Monday, December 22, 2014

Letters to Santa...

Did you ever wonder if Santa was able to deliver presents during the Civil War or what children asked him to bring them in the 1800s? Well, wonder no more. Let items from the Tennessee State Library and Archives answer your St. Nicholas questions.

In her diary entry of December 28, 1862, Lucy Virginia Smith French wrote:

"We had to be “Santa Claus” ourselves this season, for cakes, apples, a little candy, & some picture books were all that could be procured for the children. We had to tell them Santa Claus couldn’t get thro’ the pickets, - Jessie wanted to know why “the old fellow couldn’t go to his Quartermaster & get him a pass?” They seemed to enjoy their Christmas quite as well as usual however, notwithstanding that Santa Claus was blackheaded."

Lithograph portrait of Lucy Virginia French from Women of the South Distinguished in Literature (1865) by Mary Forrest. She appears to be seated, looking directly ahead while wearing a dress. The printed letters, G. R. Hall, (presumably the engraver), rim the bottom of the portrait, while the name L. Virginia French is written beneath the portrait. According to the preface, the portraits in the volume were made expressly for the book and "with one exception, from life."
Library Collection, TSLA

Lucy Virginia French (1825-1881) was born in Accomack County, Va. In 1848, she and her sister moved to Memphis, where they became teachers. While living in Memphis, she began writing for the Louisville Journal under the pen name "L'Inconnue," and in 1852 became the editor of the Southern Ladies Book. In 1853, she married Col. John Hopkins French and relocated to McMinnville, Tenn., where they had 3 children, 1 boy and 2 girls. She kept detailed diaries during the Civil War, including this diary entry from December 28, 1862...

Lucy Virginia French diary entry, December 28, 1862.
Lucy Virginia French Diaries, TSLA

In another example from our collection, the Boyd Family Papers, 1838-1947, contain letters from Franklin Boyd and Amie “Dovie” (Boyd) Nicholson. Both letters are dated Dec. 22, 1896, and are on J. F. Boyd stationery. The letters were written from Shelbyville, Tennessee.

In Franklin Boyd’s letter, he asks for a long list of items, including a horse, roman candles, and firecrackers. He also asks Santa not to forget his sister. Dovie asks for multiple things as well, including a doll trunk and a set of wooden dishes. She signs her letter, “your little friend Dovie Boyd.”

Dovie Boyd's letter to Santa, Dec. 22, 1896.
Boyd Family Papers, 1838-1947, TSLA

We hope you receive all you have asked for from Santa Claus this holiday season. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from all of us at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

"Christmas Gifts" sheet music cover from the Kenneth Rose Music Collection, TSLA

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Battle of Nashville: 150 Years Ago Today

Beginning on this day 150 years ago, the Confederate army launched a desperate assault on federal forces in Nashville as part of Confederate General John Bell Hood's attempt to threaten Union-held territory and lure General William T. Sherman away from Georgia. Despite the Confederate bloodletting at Franklin on November 30 of that year, the Confederates pursued their federal counterparts toward Nashville. Arriving on the south side of Nashville around December 2, 1864, the Confederates entrenched in an unlikely effort to besiege the strongly-fortified city. The thin Confederate lines stretched from the Cumberland River on the west to another bend of the river on the east. With perhaps 20,000 effective troops, the Confederates lacked sufficient manpower to complete the encirclement.

Major General George H. Thomas commanded Union forces during the Battle of Nashville.
Tennessee Historical Society Picture Collection

Inside the city, Major General George H. Thomas enjoyed the advantage of strong fortifications and earthworks which had been built in anticipation of a potential Confederate attack. With concentrations of African American refugees in the city available for military labor, and as many as 18,000 civilians employed by the army, Nashville was one of the strongest fortified cities on the continent. Thomas’s army, with a three-to-one advantage in numbers over Hood’s army, was primed for a major victory.

View of south Nashville from the campus of the University of Nashville. Fort Negley can be seen in the distance. Nashville had been occupied by the Union since 1862.
TSLA Photograph Collection

President Lincoln and General Grant pushed the cautious Thomas to destroy Hood’s army as quickly as possible. Thomas, however, refused to move until everything was in order and delayed further when a major ice storm hit the area on December 12. While the Confederates sat in frozen trenches with little or no food, few overcoats, and suffering low morale after the fiasco at Franklin, Thomas’s men prepared for the attack.

Written “in the field near Nashville” December 5, 1864, this receipt of medicines and hospital stores was issued to Senior Surgeon Robert W. Mitchell, Vaughan’s Brigade, CSA, 10 days before the Battle of Nashville. It includes alcohol, morphine, surgeon’s needles and silk, opium, and a large amount of whiskey.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee

Finally on December 15, the weather broke and the federal advance began. Thomas sent his cavalry out Charlotte Pike in an effort to envelop the Confederate left flank. On the Confederate right, federal infantry, including a brigade of United States Colored Troops seeing combat for the first time, advanced to hold the Confederates in place. By the evening of the 15th, the Confederates had been forced to give up their positions and had fallen back to a shorter defensive line from Peach Orchard Hill on the far right, to Shy’s Hill on the left. There they sat, awaiting the next day’s attack.

This two sided hand-drawn map of Nashville, probably drawn for Army of Tennessee commanders by a Confederate spy, includes many features of wartime Nashville. Signed by “J.C.,” it shows “64-pounder” gun emplacements on the Cumberland River, the Brennan Foundry, and the stockade and fortifications around the State Capitol. The reverse side shows sentry houses and firfle pits on St. Cloud, Cathy’s, and Overton’s Hills, and military “graveyards” to the east.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee

The federal plan of attack for December 16 was much the same as the day before—hold the Confederate right in place with a diversionary attack while also pressuring the center and flanking on the left, using cavalry. Confederates entrenched on Peach Orchard Hill inflicted heavy losses on the advancing United States Colored Troops, but the Confederates atop Shy’s Hill crumbled under the weight of attacks from three sides. The collapse of the Confederate left flank put the rest of Hood’s army in flight. It was only the brave rearguard actions by some Confederate units that prevented the complete destruction of the Army of Tennessee.

