Monday, June 27, 2016

Before It Was the Ryman

By Ed Byrne

Most ardent country music fans know the Ryman Auditorium as “the Mother Church of County Music.” Many of these same fans will know that the Ryman owes its name and its existence to Captain Thomas Ryman, owner of the largest fleet of riverboats to ply the Cumberland River after the Civil War.

The Union Gospel Tabernacle, later known as the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. The small house at left later (1905) became the home of Congregation Sherith Israel, also known as the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, ca. 1890.
Library Collection

Relatively fewer fans will know some curious facts about the early history of the famous edifice. Among them:

  • It wasn’t always “the Ryman”
  • It wasn’t ever a church
  • It actually began life as a tent

Captain Ryman first embraced the idea that eventually became the Ryman Auditorium in May, 1885 after hearing the famed evangelist Sam Jones preaching to a Nashville audience packed under a “gospel tent” at the corner of Summer Street (now Fifth Avenue) and Broadway. According to reports at the time, as many as 2,000 people had gathered to hear Jones preach. The crowd was simply too large for the tent, and hundreds of listeners had to stand outside.

Nashville’s city fathers had anticipated large crowds for revivals. In late March of 1885, a group of local ministers and “prominent laymen” met to discuss the need for “a large tent or tabernacle” to shelter interdenominational revivals. The attendees voted “to procure a tent with a seating capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 people, suitable for any union services that may be held hereafter.”

"Ladies meeting in Union Gospel Tabernacle, Nashville, conducted by Rev. Sam P. Jones." (1896)
Library Collection

A second meeting, reported on April 4, 1885, recommended that a “tabernacle, having dimensions of 100 x 150 feet be erected at a cost of $4,300.” A treasurer was appointed to solicit contributions from the public to defray expenses.

These meetings indicate that the idea of a revivals venue predated Ryman’s involvement. By the summer of 1885, however, Ryman had become Nashville’s leading proponent and fundraiser for the buidling, generally referred to as the “Union Gospel Tabernacle.”

Theodore Thomas Orchestra Benefit at Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892.
Library Collection

In February 1889, a group headed by Ryman applied for a charter to build the new structure “on the old Lanier place, on the east side of Summer Street, near Broad.” By February, 1892, the exterior of the structure was complete. The interior, while serviceable, still needed work. The balcony was yet to come.

In May, 1892, the new Tabernacle hosted its first event, a “May Music Festival” featuring a 62-piece orchestra. It may have been prophetic that the opening event was a secular music performance, but then a massive revival headed by Sam Jones followed in June.

Jones would appear repeatedly over the next several years in weeks-long revivals that would feature sessions reserved especially for women and for African-Americans. But secular programs also continued.

September 30, 1895 was the date of what may have been the most curious event in the Ryman’s history, “the great duologue drama Yankee Doodle and Dixie.” This drama consisted of two monologues spoken by its characters, Yankee Doodle and Dixie, celebrating -- with musical interludes -- the respective virtues of North and South. In what was probably the only production of this work ever given, the title characters were portrayed by the politician brothers “Alf” and “Bob” Taylor, protagonists of Tennessee’s 1886 “War of the Roses” gubernatorial campaign. About 4,000 people attended the production. The Nashville American review stated that all attendees judged it “a great show.”

Depiction of the campaign for governor between brothers Alf and Bob Taylor. Their campaign became known as the "War of the Roses."
THS Picture Collection

Despite such successes, the tabernacle struggled with debt. In the spring of 1901, the General Assembly voted to permit tabernacle companies to incorporate, and 50 “representative citizens of Nashville” applied for a charter to incorporate the Union Gospel Tabernacle. After forgiving a debt of $2,300 owed to him by the Tabernacle, Thomas Ryman was elected president of the new corporation.

By 1903, the tabernacle was eking out a small annual profit, primarily due to proceeds from the May Festival. The tension between the building’s religious and secular purposes was becoming more apparent, however. A Nashville American article reported a movement among the tabernacle’s trustees to change it name to “the Nashville Auditorium” in order to attract more secular events.

The proposed name change never materialized. When Thomas Ryman died on Christmas Eve, 1904, newspapers announced that his funeral would be held the next afternoon, Christmas Day, at the “Union Gospel Tabernacle,” with Sam Jones preaching the eulogy.

