Making the Most
Preserving the Past - One Story and One Building at a Time
Nestled in Northeast Tennessee’s scenic mountains is a town with so many firsts that it can be a challenge to name them all. Jonesborough was the first town founded in the region (1779), the first capital of the “Lost State of Franklin” (1784), the first town in the new state of Tennessee (1796), site of the first regularly published abolitionist periodical (1820), the first Tennessee town listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1969), site of the first National Storytelling Festival (1973)…and the list goes on.
Founded in 1779 as part of North Carolina, Jonesborough’s first notoriety came in 1784 when western North Carolinians gathered to approve the formation of Franklin, intended to be a new state named in honor of Benjamin Franklin. Jonesborough was the capital of Franklin which functioned as the 14th state until 1788, although it was never recognized by Congress.
Jonesborough’s early days saw constant comings and goings by men whose names would be written in the pages of Tennessee and American history. Among them were three men who became president, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson.
In the early 19th century as the divisiveness of slavery moved the country toward Civil War, Jonesborough, along with the rest of East Tennessee, opposed slavery and supported the Union. This was the ideal setting in 1820 for Quaker Elihu Embree to produce The Emancipator, the first regularly published periodical devoted to abolishing slavery.
By the mid-19th century, the bustling little town spelled its name “Jonesboro,” which saved typesetters three letters and gave the community’s name a more modern spelling.
Through the mid-20th century, Jonesborough continued its small-town existence but by the 1950s, decay was evident. Looking around Jonesborough, citizens saw reminders of the past at every turn. There was the Chester Inn, the oldest building in the commercial district, built in 1797 and now serving as an apartment house. Historic retail buildings lined the downtown streets. Old churches and homes testified to the transformation from a frontier settlement of transients to a community of citizens who called Jonesborough home.
And the stories remained: stories of hardship and opportunity, Revolutionary War and Civil War, everyday stories of work, family and faith, and stories of how a little town persevered for almost 200 years.
A look around also showed that Jonesborough was at a low point. Buildings were deteriorating, and many were empty and threatened by neglect. The print shop where The Emancipator was printed was gone. Downtown businesses that once supplied goods to residents could no longer compete with nearby shopping centers. Sidewalks were cracked, streets were crumbling and power lines were strung from every historic building. And as people moved away, there was the threat of forgetting the stories of the “firsts” and the “every days” that made Jonesborough special.
It was time for residents to save their town. The spark that started Jonesborough’s preservation movement came from an unlikely source.
What Happened Next
Lifelong resident Jimmy Neil Smith (who served as mayor from 1978-1984 and today is president of the International Storytelling Center) recalls that as residents searched for ways to save their community, assistance arrived in an unexpected way – through a grant application for sewer line repairs.
Smith explains that in working with the nearby Johnson City Office of the Tennessee State Planning Commission, Jonesborough’s leaders learned they had to have their own Planning Commission in order to receive the grant. The commission’s formation propelled Jonesborough to begin a planning process that focused on restoration and preservation. Continued support from the State Planning Commission helped Jonesborough to build its capacity and find the necessary financial resources.
Residents quickly rallied around the effort, forming the Jonesborough Civic Trust, a nonprofit historic preservation organization. By the late 1960s, Jonesborough found itself at the forefront of a mass awakening by communities across the country. This grassroots movement resulted in the National Historic Preservation Act passed by Congress in 1966 which set national standards for historic preservation.
Capitalizing on local and state assistance and the new national historic preservation movement, Jonesborough received designation as the first National Register Historic District in Tennessee in 1969.
As Jonesborough’s historic character re-emerged by the early 1980s, Smith – now Mayor Smith – decided that it was time to reinstitute the town’s historic name. He proposed “putting the ‘ugh’” back in Jonesborough. The community’s ready approval signaled that Jonesborough’s residents were proud to reclaim their heritage.
Leaders of these preservation efforts put another “first” on Jonesborough’s list – one of the first towns to realize that preserving history and cultural traditions was a great way to ensure ongoing preservation, attract visitors and positively impact the local economy – a combination referred to today as cultural heritage tourism.
“Our philosophy is that preservation in and of itself is nice, but what moves the needle on the value scale is that it has economic impact,” Smith says. “With preservation we could build an economic future on our past.”
Jonesborough’s Visitors Center Director, Carolyn Tomko, recounts the path toward tourism: “In the early 1970s, the visitor center was downtown in a log house, and volunteers from the Senior Citizens Center were the greeters. Jonesborough realized that regional promotion was the way to go and took the lead in setting up a regional office.”
A new visitor center building which included the Jonesborough/Washington
County History Museum was constructed in 1982. The building provided a place
for visitors to gather information about sites
to see, to learn about the town’s history and to begin guided tours. It also housed the newly formed Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association.
As Jonesborough’s reputation has grown among travelers, local residents have benefited with the creation of jobs including owning or working in a bed and breakfast, retail store or restaurant. Linda Poland, owner of Positive Solutions Storytelling Tours, is an example of how tourism created jobs for townspeople.