Pre-Civil War cased tintype of Col. William Shy, 20th Tennessee Infantry, CSA. Shy was killed at the Battle of Nashville on December 16, 1864, defending a hilltop position that now bears his name.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee

The Battle of Nashville was the most complete federal victory of the Civil War and ended any Confederate threat to the state. Amazingly, those Confederate soldiers who remained with the defeated Army of Tennessee would fight again before the war finally ended in May 1865.

Dr. William H. Givens, an assistant surgeon attached to the 1st Division, detached from the 14th Army Corps, USA, wrote this letter to his wife on December 18, 1864 from the Rains House in Nashville. “We have suffered severely in the loss of men, but have gained one of the greatest victories of the war. We have captured large quantities of guns, small arms ammunition and prisoners . . . The fighting was quite severe all around here, and just in sight of here dozens of dead men have lain in the rain . . . nearly every one had been stripped of some article of clothing, all of them of their boots and shoes, most of them pants and many of coats, hats and all.”
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee

TSLA’s current exhibit “1864: War Rages in Tennessee” features the Battle of Nashville and will be up in our Memorial Hall through the end of the year.

Many of the images come from Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee:

The Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) has several other Civil War collections:

Other Civil War Resources at TSLA:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tennessee's starring role in Elia Kazan's "Wild River"

In Tennessee today, it is not unusual to see film crews around the state, whether filming a TV show like ABC’s “Nashville” or making movies like “The Green Mile,” “The Firm,” or “Walk the Line.” In 1959, however, the filming of an entire major Hollywood movie in Tennessee was a momentous occasion, especially in a small town. That year, director Elia Kazan and actors Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick were among the stars that descended on Bradley County to make “Wild River.” Most of the filming took place in the Tennessee towns of Charleston and Cleveland and on Coon Denton Island in the Hiwassee River. More than 40 local residents had speaking parts, and dozens more served as extras.

In a scene from "Wild River," Miss Ella (Jo Van Fleet) attempts to illustrate her determination to keep her land by pretending to force field hand Sam Johnson (Robert Earl Jones) to sell his beloved hunting dog "Old Blue." Sam offered to give her the dog, if she was going to stay on the island.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection
Image online:

The film dramatized the plight of rural landowners who lost their homes and farms when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) built dams that flooded their land. Assistant State Archivist Dr. Wayne Moore notes, "In one of the largest uses of eminent domain power in American history, tens of thousands of Southerners had their property taken from them by the Federal government in order to build these dams and create the lakes.”

The Garth Island field hands leave the farm as the lake begins to rise.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection
Image online:

If you are interested in learning more about the people who lost their lands to the lakes created by TVA dams, TSLA has many resources to explore. Borden Deal's novel Dunbar's Cove (1957) was one of two novels on which the "Wild River" screenplay was based. Two academic studies of the subject are TVA Population Removal : Attitudes and Expectations of the Dispossessed at the Norris and Cherokee Dam Sites (1995) by Michael Rogers, and TVA and the Dispossessed : the Resettlement of Population in the Norris Dam Area (1982) by Michael J. McDonald.

TVA's trouble shooter, Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift), and eminently worth-the-trouble Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick) find romance amidst the drama in "Wild River." In the end, they have to join hands with the law.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection
Image online:

To see more images from the Department of Conservation Photographs Collection related to the movie, search "Wild River" in the TSLA Photograph Database:

The movie set used as the "Garth family homestead," in the motion picture "Wild River," 1959.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection
Image online:

More about “Wild River”

The Library of Congress selected "Wild River" for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry in 2002.

Allison Inman directed a documentary, “Mud on the Stars: Stories from Elia Kazan’s Wild River“ (2011) about how the making of “Wild River” affected people in Bradley County. View a trailer for the documentary here:

These notes from the Turner Classic Movie website are informative:

At right, "Garth Island," reached by a current-pushed ferry. This location, at Coon Denton Island, a few miles up the Hiwassee River from Calhoun and Charleston, Tennessee, was chosen as typical of bottomland before the TVA dam was closed.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection
Image online:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The “First” Thanksgiving

Most Americans think about Pilgrims and Indians gathering around the table when the first Thanksgiving comes to mind. However, in 1863, while the nation was in the midst of a civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation designating that the last Thursday in November be observed as a day of Thanksgiving by all Americans at home or abroad...

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), circa 1860s,
Carte de visite Collection
By the President of the United States of America: A Proclamation. The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful Providence of Almighty God, in the midst of a civil war of unequal magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to unite and provoke the aggressions of foreign States.

Peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theatre of military conflict. While that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union, the needful diversions of wealth and strength from the field of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Populations has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battle-field; and the country rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect a continuance of years with large increase of Freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor mortal man worked out these great things; they are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered us in mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged with one heart and voice by the whole American people.

I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens, and I recommend to them, that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all who have become widows, orphans, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the City of Washington, this, the 3d day of October, A. D., 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth. By the President: A. Lincoln., Wm. H. Seward, Secretary of State. -- Nashville Daily Union, October 8, 1863

Here in Tennessee, citizens and government officials alike took Lincoln's words to heart. The mayor of Nashville requested that all houses of business be closed in observance of the holiday. On November 26, 1863, Mayor Smith declared, "This day having been designated by the President of the United States as one of thanksgiving and prayer, it is therefore requested and ordered by the Mayor of the city, that all business houses be closed, to enable persons who desire to participate in the ceremonies of the occasion. – John Hu. Smith, Mayor of Nashville.” -- Nashville Daily Union, November 26, 1863

