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Preserving the past: Netherland Inn’s interim curator stays busy behind the scenes

January 13th, 2014 9:18 am by Leigh Ann Laube

Preserving the past: Netherland Inn’s interim curator stays busy behind the scenes

Russ Bralley, interim curator of Kingsport’s Netherland Inn, shows off some of the items in the replica of George Hale’s Boatyard Store. Photo by Ned Jilton II.

The Netherland Inn may be closed until May, but that doesn’t mean the former Great Old Stage Road inn and tavern is gathering dust. Behind the scenes, the interim curator is busy collecting historic items that will be used as part of the Museum of Pioneer Transportation’s permanent collection, digitizing the documentary holdings of the inn, creating a play area for kids in the museum and updating the inn’s web site to make genealogical research available online.

Russ Bralley was assigned to the inn by Appalachia CARES/AmeriCorps through a program administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which is the nation’s largest grant maker for service and volunteering.

Born and raised in Kingsport, he’s always been interested in history. Every branch of his ancestral family lived around Bays Mountain and old Kingsport. He has completed a certificate program with honors from Rhode Island’s Brown University in history and archaeology, and an analytical management certificate program with honors from Stanford University in California. He has a bachelor of arts in English and master of arts in arts administration from the University of Tennessee — Chattanooga and an ad eundem degree from University College, Cork, in Celtic studies.

“History is a living thing. ... It’s not just some words on a paper,” he explained.

When he was hired in late September 2012, the Museum of Pioneer Transportation in the Hal T. Spoden Bank Barn was empty. When the inn opened for last year’s season on May 4, 2013, it was the public’s first opportunity to see the new, stocked Museum of Pioneer Transportation .

“We have a permanent collection and will rotate items,” he said. “People are giving us stuff all the time. We have a vast collection of furniture, documents.”

On display inside the museum are ledgers and artifacts from the King’s Boat Yard (1802-1816) and George Hale’s Boatyard Store; a collection of journals, deeds, letters, wills, petitions and applications to designate Kingsport as a postal stop; postal route schedules; several dioramas of early Kingsport; and wagons, buggies and coaches dating from 1780.

“Most items were donated by people who had an association with Netherland Inn or old Kingsport,” he said.

On the ground floor of the inn are the wagons, buggies and coaches, including a replica of a 19th-century stagecoach built by the late Curtis Mays, a longtime educator in Scott County, Va. The stagecoach was built by Mays and students at Twin Springs High School in the 1950s and is on permanent loan to the museum. Also downstairs, visitors have the opportunity to see how archaeology was used to find the location of the old bank barn by peering into two open trenches. The Hal T. Spoden Bank Barn, which houses the museum, was constructed with funds from the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the City of Kingsport.

A replica of George Hale’s Boatyard Store gives visitors a glimpse into its early days. Goods sold at the store during December 1816 included clothing, fabric and notions, farming necessities, food and culinary items, household items, medicines and elixirs, various personal items, tools and spirits.

From the 1760s, travelers came by wagon down the Island Road to the river bank where they built boats and migrated west. Originally built by William King in 1802 and 1808 for the sole purpose of developing a boat yard from which to ship his salt, the Netherland Inn was later sold at a sheriff's sale in 1818 to Richard Netherland. Netherland procured a stage contract and established the three-story building as an inn and tavern on the Great Old Stage Road, the main route to Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. The Netherland Inn  became established as a popular stagecoach inn hosting many famous persons, including Presidents Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and James Polk.

Netherland Inn remained in the Netherland family until 1906, when it became the home and boarding house of H.C. and Nettie Cloud. In 1968, it was purchased by the Netherland Inn Association to be preserved as a historic house museum. The inn today has been furnished to represent life as it was in an important American frontier settlement. Research was collected from the diary of Richard Netherland, as well as other primary and secondary history sources. The first-floor tavern, second-floor family quarters and third-floor guest rooms all have been furnished with period pieces. Although much of Netherland Inn’s furniture was destroyed or lost in the Civil War, some of it remains and can been seen throughout the house.

Bralley is working to digitize the inn’s documents so they will be available to the public for research purposes. He’s using a hand-held scanner to scan each document in high resolution. He’s also transcribing each page, a process that he admits will take years to complete. He has boxes and boxes of material to scan. His goal is to eventually update the inn’s web site to make these documents available online.

Bralley’s plans for the bank barn’s third floor, which now sits empty, include creating a research center and a place to hold informal classes and/or demonstrations. He’s also interested in making a hands-on, kid-friendly area in the bank barn with a railroad, a Lincoln Log exhibit and costumes, including coonskin caps, rifles and bonnets.

Bralley’s research into the property has turned up some interesting tidbits, he said.

“Jordan Netherland and his wife are prominently featured in documents. He was an African-American slave whose birth record was recorded with the family. Richard Netherland was his father,” Bralley said. “This never came out in documents or books. ... It had been conjectured about, but never publicly. ”

And, he said, it has always been believed that the remains of Richard and Margaret Netherland were moved to Old Kingsport Presbyterian Church when the inn’s property was restored, but only the tombstones were relocated to the church. According to the reports from an archeological excavation, the bodies were “symbolically moved,” but no grave disturbance is likely.

Netherland Inn is located at 2144 Netherland Inn Road in Kingsport. The inn always needs volunteers, docents, association members and re-enactors. For more information about volunteer opportunities, call Jennifer Light at 677-1640.

For more information about the inn, call (423) 677-3263 or (423) 246-1104; visit the inn’s website at ; or find Netherland Inn on Facebook.

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