Poland arrived in Jonesborough in the late 1980s with a career history that included working in travel agencies in Miami, Houston and Denver. At the same time, the City of Jonesborough had decided to begin a tour program and asked Poland to take on the task.
Her first step was to gather oral histories, and Poland quickly found that residents were somewhat reluctant to share their memories with a newcomer. Poland enlisted the aid of a retired dentist who took her to residents’ homes and encouraged them to talk.
Once residents realized the respect that Poland had for their memories, the stories began to flow. The result was Jonesborough’s Times and Tales, a tour that has since won local, state and national awards for its interpretation and preservation of history.
After working for the city for 10 years, Poland began Positive Solutions Tours in 2000. The company offers a multitude of thematic tours such as Lanterns and Legends which combines a walking and horse and carriage tour, Inspirational Tours and Meals, which includes attending a local church service followed by brunch, lunch or dinner and entertainment from inspirational storytellers and musicians.
Of most importance to Jonesborough, the tour company has created jobs. “We have 24 guides who are all independent contractors,” Poland said. “About 40 to 50 percent of our guides are people who have moved into the area or who moved away and then came back. They take one of our tours and decide they want to be a tour guide.”
Poland’s commitment to authenticity and accuracy is shared by the guides who attend 14 training sessions, observe numerous tours and participate in a progressive program before becoming a lead guide. The results are obvious as the training program and tours have won numerous awards.
The “ripple effect” of tourism even extends to sewing. Poland notes that one of the guides is also a seamstress who makes all of the costumes that guides wear on the tours. And the company includes shopping and dining in local establishments as part of the experience for the 3,000-plus visitors it hosts each year.
Jonesborough’s reputation as the nation’s mecca for storytelling began growing more than 30 years ago, and today the town has a unique attribute as home of the National Storytelling Festival and the International Storytelling Center.
In the early 1970s, Jimmy Neil Smith was teaching high school and made a decision that resulted in another “first” for Jonesborough. As Smith and his students drove to a nearby town to print the school newspaper, they listened to Grand Ole Opry veteran Jerry Clower spin stories on the radio. The students were entertained, but Smith was inspired.
Realizing that the long-held traditions of storytelling that had knitted together communities and carried on family traditions were in danger of dying out, Smith decided to start a festival. After doing a little research and not finding any other “national” storytelling festivals, Smith determined that Jonesborough would be the scene of the National Storytelling Festival. The first festival in 1973 was a modest event – about 60 people showed up to sit on hay bales while storytellers stood on the old farm wagon that served as the stage.
But something important had happened, and Smith and the other organizers knew it. Connections had been made and interest revived in hearing the age-old tales. Smith then established the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS). The National Storytelling Festival, held annually in October, now draws some 10,000 attendees from across the country. The festival generates some $2 million in sales annually with a $6 million fiscal impact.
Not satisfied to rest on a national reputation, Smith’s planning continued until the International Storytelling Center became a reality in 2002. The center is housed on a three-acre campus which includes the restored Chester Inn, a new 14,000-square-foot education and interpretation facility and a three-acre park. In addition to hosting the annual storytelling festival, the center offers ongoing activities that attract visitors including the popular Storytelling Live!, an annual 22-week teller-in-residence performance program, regular seminars, exhibits and a retail store with storytelling books, tapes and gifts.
Today, the elements of historic preservation, tourism, cultural enrichment and storytelling have melded to position Jonesborough for what Smith refers to as “the third wave of cultural heritage tourism development.”
Smith explains: “The first wave was the town’s restoration in the 60s and 70s. The second wave, starting in the 1980s, focused on tourism with the visitor center, the regional tourism council and the Storytelling Festival.
The increased emphasis on appealing to visitors also attracted businesses back to the historic downtown. Shops began to offer antiques, collectible arts and crafts and other goods that tourists wanted.
The second wave also saw stronger partnerships forming. From 1990-1992, Jonesborough participated in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Heritage Tourism Initiative. Partnering through the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association, Jonesborough joined with other communities in the initiative to devise new ways to preserve, develop, interpret and promote the region’s historic and cultural resources.
As the 21st century began, preservation remained at the forefront of the town’s planning. In 2001, the town’s three preservation organizations, Jonesborough Civic Trust, Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum and the Historic Jonesborough Foundation, merged into the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The new organization set as its mission “To preserve and promote the architectural, cultural and historical heritage of our region.”
As the third wave begins, Smith says, “we will build on the advice of consultants and our own vision and move forward in a way that will make Jonesborough stand out.”
The focus of these efforts will be branding Jonesborough as the Storytelling Capital of the World, says Visitors Center Director Tomko. “Everybody understands that is what sets us apart. Every state has its oldest town, but we are the only place that has the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival.”
Next steps include developing a Main Street museum planned as an outdoor walking tour highlighted by interpretive kiosks with audio presentations featuring storytelling as the cornerstone.