In that same edition of the Nashville Daily Union, we learn that the sick and wounded soldiers were well taken care of and had wonderful Thanksgiving dinners, thanks to the State Sanitary Commission at Indianapolis, Indiana. What did the soldiers have for dinner? They ate turkey, of course! In its account, the Nashville Daily Union recorded, “Good Things for the Soldiers in the Hospitals – We are gratified to learn from Mr. Ed Shaw, of the Indiana State Agency in this city, that two car loads of turkies, &c., were received yesterday, from Indiana, for distribution amongst the government hospitals at this post, for Thanksgiving Dinners for the sick and wounded soldiers. They were forwarded by Wm. Hannaman, Esq., President of the State Sanitary Commission at Indianapolis, and were brought free of charge by the Adams Express Company. Indiana is a glorious State – her people are determined to be ahead in every good work.” -- Nashville Daily Union, November 26, 1863

Program for the 2nd Balloon Company's 1931 Thanksgiving Dinner. Program includes a menu and lists the entire company roster, Fort Bragg (N.C.), November 26, 1931, Puryear Family Photograph Albums, ca. 1890-1945

Thanksgiving has been celebrated annually in America since that “first” Thanksgiving in 1863.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Make a “County Connection” the Saturday after Thanksgiving on “Family History Day”

The Thanksgiving weekend is a time when many of us spend time reconnecting with family members and sharing family stories. At the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA), families can also explore stories of their relatives who lived many years ago.

Redding Bonner family gathers around a table full of food, circa 1890.
Looking Back at Tennessee. Tennessee State Library and Archives

For the fourth consecutive year, the staff at TSLA is encouraging Tennesseans to visit the library and celebrate 'Family History Day' by learning more about genealogical research.

Gordon Belt, TSLA’s Director of Public Services, will host a beginning genealogy workshop providing an overview of resources available at the library and how to navigate through various databases. The workshop is entitled, “County Connections” and will focus on locating and using TSLA’s many county records. Afterwards, staff will be on hand to help visitors with their research.

The workshop will be held from 9:30 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. Saturday at the TSLA auditorium, which is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, directly west of the State Capitol building in downtown Nashville.

While the workshop is free, reservations are required due to limited seating. To make a reservation, call (615) 741-2764 or e-mail Please note that TSLA will be closed on Thursday and Friday for the Thanksgiving holiday, so it's important to make reservations before then.

Although parking in front of TSLA's building is limited, there is plenty of additional parking behind the building.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Remembering “The Forgotten War” on Veterans Day

On Veterans Day, the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) honors all who have served -- and continue to serve -- our country in the armed forces. TSLA has many resources about veterans and the wars in which they served. Today, we highlight some of our materials on the Korean War. Sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War, the Korean War (1950-1953) is often called the “Forgotten War.”

TSLA has dozens of books and federal government documents about Korea and the Korean War. These include books like the unique Pictorial Korea: 1951-1952, published by the International Publicity League of Korea in 1953, and the more recent Understanding the Korean War: the Participants, Tactics and the Course of Conflict (2013), by Arthur Mitchell. Among government documents, we have a variety of selections, including the Pocket Guide to Korea, published by the Department of Defense's Office of Information for the Armed Forces, as a guidebook for U.S. soldiers.

TSLA is actively seeking more information about the experience of Tennesseans in the Korean War. Tennessee Remembers: Korean Veterans is a project designed to help veterans of the Korean War preserve their history by collecting original documents, stories, and memorabilia related to their in-country experiences during the war. We invite you to share your experience:

For a more comprehensive account of our holdings, including related manuscript collections, please see this online guide, Korean War Resources at TSLA: We also invite you to visit the Korean War page of our online exhibit, The Volunteer State Goes to War: A Salute to Tennessee Veterans: and hope you will explore the entire exhibit.

Additional resources about and for veterans

Military Records at TSLA

TSLA Resource Guides

Other Projects

If you have questions about our government document holdings, please visit or For more information about any of these resources, please contact our reference staff at

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Wills Research Fellow Melissa Gismondi reflects upon "Rachel Jackson and American Femininity"

Melissa Gismondi is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia, specializing in colonial and early North American social and cultural history. Her dissertation, "The Character of a Wife: Gender, Power, and Prestige in Rachel Jackson’s Early America, 1760s-1820s" uses the life and constructed image of Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, to analyze gender and class formation on the frontier in the early republican and Jacksonian eras.

Gismondi recently visited the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA), and spoke with us in August about her research. She conducted research of our collections through the Wills Research Fellowship awarded on an annual basis by the Tennessee Historical Society. The purpose of the fellowship is to promote the interpretation of Tennessee history and the scholarly use of the Society's collections. The fellowship is provided through the Society's Jesse E. Wills Memorial Fund. The collections of the Society are especially strong in the frontier, Jacksonian, antebellum, and Civil War eras.

Q: Describe your research project for us.

MG: My project uses the life and experiences of Rachel Jackson and her extended kin in the Donelson and Jackson families to consider how gender shaped elite and class formation on the southeastern frontier (modern-day Tennessee and Kentucky) during the early republican period of the 1760s-1820s. Because of the very large shadow that the Civil War casts over American history, I think we often envision early America as divided into northern and southern districts. But my project reveals a deep division in the early republican-era between the regions east and west of the Appalachians. My project shows how ideas about gender—or social and cultural ideas on how men and women ought to behave—determined class formation among Tennessee families like the Jacksons, who occupied considerable influence in the early republican period. Through their wealth, and attempts to refashion themselves as social elites, I show how Rachel and her extended family achieved political and cultural influence in the early republican period, despite the fact that eastern elites harbored prejudice against westerners as morally incapable to lead the new nation.

Q: What initially interested you in this topic?

