Two East Tennessee “J” Towns

I currently reside in one of the newer small towns in East Tennessee.  This is a naturally beautiful and historically significant part of the state that encompasses many isolated and interesting small towns.  Many area events and points of interest relate to the geography and culture of the region, especially the Appalachian and Great Smoky Mountains.  When we first moved to the area, Husband and I took a drive to visit two of the J towns around here, both located in Washington County.

Our primary destination was Johnson City, home of East Tennessee State University (ETSU), the alma mater of my last boss, aka “Twit,” with our secondary destination of Jonesborough, hometown of the cousin of a now former friend, one of the few friends I made while living in Brentwood whose acquaintance I was actually grateful to have made.   The cousin’s family includes Josh Kear, a songwriter and Jonesborough native who has become known as one of the country genre’s most consistent hit makers.  He has written several popular and award-winning hit songs including “Need You Now” performed by Lady Antebellum and “Before He Cheats,” one of Carrie Underwood’s earliest chart toppers.

I was a country music fan long before (well, maybe for 5-10 years or so) we moved from L.A. to Nashville in 2006.  Long before then, even, I had read a novel by Catherine Marshall, who was born in Johnson City.  That book , Christy, is a work of historical fiction set in the fictional Appalachian village of Cutter Gap, Tennessee, in 1912, and explores faith and mountain traditions such as moonshining, folk beliefs and folk medicine.  While endowed with abundant natural resources, Appalachia has long struggled and been associated with poverty. In the early 20th century, large-scale logging and coal mining firms brought wage-paying jobs and modern amenities to Appalachia, but by the 1960s the region had failed to capitalize on any long-term benefits from these two industries. Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government sought to alleviate poverty in the Appalachian region with a series of New Deal initiatives, such as the construction of dams to provide cheap electricity and the implementation of better farming practices.   On March 9, 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission was created to further alleviate poverty in the region, mainly by diversifying the region’s economy and helping to provide better health care and educational opportunities to the region’s inhabitants.

In Johnson City, ETSU has a host of programs that benefit both the region and nation, including the Quillen College of Medicine, consistently ranked as one of the top schools nationwide for rural medicine and primary care education. Unique programs at ETSU include a nationally acclaimed and accredited program in Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music, the nation’s lone master’s degree in Storytelling, and the Appalachian Studies programs, focused on the surrounding Appalachian region.  Jonesborough is the home to the International Storytelling Center, which holds the annual National Storytelling Festival on the first full weekend in October. The Festival builds on the Appalachian cultural tradition of storytelling, and has been drawing people from around the world for more than 35 years. The festival inspired the development of ETSU’s  storytelling program.

Jonesborough, the Washington County seat and “Tennessee’s oldest town” attracts heritage tourism because of its historical status and its significant historic preservation efforts.  Its annual October National Storytelling Festival, held in town since the festival was founded in 1973, has grown over the years to become a major festival both in the United States and internationally.  Husband and I whipped through what we considered to be the high points in Jonesborough, The International Storytelling Center and The Jonesborough Historic District which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.  We went through quickly as, at least at that time, neither one of was a storyteller.  I didn’t find the history of those buildings to be that interesting, especially compared to the history of the town I now live in, and surprisingly did not indulge in any retail therapy in any of the shops currently occupying most of the historic buildings.  Other than ETSU, Johnson City did not hold many attractions for us either.  Its location, layout and structures paled in comparison to those in Chapel Hill, NC, another “college town” I have visited. The town’s downtown district, most of which was probably built in the 1930s when it was for a time, the fifth-largest city in Tennessee, really showed its age, with blocks and blocks of tarnished and empty brick buildings.

Johnson City’s biggest growth spurt seems to have occurred in the early 20th century.  During the 1920s and the Prohibition era, Johnson City’s ties to the bootlegging activity of the Appalachian Mountains earned the city the nickname of “Little Chicago”.  Stories persist that the town was one of several distribution centers for Chicago gang boss Al Capone during Prohibition. Capone had a well-organized distribution network within the southern United States for alcohol smuggling; it shipped his products from the mountain distillers to northern cities. Capone was, according to local lore, a part-time resident of Montrose Court, a luxury apartment complex now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Together with neighboring Bristol, Johnson City was noted as a hotbed for old-time music; it hosted noteworthy Columbia Records recording sessions in 1928 known as the Johnson City Sessions.

By 1990, Appalachia had largely joined the economic mainstream, but still lagged behind the rest of the nation in most economic indicators though, at least in my neck of the Appalachian woods, there are many nonprofit organizations that continue to work with people here to improve their living conditions. I am an active volunteer with one of those organizations that is headquartered in the town where I live.

Aid to Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties (ADFAC) began in the mid 1980’s as a local ecumenical effort to provide assistance to impoverished families and evolved to become an independent nonprofit agency that exists to serve the basic needs of primarily low-income residents in Anderson and surrounding Appalachian counties. ADFAC’s goal is to help families become stable and self-sufficient through a variety of direct assistance services provided through both Social Services and Affordable Housing programs.  This nonprofit group envisions and supports the development of sustainable, healthy and viable communities where families are self- sufficient, productive and free of the need for continued public assistance whenever possible by continuing to focus on addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in Appalachian society and providing the most comprehensive scope of services of any agency serving this still needy community.

I first discovered ADFAC when I was still a working woman and saw an ad in a local publication for its “Dine & Donate” program.  This is actually a monthly event through which area restaurants donate a significant portion of their sales to support ADFAC’s work in the community.  The organization promotes Dine & Donate as a fun way to raise needed funds for ADFAC and support local eateries.  I saw that it had an added benefit, especially for working women, as a way to feed a family and do some good in the community while requiring little to no manual labor.  I was “in” for that event while I was working and have delved deeper into ADFAC’s efforts to help Appalachian residents since I retired.

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