Looking back over nearly 40 years of historic preservation and cultural heritage tourism successes, Jonesborough’s leaders and citizens can rightly be proud of all they have accomplished. Acknowledgement has come from the outside world as well, with steadily increasing visitation and recognition such as the Dozen Distinctive Destinations award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2005.
But, Smith notes, the most important result since those days when Jonesborough’s future was questionable is “it has made a difference in the quality of life for the people who live here. The real benefit is that it has given us our town back.”
Making the Most of Opportunities
Collaborate: Partnerships are the key to Jonesborough’s preservation and tourism success. As Smith recalls, when the Jonesborough Civic Trust was formed in the 1960s as the private arm of preservation, its success was “the marriage between preservation and government. We were all one.” Likewise, from its earliest efforts in tourism promotion, leaders realized that a regional focus was necessary to create the critical mass that would attract visitors and keep them in the area longer. With Jonesborough leading the way, the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association was formed to represent the region’s eight counties.
the Fit between the Community and Tourism:
Jonesborough began its preservation efforts as a way to save the town for the people who lived there. Building on that success, leaders approached tourism development in a similar manner – as a way to generate economic impact and create jobs for the town’s
residents. Jonesborough’s cultural heritage tourism development has many successful results: shop owners and restaurant owners operate thriving businesses downtown, tour guides offer thematic tours to a steady flow of visitors, historic homes have been restored and opened as bed and breakfasts and a regular schedule of special events generates additional economic revenues.
Sites and Programs Come Alive: The cornerstone of Jonesborough’s cultural heritage tourism success is its continual presentation of the history of the town and region through storytelling. Guided tours of the historic town are given by noted storytellers, an annual Storyteller-in-Residence program offers ongoing entertainment and the National Storytelling Festival brings the town to life in a unique way each October. A Preserve America grant awarded in early 2006 will provide yet another way to make Jonesborough come alive through the creation of a “Main Street Museum” complete with interpretive kiosks and storytelling-based audio interpretation.
on Quality and Authenticity:
Whether developing an exhibit for the museum, writing a script for a walking tour, restoring a historic building, or selecting storytellers to perform at the annual festival, all of Jonesborough’s cultural heritage tourism projects demand authenticity and quality. These high standards have resulted in accolades from visitors and recognition such as the Dozen Distinctive Destinations award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Preserve and Protect Resources: Jonesborough’s renaissance is solidly based on the principles of historic preservation. One of the town’s first steps was to achieve designation on the National Register of Historic Places. Subsequent restoration efforts followed accepted preservation standards with the result that Jonesborough is an authentically restored community. The success of this approach led three community organizations – the Jonesborough Civic Trust, Historic Jonesborough Foundation and Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum – to merge into the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Through this new merger, the organization can share its preservation expertise with communities throughout the region.
- About 100 acres, with the heart in the downtown district, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the first community to receive this designation in Tennessee.
- Jonesborough was awarded the designation of Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2005.
- The National Storytelling Festival began in 1973 with an audience of 60 people. Today, the festival draws a crowd of 10,000 to this small town each year.
- The National Storytelling Festival and the International Storytelling Center have created a re-emergence of interest in storytelling. Today, storytellers are in demand at festivals and events across the country, and many produce popular recordings of their work.
- The city of Jonesborough began offering guided tours, Jonesborough’s Times and Tales, in the early 1990s. The tour has won local, state and national awards for its interpretation and preservation of history.
- Linda Poland, founder of Positive Solutionsthrough Storytelling, contracts with 24 tours guides and hosts some 3,000 visitors each year. Poland was named Jonesborough’s Resident Storyteller in 1997, and the company’s tour guide training program was recognized as the best training program in the region through the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association’s Pinnacle Awards.
- The International Storytelling Center opened in 2002, creating a year-round destination for visitors who enjoyed storytelling. An ongoing slate of programs, including the Teller-in-Residence program, attracts visitors to Jonesborough throughout the year.
- The Jonesborough Visitors Center welcomes 100,000 visitors each year from around the world.
- Jonesborough’s cultural heritage tourism program has generated jobs for residents including more than two dozen shops, six bed and breakfasts (all in historic buildings) and several tour companies.
- In 2006, Jonesborough was awarded a $97,000 Preserve America grant. Funds will be used to develop and implement an interpretive plan using storytelling as its basis.
- 1960s – Planning Commission and Jonesborough Civic Trust established
- 1969 – National Register of Historic Places designation
- 1973 – First National Storytelling Festival
- Late 1970s – Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association forms
- 1982 – Jonesborough Visitors Center and History Museum constructed
- 1990-1992 – Jonesborough participates in National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Heritage Tourism Initiative
- 2001- Jonesborough Civic Trust, Historic Jonesborough Foundation and Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum merge to become the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia
- 2002 - International Storytelling Center opens
- 2005 – National Trust for Historic Preservation awards Dozen Distinctive Destinations
- 2006 – Preserve America awards grant
Historic Jonesborough: www.jonesboroughtn.org
Click here for Story Credits
What Happened Next
Making the Most of Opportunities