MG: The southeastern frontier always fascinated me because the two phenomenon that I think defined early America—the extension of African slavery and relations with Native Americans—converged in this region. As an undergraduate, I learned more about early Tennessee and knew I wanted to explore the period in greater depth. I became interested in Rachel Jackson because I always felt that historians seemed to treat her as an aside to Jackson. While my project explores Jackson in considerable depth, I do so because I think that the best way to look at gender includes considering masculinity and femininity together, since early Americans often defined one against the other. I hope that my project will flesh Rachel out as a real historical character and actor. But I also hope that by focusing on her life and experiences I can shed light on broader issues prevalent during the period, which touched the lives of many early Americans including slaveholding, kinship with Native Americans, marriage and divorce, evangelicalism, and the Jacksonian period’s rigid gender ideals.

Q: What collections have you examined at the Tennessee State Library and Archives?

MG: My current research for my project is very much rooted in traditional social history methods, so I spent a long time going through Davidson County wills and county court records from the earliest period of settlement through the 1820s. With these, I tallied the division of property based on gender. I conducted a similar survey on an earlier visit that traced patterns in early Tennessee divorces. This research reflects my larger goal: putting Rachel’s life in a broader context to consider how her life reflected or diverged from other Tennesseans. Every time I visit the TSLA, I also spend a lot of time going through Tennessee’s earliest newspapers to capture cultural attitudes towards whatever topic I’m working at that moment. For this, the TSLA’s newspaper database for Nashville newspapers after 1815 is always tremendously useful.

Portrait of Rachel Jackson (1767-1828) reading "Mrs. Rachel Jackson, late Consort to Andrew Jackson, President of the U. States."
Library Collection. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Q: Have you found any surprises during your research here?

MG: I learned that much to my surprise—and other historians who I subsequently spoke with—Rachel’s oldest brother, Alexander, who never married or had children, sternly ordered that all his slaves—expect for one—be freed upon his death. He even provided instructions in his will for their transportation out of the state to be freed in another state if Tennessee outlawed manumission. I have no idea why he refused to free one slave but found his entire will fascinating and evidence there emerged radically different ideas about slavery within the Donelson family. I also uncovered very interesting research about public representations of Rachel following her death.

Q: What conclusions have you drawn from your research?

MG: So far I have been surprised to learn that early Tennessee families—such as the Donelsons and Jacksons—often adopted flexible attitudes to gender roles to attain or maintain elite status. While cultural expectations undoubtedly influenced how men and women should behave, I find that the frontier produced conditions which made the perpetuation of eastern-rooted gender ideals almost impossible. Often, non-white actors, especially the neighboring Creek and Cherokee, influenced these conditions and restricted the options available to Tennesseans who wanted to portray themselves as elite men or women, rather than frontier folk.

Q: Where else are you conducting dissertation research?

MG: Currently, I’m researching locally in Virginia, where Rachel’s family originated from. In the past, I have done research as a fellow at the Kentucky Historical Society, and I will also research this year as a fellow at the Filson Historical Society. I will undoubtedly return to Nashville many times to research at the Metro Archives and TSLA again. I will also research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and the American Antiquarian Society (for the later portions of my project which consider the 1820s), as well as at the North Carolina State Archives and the Southern Historical Collections at UNC Chapel Hill, since Tennessee was under North Carolinian jurisdiction until it became a federal territory in 1790.

Q: What first sparked your interest in early American cultural history?

MG: I grew up in Canada, so my exposure to American cultural history was somewhat limited until I went to college. In my first year as an undergraduate, we read about the role of the frontier in defining ideas about America and American identity. From there, I became fascinated by how early Americans perceived themselves in relation to other groups: for instance, how women defined themselves in relation to men, how the Puritans defined themselves in relation to the Wampanoag and other Native American tribes that they interacted with in the seventeenth-century, or how early nineteenth-century Tennesseans saw themselves in relation to their slaves. People manifest ideas about themselves through their culture and popular culture remains, I think, one of the best ways to understand a particular time period.

Q: How has your research at TSLA influenced your scholarship?

MG: Since my project is so rooted in Tennessee and Nashville history, the TSLA and its collections are an invaluable component to my project. But the collections are only one part of the TSLA and every time I return to the TSLA, I’m always so grateful for the conversations I have with the staff and other researchers. In this way, the TSLA and THS feels like a very supportive community of scholars, archivists and librarians who make my project and research infinitely better.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Tennessee State Library and Archives Releases a New Digital Collection Showcasing Tennessee Folklife

What do roley hole marbles, white oak baskets, shape-note singing, and banjoes have in common? All are examples of Tennessee folk culture or "folkways" available online in the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ newest digital collection: "Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project Collection, 1979-1984." The collection documents folk culture unique to Tennessee and highlights Tennessee's significant contributions to national studies of folklife.

Joseph Ernest Dyer, Henderson County resident and fiddle maker, is pictured with a fiddle he made as he discusses the techniques used in fiddle making and woodcraft. Dyer provides guitar performances of old time, blues, country, and religious music.
The Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project. Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA). Tennessee State Library and Archives.

In the late 1970s, Bobby Fulcher of the Tennessee Division of Parks and Recreation began a concerted effort to document and preserve Tennessee's diverse folk culture. The Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project was designed to contact and record interviews with local musicians, craftsmen, and storytellers in communities around six state parks; present programs in the parks using those local people; document on film and audio tape the folk art and folklore of the area; and organize and present annual community folk arts festivals within state parks. Folklorists Jay Orr, Elaine Lawless, and Raymond Allen all made significant contributions to the project.

This project produced more than 500 hours of audio tape, 9600 slides, and 2,200 black and white negatives, including duplicates of scores of historic photographs which had been cached for years by their owners. The recordings, held originally on reel-to-reel and cassettes and the accompanying photographs include material on traditional quilting, burial customs, storytelling, blacksmithing, herbal medicine, fishing, logging, farming techniques, and music. Nationally recognized ballad singers Dee and Delta Hicks and Joe, Ethel, and Creed Birchfield (founding members of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers) are just a few of the musical artists featured in the collection.

