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.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Long-Lost Civil War Diary Returns to Tennessee

In case you missed the news, here's our recent press release about an important addition to the Tennessee State Library and Archives...

The long-lost diary of a prominent Nashvillian has been returned to Tennessee by a California woman. Andrea Shearn, a retired science teacher, found the diary while helping her parents move into an assisted living facility.

Shearn found the diary in a wooden box on a closet shelf in Cincinnati, where her grandmother had evidently put it in 1963. Neither Shearn nor her parents realized it was there.

Examining the diary, Shearn learned that it had belonged to R.M. McGavock, a Confederate officer with beautiful handwriting. Under McGavock’s name was written: “Captured at Ft. Henry Stewart Co. Middle Tennessee Feb 6th 1862 by Capt. M Wemple Co H 4th Ill Vol Cav Presented to Ms. Lue Wemple.”

Andrea Shearn and State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill hold the long-lost Civil War diary of R.M. McGavock.

Delving into her own genealogy, Shearn discovered that Capt. Myndert Wemple of Illinois was her ancestor. He evidently found the diary after McGavock and his troops evacuated Fort Henry in a battle that was a disaster for the Confederates. Wemple’s descendants preserved the diary and handed it down through the family for the next 100 years, until it disappeared into that closet in Cincinnati.

Shearn transcribed the diary, becoming ever more interested in the writer and his experiences. She was surprised to learn that Randal McGavock was a Harvard-educated lawyer who was elected mayor of Nashville at the age of 32. He was a lieutenant colonel of the 10th Tennessee Regiment of the Confederate Army.

Shearn got in touch with State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill.

“This nice lady from California called and said, ‘I wonder if anyone in Tennessee would be interested in this diary,’" Sherrill recalls. "When she told me it was Randal McGavock’s diary, my first thought was to fly to California and get it before it disappeared again.”

Sherrill and others at the State Library and Archives had long been aware of Randal McGavock and his diaries, as eight volumes of his diary have been housed at there since 1960.

“We had this great set of diaries, but the volume from the beginning of the Civil War was missing,” he said.

Shearn eventually flew to Nashville to visit Two Rivers Mansion, Carnton and other sites associated with Randal McGavock and his family. She and her husband brought the diary with them and generously donated it to the archives.

Secretary of State Tre Hargett said: “We are extremely grateful to Andrea Shearn for returning this diary to Tennessee. I know that scholars and McGavock descendants will enjoy the opportunity to read it and fill in the blanks in this soldier’s history.”

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

TSLA's Tennessee Board of Pension Examiners Records

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is excited to share information about the Tennessee Board of Pension Examiners Records, also known as Record Group 3. This valuable resource from the board responsible for issuing and administering Tennessee’s Confederate pensions contains clippings, obituaries, death dates, payment records, and family connections you might not have known about, plus much more. For the whole story, we invite you to join Archivist Darla Brock as she introduces you to Record Group 3.

Learn more at

TSLA - Tennessee Board of Pension Examiners Records from Tennessee Department of State on Vimeo.

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

Monday, August 4, 2014

TSLA and Ancestry join forces for the Tennessee Ancestry Library Event

The Tennessee State Library and Archives and are teaming up for a big genealogy event in Nashville. Beginning Sept. 16th, special lectures and research assistance are scheduled each day at the Library & Archives (TSLA). On Saturday, Sept. 20th, a full day of presentations designed to help family historians trace their roots will be held at the Sheraton Hotel Downtown. The event, known as TALE, is titled Tennessee Ancestry Library Event.

The presentations will include information about using “old fashioned” research in libraries and archives, as well as focusing on on-line resources. Among the topics to be covered are research in court records, using Family Search software to store your findings, and using DNA testing in genealogy.

State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill says, “TSLA and have a great partnership, and many Tennessee records are available free on Ancestry as a result. These events in September are designed to bring in people who mainly know genealogy as an online research experience. We want to help these folks know that the records online just scratch the surface. They can tell their family story much better by visiting the library and using original records that are not yet available online.”

One of the sessions on Saturday promises to be a special treat. Mark Lowe, a professional genealogist from Springfield, will tell the story of “The Tennessee girl who swallowed a snake: truth or fiction?” Lowe will explain how records from the archives helped reveal the facts behind a 19th-century Rutherford County tradition surrounding Thankful Taylor and the doctor who extracted a snake several feet long from her mouth.

Registration for the pre-conference events at TSLA can be completed online at Registration for the Saturday conference at the Sheraton is online at For more information, contact the Library and Archives at (615) 741-2764.

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Lowdown from the High Court: A Workshop on Tennessee Supreme Court Records Available at the State Library and Archives

Among the vast amount of information available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA), Tennessee Supreme Court records make up by far the largest single collection. With individual case files that sometimes include hundreds of pages and stretch over several generations, the entire collection takes up most of an entire floor of TSLA's building.

These records are packed full of valuable information for genealogists and other researchers. And during the next session of TSLA's free workshop series, State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill will provide tips on navigating through those files.

The workshop will be held from 9:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. August 23 in TSLA's building, which is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, directly west of the State Capitol building in downtown Nashville.

"Every county in the state has sent cases to the Supreme Court on appeal," Mr. Sherrill said. "In some cases, the local records have been lost or destroyed. That means the Supreme Court records are sometimes the only ones still available. The cases cover every aspect of life in old Tennessee, ranging from land disputes to horse stealing, and from moonshining to murder."

Mr. Sherrill has 30 years of experience as a librarian, archivist and genealogist, and has written more than 20 books on various historical topics. He has served as state librarian and archivist since 2010.

Although the workshop is free, reservations are required due to limited seating in TSLA's auditorium. To make a reservation, call (615) 741-2764 or e-mail Free parking is available in front, beside and behind the TSLA building.

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