Thomas Green Ryman (1841-1904), the Cumberland River steamboat captain and philanthropist who gave money to build the Union Gospel Tabernacle, which later became the Ryman Auditorium.
Library Collection

In life Ryman had resisted numerous efforts to name the building in his honor. His death removed the only objection. In February, 1905, the Nashville American reported that at the next board meeting, the name of the institution would officially be changed from the “Union Gospel Tabernacle” to the “Ryman Auditorium.” More than 110 years later, this name endures for Ryman’s most famous legacy.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Students from Knoxville, Maryville, Watertown and Memphis Perform Well at National History Day

Six Tennessee students finished among the top ten in their categories at National History Day this month.

In all, 58 middle and high school students represented Tennessee in the competition, in which students prepare documentaries, exhibits, papers, performances and websites with historical themes. The overall theme of this year's contest was "Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History."

Students Deanna Upchurch, Hannah Robbins and Eli Harrison accept awards at National History Day 2016.

Tennessee's students, some working in groups and some working individually, submitted a total of 35 entries. The students earned the right to compete at National History Day by winning medals at the state contest, Tennessee History Day, which is organized by the Tennessee Historical Society and co-sponsored by the Tennessee Secretary of State's office and Humanities Tennessee.

Ten teachers accompanied the delegation to National History Day and participated in professional development opportunities.

The delegation began the week with a pizza party, followed by the opening ceremony. The students had the opportunity to meet with Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator Bob Corker and attend a private reception at the National Museum of American History. After all of the entries had been judged, National History Day culminated in the awards ceremony, when the six students from Knoxville, Maryville, Watertown and Memphis placed in the final top ten.

To see a list of the finalists and read more about the competition, please see this press release:

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

Monday, June 20, 2016

Wills Fellow Researching Project at Library & Archives This Week

A researcher from Duke University will be visiting the Tennessee State Library & Archives this week to study the migrations of African-American women along the Mississippi River corridor following the Civil War. Alisha J. Hines, a doctoral student at Duke, is working on the project as part of the Wills Research Fellowship program.

The Tennessee Historical Society sponsors the program to promote the study and interpretation of its collection of documents. The society provides an annual stipend that allows a researcher to study its collections, which are kept at the Library & Archives.

Applicants for the program typically include college professors, doctoral students as well as professional and amateur historians. The recipient of the stipend is selected based on the quality of the applicant's project and that person's research credentials.

“The Tennessee Historical Society Wills Fellows bring fresh insights into Tennessee's past, “ said Ann Toplovich, the society's executive director. “Since the fellowship program began in 2000, almost 200 applications have come from the Ivy League to California, Tennessee schools to Turkey and Great Britain. The society advances its mission to preserve Tennessee history by supporting these scholars.”

"We are very pleased to have Ms. Hines joining us as part of the Wills Research Fellowship program," Secretary of State Tre Hargett said. "I'm sure we'll be calling her 'Dr. Hines' in the not-too-distant future. I wish her the best of luck in her research and I am proud that the Library & Archives is able to keep these important records for the Tennessee Historical Society."

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

Friday, June 17, 2016

From the Tennessee Supreme Court Case Files: Pathkiller and Blair’s Ferry

Among the thousands of debt disputes, railroad damages, and estate settlement cases that we house in the Library & Archives Tennessee Supreme Court Records Collection, one particular case stands out. It involves a man known as Pathkiller, the last heredity chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Hereditary chiefs were those who inherited their titles and responsibilities according to the history and cultural values of their communities. A full-blooded native American, Pathkiller served as the Cherokees' leader from 1811 until his death in January of 1827. Pathkiller was among the Cherokee warriors who played a pivotal role at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, bringing an end to the Creek War in 1814.

This Supreme Court case centered around a land dispute between Pathkiller and James Blair of Loudon County. In 1819, Pathkiller took advantage of a provision in the Calhoun Treaty and claimed a reservation of 640 acres that included the area known as Blair’s Ferry. Blair’s Ferry was on the Tennessee River in Loudon County. James Blair had already occupied and developed the land and operated the ferry when Pathkiller staked his claim. Blair countersued against Pathkiller's claim in order to regain title to the land. Thus began a lengthy court battle that continued even after both of the principal parties died.