Several years ago, the Tennessee State Library and Archives initiated a project to digitize selections of the audio recordings and photographs from the collection in order to improve public access. The recordings and images found in this collection represent just a sample of the rich material yet to be discovered. The digitization project is ongoing, and TSLA will add items as they become available. The collection may be found at

TSLA Conservator Carol Roberts will give a presentation on the collection in the TSLA auditorium, located at 403 7th Avenue North in downtown Nashville, from noon to 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12. The program is free and open to the public.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

TSLA Premieres Video on State Senator Douglas Henry, Tennessee's Longest-Serving Legislator

He's been called a statesman, a fiscal expert and a champion of the less fortunate. Now State Senator Douglas Henry's life has been chronicled in a new documentary produced by the Tennessee State Library and Archives. The video, which has a running time of just under 30 minutes, is narrated by former Gov. Winfield Dunn. It covers some of the highlights of Henry's career and includes remarks from people who worked with him through the years. Read more here:

The video is available at

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Celebrate “Movember” in November

Movember is the annual charity event which invites men to grow mustaches for 30 days to change the face of men’s health.

Over the years, men have used facial hair (or lack thereof) as a means of self-expression and to craft a distinct masculine appearance. From Ambrose Burnside’s famous sideburns to Wyatt Earp’s handlebar moustache, the styles of facial hair have varied greatly throughout the decades, and were as complex and changing as any fashion trend in history.

This carte-de-visite features Zina B. Chatfield, an officer in Co. A 4th Minn. Infantry Regiment. Chatfield was born December 3, 1828, and died in August, 1923. This carte-de-visite, taken in 1861 by photographer N.H. Black, shows Chatfield’s pointed mustache and beard. Facial hair became fashionable during the Civil War, and soldiers often imitated their commanding officers by growing facial hair in similar ways. This trend was not exclusive to the soldiers, however. Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the American Civil War sported a long thick beard with no mustache. Many people may believe that soldiers grew beards out of lack of resources or time, while in fact many of the facial hair designs required meticulous grooming and upkeep.

Henry Connor McLaughlin was a Major in the Confederate States Army. Here he is dressed in Confederate uniform, with a frown-like mustache with soul patch combination. He has one hand tucked into the front of his coat, referred to as the “hand-in waistcoat” gesture, commonly found in men’s portraiture’s during the Civil War, gaining popularity with Napoleon I of France, though the pose possibly originated in ancient Greece.

On our Facebook page, TSLA is highlighting facial hair of note during the month of November every Monday for "Movember Mondays" where you can find particularly impressive mustaches and beards. We hope you’ll take this opportunity to visit our Facebook page each Monday for a new Movember update.

Are you growing your facial hair this month? Get some inspiration for your own facial hair from TSLA’s Digital Collections!

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Haints and Witches and Legends...Oh my! Tennessee Folklife Myths and Legends

Tennessee has a long history of ghost tales, odd happenings and legendary individuals with larger than life personas. Perhaps our most well-known haint is the Bell Witch as her story has been called “America’s greatest ghost story.”

Dean confronts the Witch, An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era (1894) by M. V. Ingram, Library Collection.

In the early 19th Century, a spirit allegedly haunted the family of John Bell in Robertson County, Tennessee. In the first reported appearance of the witch, John Bell fired a shot at a “dog-like” creature which then vanished. Soon after, John’s children, Drewry and Elizabeth (Betsy), believed they saw other strange creatures around their home. These sightings were accompanied by strange sounds around the house. Betsy, Drewry and John began hearing unexplained knocks on the door and windows, and the sound of wings flapping against the ceilings and rats gnawing on bedposts. More disturbingly, the family claimed they could hear the echoes of choking and strangling along with a noise that sounded like chains dragging the ground and heavy objects hitting the floor. Sounds emanated from a bedroom as if “beds were suddenly and roughly pulled apart, to which was added the sounds of fighting dogs chained together, making the noise deafening.” The spirit reportedly increased its activity, physically abusing members of the family by striking, and pinching them and pulling their hair. Betsy seemed to be the most susceptible to the torture.

Elizabeth "Betsy" Bell, An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era (1894) by M. V. Ingram, Library Collection.

The Bell Witch focused relentlessly on causing the death of John Bell, Sr., and blasted “Old Jack Bell” with curses, heinous threats, and serious physical torments. As the abuse continued to impact his psyche, Bell took to his bed. On December 19, 1820, John Bell failed to leave his bed and his son, John Jr., went to the cupboard to retrieve the medicine for his care. Instead of the three medicine vials, he found only one. The vial was one-third full of a dark, smoky liquid of unknown origin. The voice of the Witch reportedly gloated, “It’s useless for you to try to relieve Old Jack – I have got him this time; he will never get up from that bed again!” The spirit claimed that she “gave Old Jack a big dose of it last night while he was fast asleep, which fixed him.” The contents of the vial were thrown into the fire and erupted into a blue blaze. John Bell died December 20, 1820. To add insult to injury, the Bell Witch crashed the funeral, disrupted the service and sang bawdy drinking songs. Following the death of John Bell, the Witch’s activity dropped off sharply. 

The Grave of John Bell, An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era (1894) by M. V. Ingram. Library Collection.

The Bell Witch may be the most famous ghost from Tennessee but she was certainly not the only apparition said to have haunted the state. Visitors to the Meriwether Lewis National Monument claim to have encountered strange sightings that some believe to be Lewis’ ghost. Others say that the cemetery at Carnton Plantation (Franklin), the site of the “five bloodiest hours” in the Civil War, is haunted as is Cherry Mansion (Savannah), The Eakin House (Shelbyville), Read House Hotel (Chattanooga), The Orpheum (Memphis), The Hermitage, Belmont and Belle Meade Mansions (Nashville). The list of Tennessee locations associated with ghost sightings appears to be endless.

In a 1979 oral history interview with Elaine Lawless for the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project [], famed Macon County banjo player Cayce Russell recounted several ghost stories and witch tales. Russell discussed the old folk belief that sudden unknown illnesses could be the result of witchcraft. He further said that when someone had something wrong with them and believed a witch had “laid a spell on them,” they drew a picture on a large cedar tree in his grandfather’s yard, melted a silver dime, made a bullet out of it, and shot the picture in order to lift the spell.

