ralph Blizard Museum.


That's planned for a portion of the Rutledge House, next door to the Old Deery Inn on state Route 126 - called the "Great Stage Road" through the Blountville Historic District.


The Sullivan County Department of Tourism is unveiling a new logo for the festival this year, and Goodwin's office last week was crowded with boxes of freshly printed first-ever brochures for the Old Deery Inn.


The public got a "sneak peek" at historic preservation efforts a few weeks ago, when a Tennessee Historic Marker honoring Blizard was dedicated near the Rutledge House.


It marked the unofficial debut of the Old Deery Inn after a year-long restoration project spearheaded by the SCHPA and funded by Sullivan County and state and federal grants.


The target date for officially opening the inn to the public: Sept 29 and 30, the dates of the second annual Appalachian Heritage Festival.


Houser said the SCHPA needs $3,000 to $5,000 to finish painting upstairs rooms at the inn and to complete refinishing some floors.


"If there's a benefactor out there who'd like to give us $5,000, we'd gladly accept it," Goodwin said.


The next big step in restoration efforts: A second phase of construction is expected to get under way this fall with the hoped-for announcement of more grant monies as early as next month.


The Sullivan County Commission last year approved application for a state grant to further historic preservation efforts in the Blountville Historic District.


The grant requires a 25 percent local match - meaning the county will have to pony up about $210,000 to get the state's $841,000.


The grant and matching funds would be used to help fund:


• An overhaul of the parking area around the county courthouse, which will be utilized by visitors to the Old Deery Inn, Rutledge House, and other historic structures.


• Placing utilities underground within the historic district.


• Transformation of the old sheriff's home into a visitor's information center.


• Completion of preservation work on the Rutledge House.


• Creation of a walking tour of about 13 sites within the district.


Where's all this leading?


Just stop and think about how much other historic towns in the region have grown as tourist destinations in the past few decades, Goodwin said.


"The National Storytelling Festival started in the 1970s with about 50 people on a hay wagon beside the courthouse in Jonesborough," Goodwin said. "And look what's happened in 30 years."


The work going on in Blountville's Historic District, she said, needs to be seen as a long-term investment, something future generations will see continue to grow.


"If you're a novice going into it, you think ‘we'll never get it done,'" Houser said. "But once you go through the process, your experience makes it easier the next time around."


Houser said an effort is under way now to get the state to install brown signs, used to indicate historic sites, on Interstate 81 to note access to the Old Deery Inn.


The old sheriff's home is less than a mile from Exit 69 and will become a visitor's center, with information on tourist attractions throughout the region, Goodwin said.


Houser said there's been interest from the private sector already in starting up new businesses in Blountville's historic district, such as restaurants and gift shops.


Goodwin, who's current office is in the county-owned Snow House at the intersection of state Route 126 and Highway 394, said she already gets a lot of inquiries from motorists who pull off the road seeking directions and asking where the best places are to get a bit of local flavor.


The first step to restoring the old sheriff's home was taken earlier this year when the building received a new roof.


"If we receive the second phase of the grant, the complete restoration of the old sheriff's home would be in effect and the bid process 30 to 60 days, we're hoping it could start sometime this fall," Houser said.


An announcement on the grant is expected around the first of August, Houser said.


And that's about the time Goodwin hopes to announce a line-up for entertainment for the Appalachian Heritage Festival.


The basic format for the weekend will include "amateur hour" from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday - but singers need to keep their material within the "traditional music" genre to keep the spotlight on the region's history; followed by musical entertainment until 7 p.m. Saturday; and again from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday.


This year's festival will also include a children's area, with a petting zoo, and an encampment by Civil War re-enactors, Goodwin said.


Her department is accepting applications now for craft vendors and food vendors for the event. Applications are available online at www.sullivancountytourism.org or call (423) 323-8661.


Goodwin said completion of the new visitors center at the old sheriff's home will be a boon for tourism, not just in Blountville, but for the region.


"What a great place for people to stop for information - a mile from Interstate 81," Goodwin said. "And the walking tour really needs to start there. The Blountville Historic District has more actual historic structures in it than downtown Jonesborough."


The Sullivan County Historical and Preservation Association (SCHPA) formed in 1999.


Goodwin said her office, in conjunction with SCHPA, is seeking volunteers to help staff the Deery Inn for public tours once it officially opens this fall.


They'll need to be willing to complete some training and to work four-hour shifts at the inn, guiding tourists and locals through the building - and through history.


The inn, added to the National Register of Historic Places in January 1974, has been under restoration for about a year.


More than $1 million in state and federal grants funded work there, at the Rutledge House, and outdoors between the buildings.


Private donations largely funded restoration of "The Smithsonian Gates," which were reinstalled earlier this year 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 the overall restoration project at the Deery Inn and the next-door Rutledge House.


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.


The gates are a sort of centerpiece for the overall restoration and preservation effort at the inn and surrounding properties, SCHPA President David 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.


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 to Tennessee, bringing with them two pairs of wrought iron gates. Virginia married a county judge, Joseph Caldwell, and they bought the Old Deery Inn. She installed one pair of gates on the inn's east side, facing Highway 126.


• 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."



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