A drawing in the case file of the disputed 640 acres of land in Loudon County, Tennessee.

The original case began in 1821 in Roane County when Pathkiller took action against James Blair, ordering him off the land. Following that trial, the court awarded judgement in favor of Pathkiller, giving him full possesion of the disputed land. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted an appeal filed by Blair, however the higher court upheld the lower court’s decision.

Tennessee Supreme Court case file: Pathkiller’s lessee v. John Blair & James Johnston, 1835.

James Blair died in 1826 and Pathkiller died the following year. Upon their deaths, Blair’s sons John and Wily continued battling for the property rights against Pathkiller’s daughter, Sarah, and her husband, James T. Gardenhire. After years of litigation, the Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately decided in favor of the Blairs, claiming that Pathkiller’s sale of the land to the Gardenhires had made his reservation claim null and void. The parties ultimately reached a compromise, and the Gardenhires agreed that they would “remove and give up all of said 640 acres with the ferry, and to remove any tenants that may be in possession of any part of the said tract…”

A report by Hugh Lawson White on the case requested by the Tennessee General Assembly, 1829.

Blair’s Ferry Storehouse was erected shortly after the legal battle and still stands today in Loudon County.

A photograph of Blair’s Ferry Storehouse from The Loudon County Herald, March 1974.

The Tennessee Supreme Court Records Project holds many more fascinating cases just like this one. These records can be a valuable tool for understanding our state’s rich history.

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Flag Day tribute to Hetty McEwen

On this day, Americans celebrate a patriotic holiday, Flag Day. The history of Flag Day goes back to June 14, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress passed the nation’s first flag law, which resolved: “That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day. Congress later established National Flag Day in 1949.

Popular lore credits Betsy Ross with creating the first American flag in 1776, but scholars have found little direct historical evidence to support this story. In 1870, Ross’s grandson, William Canby, told her story publicly for the first time, relying upon family oral accounts to stitch together the legend of the Betsy Ross flag. In the years since, Canby’s version of events surrounding the creation of the American flag endured, coloring our nation’s history in hues of red, white, and blue for generations.

Throughout our nation’s history, Tennesseans have honored the flag, even in times of discord. During the Civil War, Nashville native Hetty McEwen fearlessly stood her ground in support of the flag. An opponent of secession, McEwen rebelliously flew an American flag from the roof of her Nashville home for all to see during Confederate rule of Tennessee. Family lore asserts that McEwen stitched together her own American flag, in much the same way as legend asserts that Betsy Ross sewed her flag.

Portrait of Hetty McEwen, published in The Nashville Banner.
Robert H. McEwen Papers.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

McEwan continued flying her flag despite threats and harassment from Confederate soldiers. In one recorded instance, her husband, Colonel Robert McEwen, received an anonymous letter threatening assassination unless he removed the “Stars and Stripes” from view. Confederate loyalists threatened to torch to his home, burning it and his family’s flag if he failed to remove it.

In a letter penned to Union General George H. Thomas on August 14, 1865, Hetty McEwen wrote: “Sir, I accept the flag of my country, as you intended it, as a compliment to myself but feel wholy (sic) unworthy of this distinction. As a woman I aspire to nothing greater than a fearful performance of my duty in the station in which God has placed me. Therefore please accept the thanks of a Patriot. Yours Respectfully, Mrs. Hetty McEwen”

Hetty McEwen's letter to Gen. George H. Thomas, August 14, 1865.
Robert H. McEwen Papers.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

Included in the collection of the Library & Archives’ Robert H. McEwen Papers, 1833-1915 are several newspaper clippings documenting Hetty McEwen’s story. In the years following the war, these records tell us that Hetty McEwen became a respected and honored figure for her refusal to back down. Her defiance also instilled pride in her descendants and admirers. A poem written by Lucy Hamilton Hooper, later published in The Nashville American, provides proof of the pride that Hetty McEwen’s cause inspired. The poem reads, in part:

O, Hetty McEwen! Hetty McEwen!
What were the angry rebels doing
That autumn day, in Nashville town?
They looked aloft with oath and frown,
And saw the Stars and Stripes wave high
Against the blue of the sunny sky;

Deep was the oath, and dark the frown.
And loud the shout of “Tear it down,”
For over Nashville far and wide,
Rebel banners the breeze defied,
Staining heaven with crimson bars;

She heard the hoarse and angry cry—
The blood of ’76 rose high.
Out flashed her eye, her cheek grew warm.
Up rose her aged, stately form;

From her window with steadfast brow,
She looked upon the crowd below.
Eyes all aflame with angry fire
Flashed on her with defiant ire,
And once more rose the angry call:
“Tear down that flag or the house shall fall!”