Cayce Russell, June 19, 1979, Tennessee State Parks Folklife Collection.

Russell described Lick Branch Holler as “the most hainted place around” and told several ghost stories native to that area including Macon County’s own version of the headless horseman. “The man with no head on” was often seen in the holler on the Underwood Road. He was reported to be the spirit of a man killed by beheading during the Civil War. The audio files of this interview are some of many featured on the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ Folklife Collection in TeVA (Tennessee Virtual Archive). []

Reports of strange events of nature are also prevalent in Tennessee. On November 12 and 13, 1833, the Leonid meteor shower displayed a dazzling scene in the sky most visible in the deep South, particularly in Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. Many people, having witnessed nothing so sensational before, believed the sky was falling and dubbed the night of November 12 as “the night the stars fell.” Since that time, numerous songs, books, poems and artworks were produced to commemorate the event. The song, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” has become an anthem to Southerners and, in 2002, the state of Alabama added the slogan to its license plates.

Shooting Star Quilt, undated, Quilts of Tennessee Collection.

On August 17, 1841, a rain of blood was reported on a tobacco farm near Lebanon, Wilson County, Tennessee. On August 24th, Walter B. Morris wrote a letter to his brother, Easton Morris, commenting that by the time his letter reached his brother, his brother would have already received notice “of the falling of flesh & blood as a shower of rain.” Morris recalled that he and a Dr. Edwards visited the place where the rain of blood occurred. While they were there, they met Dr. Gerard Troost, the state geologist, who arrived on the scene to write an article for the American Journal of Science. In his evaluation, Troost theorized that a tornado like wind “might have taken up part of an animal which was in a state of decomposition, and have brought it in contact with an electric cloud.” Under the heading “Rain of Blood,” a diary-like entry from a scrapbook kept by William F. Cooper stated that, if this had happened four hundred years ago, “such an occurrence would have struck terror into the hearts of whole nations.”

"Rain of Blood" Diary Entry, September 5, 1841, Cooper Family Papers, pages 80 and 81 from a "scrapbook" kept by William F. Cooper. The pages describe the rain of blood that reportedly occurred on a tobacco farm near Lebanon, Tennessee, on August 17, 1841.

While the rain of blood later proved to be a hoax, other legends were not so easily refuted. The Cherokee legend of U’tlun’ta or Spear-finger, for example, was described as having the appearance of an old woman, but possessing stone-covered skin. She had a long stony finger that resembled a spearhead. U’tlun’ta was best known for her ravenous appetite for livers, which she took from any person unfortunate enough to cross her. According to legend, U’tlun’ta often changed her appearance to resemble a family member or coaxed children to come near and then used her finger to slice out their livers.

U'tlun'ta - Spear Finger, 2009, Original artwork by James Castro.

Other amazing stories in Tennessee relate to animals and wildlife. For years, divers in the Tennessee River have told stories about seeing catfish big enough to swallow a man whole. The stories have gained so much public appeal that has devoted a section on its website about them. [] Several images in the vast collections at the Tennessee State Library and Archives lend support these amazing fish tales.

Tom Woods with a giant catfish, August 18, 1939, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection.

For more information about the stories in this blog post as well as other spooky accounts, visit the Tennessee State Library and Archives or check out the Tennessee Myth and Legends exhibit on TSLA’s website:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tennessee Archives Month “Accidentally on Purpose”

By proclamation of Gov. Bill Haslam, October is Tennessee Archives Month. The proclamation honors the work of archivists and highlights the importance of archives across the state, noting that "through these archives, future generations of Tennesseans can more accurately study the past, learn from the accomplishments of their predecessors, trace their ancestors, understand their community's pride of place, confirm property rights, and maintain laws, while celebrating the history of our State."

Joining the Society of American Archivists and a number of state archivists’ associations, the Society of Tennessee Archivists also celebrates this event. In 2014, the society chose “Accidentally on Purpose: Acquisition, Care, & Promotion of Unusual or Specialized Collections” as the theme for this year’s observance of Tennessee Archives Month, focusing on the unique and unusual items held in collections found in archives.

At the Tennessee State Library and Archives, our holdings contain a number of unusual items. This photograph from the State Librarian and Archivist Papers chronicles two rather interesting discoveries. In the photograph, Tennessee’s first state archaeologist and “Keeper of the Archives and Museum,” P. E. Cox, gazes upon two skulls in an image used in this year’s Tennessee Archives Month poster promoting Tennessee Archives Month. Archivists at TSLA have surmised that Cox likely uncovered these two skulls while on an archaeological expedition at Mound Bottom, a prehistoric Native American complex in Cheatham County.

Of course, there are many other “unique” and “unusual” items and photographs in our collection, so we encourage you to take advantage of Tennessee Archives Month to come by TSLA to view these items yourself.

The State Library and Archives is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, just west of the State Capitol building in downtown Nashville, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., with the exception of state holidays. Parking is available in front, behind and beside the building.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Friday, September 26, 2014

On this day in history: Acts of the Southwest Territory

220 years ago, on September 27, 1794, as part of the "Acts of the Southwest Territory," Territorial Governor William Blount and Secretary David Wilson signed this six-page, unnumbered handwritten document creating a lottery to pay for a wagon road from the Southwest Point to the settlements on the Cumberland River in the Mero District. Entitled, "An Act to Cut and Clear a Waggon Road to the Settlements on the Cumberland River in the Mero District," this document is one of many featured on the Tennessee State Library and Archives Tennessee Founding Documents page on the Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) website.

"An Act to Cut and Clear a Waggon Road to the Settlements on the Cumberland River in the Mero District."
Tennessee General Assembly. Acts, Public and Private, 1790-[ongoing]
Tennessee State Library and Archives, Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA).

On May 26, 1790, President George Washington signed into law an act of Congress passed earlier in the month that established the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio (Southwest Territory). Embracing the western lands ceded by the state of North Carolina on December 22, 1789, the new territory was to be governed under the terms of the Ordinance of 1787, which created its predecessor, the Northwest Territory.

President Washington appointed North Carolina businessman, William Blount as territorial governor. Blount, a land speculator, had already claimed title to approximately one million acres of the land inside its boundaries. Blount was also given a second responsibility as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Southern Department, an office that placed him in contact with the neighboring Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Creek Nations. Relations with the latter two were so difficult that Blount had to devote more time to Indian matters than to the office of governor.

Portrait of William Blount (1749-1800). Governor of the Territory South of the River Ohio, 1790-1796; U.S. Senator from Tennessee.
Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The extent of the new territory was well defined. Containing about 43,000 square miles of land, it was restricted to North Carolina’s western district bounded on the north by the boundary of North Carolina and Virginia; on the west by a line in the middle of the Mississippi River, on the south by the parallel 35 degrees north and on the east by a jagged line running from the northeast to southwest connecting some dominant mountain peaks. It was this territory that in 1796 would become the state of Tennessee.

The act ordering a wagon road to the settlements in the Mero District was one of the varied acts passed by the territorial assembly. Responding weakly to the governor’s request for assistance to pay for “the cutting and clearing” of the wagon road after the failure of a lottery for that purpose, the assembly diverted all monies that might be collected from the sale of public lands in Mero District to the use of the road commissioners. It is interesting to note that the land used for the road was coerced from the Cherokees thus causing a series of Creek and Cherokee incursions into the district.

For a more detailed account of the history behind this document and the Acts of the Southwest Territory, visit our "Introductory Material" page associated with this act. You may also view more pages of this historically significant document on the TeVA website. TeVA's Tennessee Founding Documents website features other important records, from King George’s Proclamation of 1763 to the earliest purchase of land from Native Americans to the first Constitutions of the State of Tennessee. Visit the TeVA website for access to these and other images from our vast collection.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

State Library and Archives' Next Workshop: "Creating Order in the Midst of Chaos: Union Provost Marshal Records"

The Civil War was a chaotic time in our nation's history when normal societal rules didn't always apply. Soldiers and civilians alike sometimes took advantage of the uncertainty around them by breaking laws and upsetting the social order. In the territories held by the Union army, provost marshals served as a check against such activities. The provost marshals, who functioned as military police during the Civil War, also kept records of their work that can be valuable resources for historians who want to know more about what life was like during that turbulent era.

"Applying for passes at the Office of the Provost Marshal at St. Louis - Sketched by Mr. Alexander Simplot"
Tennessee State Library and Archives Collection

On Oct. 25, the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) will host a free workshop to help people understand what types of records the provost marshals kept and how to access them. The records deal with prisoners, deserters, Confederate spies, disloyal civilians, soldiers accused of civilian crimes, and civilians violating military law. They include documents such as oaths of allegiance, orders, passes, and paroles. Many of these records can be found on a searchable database on TSLA's website - and TSLA also has a collection of microfilmed and original holdings.

Darla Brock, who was worked at TSLA for 14 years as a manuscripts archivist, will lead the workshop.

The workshop will be held from 9:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. Oct. 25 in TSLA's auditorium. TSLA's building is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, just west of the State Capitol building in downtown Nashville. Free parking is available around the building.

Although the event is free and open to the public, reservations are required due to limited seating in the auditorium. To register, call (615) 741-2764 or e-mail

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Monday, September 22, 2014

New TSLA Exhibit Explores the Civil War in Tennessee in 1864

1864 would prove to be the decisive year of the American Civil War. Despite Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga the previous year, Northern citizens were growing war-weary. The mounting lists of dead and wounded made many wonder if the South should finally be allowed its independence.

Geographically situated between the Midwestern states and the Deep South, Tennessee was to be the major battleground in the Western Theater. The Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers, combined with numerous rail lines which crossed the state, made Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville of strategic importance to both Union and Confederate forces.

Brothers Cpl. Jesse Mercer Pirkle and 1st Sgt. Elijah Jefferson Pirkle served in Co. G, 3rd Tenn. Cav., USA. They walked from Cleveland, Tennessee to Nashville to muster in the Federal army. In September 1864, Elijah was shot near Florence, Alabama and spent the rest of the war in the hospital. Jesse was captured at Sulphur Trestle, Alabama, imprisoned at Andersonville, and survived the war.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee, Tennessee State Library and Archives

A new exhibit, with 16 panels full of images and information on this fascinating period in our history, opened last Monday at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. It explores the role Tennessee played as a transportation and supply hub, the experiences and contributions of African-Americans, and key battles at Johnsonville, Memphis, Fort Pillow, Spring Hill, Columbia, Franklin and Nashville.

The exhibit also highlights historical records that are valuable genealogy resources such as army muster rolls, Civil War Service records, the Southern Claims Commission Records, Colored Pension Applications, the Union Provost Marshal Records, cemetery records and TSLA's manuscript collections.

Louis Napoleon Nelson, the last black Confederate veteran in Lauderdale County, is pictured in uniform with two other members of the United Confederate Veterans. According to his Colored Man's Application for Pension, Nelson served in Company M, 7th Tennessee Cavalry. He accompanied his master, Colonel E.R. Oldham, as a cook and acted as a regimental servant. Slaves in Confederate service were not allowed to bear arms, and most were body servants and cooks. The Tennessee legislature passed an act on April 9, 1921, providing pensions of $10 per month for "those colored men who served as servants and cooks in the Confederate Army in the War Between the States." This act did not provide benefits for their widows. On Nelson's pension application, Oldham swore "the applicant's habits are good and free of dishonor."
Record Group 3, Board of Pension Examiners Records, and Looking Back at Tennessee Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives

Visitors to the Tennessee State Library and Archives are invited to come explore the role Tennessee played in the Civil War in 1864. The exhibit will remain open until mid-December.