Never a single inch quailed she,
Her answer rang out firm and free:
“Under the roof where that flag now flies
Now my son on his death bed lies:
Born where that banner floated high,
‘Neath its folds he shall surely die.
Not for threats nor yet for suing
Shall it fall,” said Hetty McEwen.

"Hetty M'Ewen and Her Flag," published in the August 8, 1908 edition of the Nashville Banner.
Robert H. McEwen Papers.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

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

Monday, June 6, 2016

June is Audiobook Month

Libraries for the blind and physically handicapped across the country often promote the slogan, “There’s More Than One Way to Read a Book.” This is especially true in June -- when we celebrate Audiobook Month.

This annual observance, sponsored by The Audiobook Publishers' Association, helps to spread the word about audiobooks through as many channels and to as many people as possible. The Tennessee Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (TLBPH) has a huge collection of audiobooks, which are available to any Tennessean who has a physical disability which prevents them from reading standard print.

An image of an audiobook player.
Courtesy of the Tennessee Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

The narrators of audiobooks can often enhance the experience of reading a book. In fact, The New Yorker ran a piece by John Colapinto called “The Pleasures of Being Read To”, in which he says, about listening to the audio version of The Sun Also Rises, “after repeated, delighted listenings, it best accentuates the deadpan hilarity that is too little commented upon in Hemingway. I’d failed to understand, until I listened to Hurt’s performance, just how funny and touching the book is.” A patron of the TLBPH recently reported that he “got so much more out of” listening to TLBPH’s audio version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace than he did when he could read it in print.

If you know someone who can’t see well enough to read standard print; someone who might be able to see just fine, but cannot hold a book and/or turn pages, or who cannot tilt their head down to read; or someone who has a reading disability that prevents them from reading print, call the TLBPH, toll-free at (800) 342-3308 for an application for service.

TLBPH is a section of the Tennessee State Library & Archives, a division of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office. For more information, go to the library’s website at:

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

Friday, June 3, 2016

Lost Counties of Tennessee: James County

By Zachary Keith

The state of Tennessee is an ever-changing entity, evidenced by the creation and dissolution of counties. Throughout the state’s history, lawmakers renamed some counties, proposed many others that never formed, and created some that they later abolished. James County is the most recognized of these “lost counties” of Tennessee. Established in 1871, James County existed for 48 years until a referendum dissolved it in 1920. 

Excerpt of Agricultural and geological map of Tennessee taken from the 1877 publication “Tennessee: Its Agricultural and Mineral Wealth” by Joseph B. Killebrew, the first Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture. Click on the link to view the full map in TeVA:

Tennessee’s second state constitution of 1835 established guidelines for the creation of new counties in Tennessee. Following the enactment of a third state constitution in 1870, lawmakers made several changes affecting the procedure for establishing counties, including a reduction in the size threshold of each county, and an increase in the population threshold. The new regulations included:

  • New counties had to be at least 275 square miles.
  • Their populations had to be at least 700.
  • No part of a new county could be less than 11 miles from adjacent county seat, with exceptions.
  • Existing counties could not be reduced to less than 500 square miles, with exceptions.
  • Two-thirds of the qualified voters within the proposed area of a new county had to agree to its formation.