The State Library and Archives is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, just west of the State Capitol building in downtown Nashville. The exhibit, free and open to all visitors, is located in the building's lobby directly behind the main entrance.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., with the exception of state holidays. Parking is available in front, behind and beside the building.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Celebrating the history of the Tennessee State Fair

Advertisement for the 1916 Tennessee State Fair. Governor Tom C. Rye Papers, TSLA.

Since October of 1855, Tennesseans have enjoyed the artistry and amusements of a state fair. The first state fair opened on October 1, 1855 at the Walnut Race Course, near Nashville. In a resolution recorded on October 3, 1855 in the Tennessee House Journal of the 31st General Assembly, state representatives approved a motion to adjourn, "that the members might have an opportunity to attend the State Fair." The fair was so well-received that in the following year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed an act appointing a committee to purchase 35 acres for a Tennessee State Fair Grounds located near the present site of the Trevecca Nazarene University.

Horse racing was a popular activity in the early years of the state fair. In this undated photo, a rider poses on a harness racing rig in front of the grandstand at the Nashville Fairgrounds.
Calvert Glass plate #81, TSLA.

Farming has always been an important industry in Tennessee, and agriculture played an important role in the state fair's history. On September 11, 1860, Alexander Jackson wrote a letter to his wife detailing his time as a stock judge at the state fair. "You should have seen me stepping around surveying with critical eye the points of some 8 noble animals," Jackson wrote, "feeling their skins & ribs, measuring with tape line their length, girth & breadth of hips, & then casting my ballot." Jackson continued, reporting that the bull who took the $500 premium that year belonged to a Mr. Alexander of Kentucky, "the celebrated Scotch stockbreeder & importer of the finest stock of the Union."

Albert Noe Farms display of Hereford cattle at the Tennessee State Fair. September 20, 1946.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection, TSLA.

A man drives an open automobile on the racetrack at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. A portion of the grandstands is visible in the image, as well as a large house that may have been the Women's Building. Circa 1907.
Library Photograph Collection, TSLA.

From the late-1870s to the early-1880s, the state fair’s popularity waned until 1906, when the fair established roots at its current location. The 1906 fair opened on October 8 with special celebrations each day. Fair organizers observed "Children's Day" on Monday and all kids under the age of 15 were given free admission. Tuesday was "Fraternal Day" and members of fraternal organizations were invited to attend. "Confederate Day" commenced on Wednesday when the "boys in gray" from the Confederate Soldiers’ Home were feted. Thursday was "Home Seekers' Day" and catered to out of state individuals who might consider moving to Tennessee. Officials designated Friday as "County Fair Day" when the officers and directors of various county fairs attended as honored guests. The fair concluded on Saturday when students from colleges and universities from throughout the state attended on the fair's designated "College Day." An article published in the November 1906 edition of Trotwood's Monthly brilliantly described the fair's closing ceremony:

"Saturday night came. The evening shades were followed by the brilliancy of the electric lights in the arena, and the buildings; Bellstedt and his band gave one of the best programs of the week; the Horse Show was a picture of activity and beauty; this over, the crowds flocked to “Laughing Lane,” visited the attractions and promenaded along the busy avenues, bidding farewell to the sights and scenes that had delighted visitors for six eventful days; the city bells sounded the hour of midnight, and the State Fair of 1906 was at an end."

Tennessee's Home Food Supply for Victory campaign: Home Food Supply Exhibit at the Tennessee State Fair from the Woodrow community of Maury County.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection, TSLA.

While the Tennessee State Fair focused mainly on agriculture, other exciting exhibitions and give-a-ways played an important part in the celebration as well. The September 12, 1917, edition of the Nashville Tennessean published an advertisement to “Buy an Admission Key to the State Fair and Get a Chance on a Dodge Automobile.” Readers could purchase their admission key from the “Red Cross girls” because “They want you to go to the Fair -- to see and to learn how to save, how to eliminate waste, how to preserve and how to increase the country’s food supply, and help to win the war.” For the price of one half dollar, fairgoers could purchase a ticket granting admission into the fair and along with it the chance to win a car.

Ticket to the 1917 Tennessee State Fair with
a chance to win a new Dodge automobile.
Governor Tom C. Rye Papers, TSLA
Not everyone in the state approved of this marketing strategy -- as evidenced by letters written to Gov. Tom Rye in protest. One letter, written by Noah W. Cooper, cited the Tennessee State Constitution (“the Legislature shall have no power to authorize lotteries for any purpose and shall pass laws to prohibit the sale of lottery tickets in this State”) as well as an 1873 Supreme Court case, Frances vs. the State (“The sale of a ticket in any scheme to be drawn in this or any other State is unlawful”), as a rationale for discontinuing the promotion.

The fair was not always filled with fun and frivolity, and has seen its fair share of tragedy. On September 20, 1965, around 10:30 pm, a fire broke out at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds during the opening night festivities. Flames consumed the 4-H Building, Women's Building, Merchant’s Building, Administration Building, several restaurants, and the grandstand at the racetrack. While no one was killed, 18 people were injured and officials estimated the property damage to be over $10 million. Since the Women’s and Merchant’s Buildings housed exhibits, various pieces of art, antiques, crafts, and merchandise were lost as well. An investigation revealed that faulty wiring in the Women’s Building caused the catastrophic blaze. In spite of the misfortune of the fire, the Tennessee State Fair continued on and lives on to this day.

“It is the bounty of Nature that we live; but of Philosophy that we live well.” Thus sayeth the cover of Things Good and Wholesome, a recipe book, “respectfully dedicated to the women of Tennessee,” published for the 1906 Tennessee State Fair. This year’s fair will returns to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds on September 5-14 embracing the theme, "Let the Good Times Grow." The theme celebrates the growth the fair has experienced in recent years and the hope of an even brighter future.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.