An Act to establish the county of James from parts of Hamilton and Bradley, 1871.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

Predominately white, rural, and poor, James County arose out of the political factionalism of the Reconstruction Era. In 1871, Representative Elbert A. James, a Democrat from Hamilton County, introduced legislation for the formation of the county, named in honor of his father, Rev. Jesse J. James. The elder James, a Methodist minister from Sullivan County, first moved to Chattanooga in the 1850s. Three days after Rep. James introduced his bill, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the act creating James County on Jan. 30, 1871. Lawmakers chose Ooltewah as the county seat, and subsequently citizens began work on building a county courthouse. Following 19 years of meager existence, state lawmakers passed an act on March 11, 1890 abolishing the county and returning the land to the parent counties of Hamilton and Bradley. The legislation specifically mentioned the indebtedness of the county government as the reason for the return to the old boundaries.

An Act to abolish the county of James and restore the territory to the counties of Bradley and Hamilton, enacted March 11, 1890.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

The commissioners of James County, upset with the General Assembly’s actions, filed legal action against the abolition. In James County v. Hamilton County and Bradley County, they argued that the state legislature did not have the power to abolish a county without consent of the qualified voters of the county, and that the “radical legislation” should be overturned. The case made it to the Tennessee Supreme Court where Justice Peter Turney, future Governor of Tennessee, argued that Article X, Section 4 of the new (1870) State Constitution outlined that the “only authority conferred is to build up, and not pull down. It is equally apparent that it never occurred to the framers that a county could be destroyed or dissolved by an arbitrary Act of the Legislature.” He concludes with, “To abolish a county and give its territory to others, is to take from the one and add to the others without the consent of the people to be affected… The act is void.” Turney’s argument was that since the Tennessee Constitution of 1870 didn’t specifically outline the dissolution process for a county that the ultimate power resided with the citizens rather than the legislature.

James County v. Hamilton County and Bradley County, from the Tennessee State Supreme Court Records.

With the Supreme Court ruling, James County survived for another 29 years. However, low tax revenues and a crumbling education system forced the General Assembly to reconsider the county’s existence once more. On April 15, 1919, lawmakers passed an act abolishing James County, pending approval of its citizenry. The fate of James County rested with the voting populace, with a referendum determining the matter scheduled for Dec. 11, 1919.

An Act to abolish the county of James and restore the territory to the counties of Bradley and Hamilton, enacted April 15, 1919.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

The Chattanooga News article from December 10, 1919, the day before the annexation referendum.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

Chattanooga newspapers published the unofficial results of the voting on December 12, 1919. The Chattanooga News reported 941 votes in favor of abolition and 77 against. Three days later, local election commissioners reported the official results to the Tennessee Secretary of State, Ike Stevens, recording 953 votes for abolishment, and 78 against. In the final tally, “more than two-thirds of the qualified voters in James County voted in favor of the abolishment of the county.”

Letter reporting the official December 11th referendum results to the Tennessee Secretary of State, RG 87, Election Returns (State, County, & Local), 1796-present.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

With this vote, James County ceased to exist. After 48 years, the counties of Hamilton and Bradley absorbed James County and its government on January 5, 1920. The plight of James County, perhaps more than any other county in Tennessee, proved how important the formation of counties is to understanding Tennessee history. Marriage, birth, and death records from the period, as well as World War I records, all show James County, yet without knowing its history, researchers can become confused. Thankfully, some of James County’s records have survived various fires, and are presently kept by Hamilton County. The Tennessee State Library & Archives also holds the microfilm copies of James County records, available for use by scholars, genealogists, and researchers.

Photograph of the James County Courthouse in Ooltewah.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

Visit "Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives" online at to learn more.

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

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On Statehood Day, We Highlight Some of Our Oldest Tennessee Materials

On this date in 1796, Tennessee was admitted to the Union as the 16th state. For those who would like to know more about Tennessee's early history, pre- and post-statehood, documents from Washington County may be particularly helpful.

Washington County was the state's first county - and it actually existed as part of North Carolina prior to Tennessee's acceptance as a state. The Tennessee State Library & Archives holds many of Washington County's early documents, including land claims, tax assessments, will probates and road construction plans. Some of the paperwork even details acts of bribery. We also have a receipt issued when Andrew Jackson paid for his law license, pictured below...

The records from the Cumberland frontier are also very useful to researchers. These records include committee meetings of what was once called North Carolina's "Cumberland District." Among the people who attended one of those meetings included a man named Thomas Molloy, a surveyor who would later to draw the lines that formed the city limits of Nashville.

To read more about these historical resources available at the Library & Archives, visit:

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