Saturday, May 15, 2010

Exploring in East Tennessee

After my February trip to neighboring Concord it was my goal to keep visiting the cities, towns, and villages around mine on a fairly regular basis. I kept getting caught up in stuff, though, or planning other things, or just getting tired, and I never got around to getting out again to work on exploring until this morning. Randomly clicking on wikipedia pages for my neighboring communities, I happened upon Maynardville and the picture of their courthouse.

My friend Sandy says that almost every town in Georgia has a historic courthouse, and it's been my experience that most of the towns in Tennessee are the same way. They're usually brick (sometimes whitewashed), they usually have columns out front, and they sometimes have a cupola, clock tower, or memorial statue. Take the one here in Knoxville, for example:

stormy weather

or the one in Sevierville, just up the road:

Sevier County Courthouse

They're so similar that if you saw the two photos right next to each other, with no captions, you could easily assume that they're the same building from two different angles, and this seems to be the standard model for Tennessee county courthouses. Union County, on the other hand, boasts unique and somewhat unattractive courthouse, and as soon as I saw it on the wikipedia page I wanted to go see it.

It's just as unattractive in the flesh:

Union County Courthouse (1)

It's a box. A featureless concrete box, completely devoid of character or charm:

Union County Courthouse (2)

I can't even imagine what it must be like to enter the building. While it's possible that it has skylights I'm betting that it doesn't, and those little slits of windows can't possibly let in any natural light. It looks like it belongs behind the Iron Curtain or attached to a factory or something, and I can't imagine how it ended up in Tennessee. Not only that, but there's no landscaping around it. It's surrounded by parking, a concrete island in an asphalt sea. Who approved this design, and did they give any thought to the impression this makes of the county as a whole?

Either way, there wasn't really anything to see near the courthouse. I don't know a lot about Maynardville, but I'd guess it's in decline, as the courthouse was surrounded by vacant storefronts and closed businesses. The gas station, a Union 76, has been closed so long that the lights are fully rusted:

union 76 light

The only thing that seemed to be thriving was the mortuary, whose parking lot included a very sadfaced Jesus:

mortuary jesus

After I got tired of walking around the courthouse I started for home, pulling over along the way whenever I saw something interesting, like a car on a stick:

car on a stick!

a decrepit, closed deli and gas station:

Highway 61 Market and Deli (1)

Highway 61 Market and Deli (2)

and even a state park, the Big Ridge State Park on Route 61:

Big Ridge State Park

I want to go back to that, too, because I see from their wikipedia page (Remember the old days, when we didn't have wikipedia? Me either.) that there's a dam, a cemetery, a mill, and a haunted area. The only drawback is that I have to drive down State Route 61 to get there, and Route 61 was apparently designed by the construction crew from "Chutes and Ladders". The entire road is switchbacks, hairpin turns, and places where the signs tell you to drop down to ten miles per hour. I'd have taken pictures, but it's a "both hands on the wheel" kind of road.

It's also the road where I got in trouble.

On my way back to the main road from the park, I noticed another closed gas station with a rotting RC Cola machine out front, and decided to stop:

rc machine (1)

rc machine (2)

RC Cola and Moon Pies are pretty much the official snackfood of Tennessee, after all:

tennessee treats

so I figured I might as well take a picture of the machine. Besides, it was rotting and falling apart, and everyone knows I love that. While I was walking around the parking lot taking the pictures a few cars went by, and I didn't really think anything of it, but right when I went to get back in my car a pickup truck pulled into the lot and blocked me in.

I figured it was just someone wondering what I was doing, since sometimes people stop and ask what I'm taking pictures of, but I'm also very conscious that I'm a Yankee with a pierced ear driving a VW Bug in pickup truck country below the Mason Dixon Line, and I sometimes worry that I'm about to have a problem. The sweaty, shirtless, overweight guy with the prison tattoo who got out of the truck did nothing to dispell this notion, and I worried that I might be about to get Deliveranced. In the bad way.

"What are you taking pictures of my building for? Are you from the bank?"

Really, mister? You think the bank sends people out wearing GI Joe t-shirts in VW Bugs with action figures mounted on the dashboard to foreclose on you? What the hell kind of bank are you doing business with? And oh my God, don't say any of this out loud.

"No, no," I answered, pointing at my parking pass. "I'm from the University. I'm in a photography class." Yes, I know that's a lie, but I've used it before and people seem to accept it much more easily than, "I'm going to post these on my blog and possibly make fun of them." I continued, "I saw your RC machine, and I just had to stop, especially with the way it looks just sitting there. It's kind of lonely, you know?"

He cocked his head to one side and blinkd a couple of times, and then shrugged.

"I never thought of it that way. You have a nice day, ok?"

"Oh, you too," I said, right before I got in my car and drove straight home without stopping anywhere. That's quite enough adventure for one day, thanks.


Jeannie said...

Close call, Joel! I'm glad you had a fun and safe day.

Leila said...

The courthouse is not historic, it is only about 40 years old. The original courthouse was quite beautiful, sort of a Victorian home style(if my memory of the picture is correct), however it burned down in a terrible fire. I agree that the building is unattractive and that much of the town looks on the decline. The industry is lacking and the struggle for aesthetic community pride is evident. As you experienced, though, there is a sense of ownership for the communities. The locals have a simple appreciation for the areas' natural beauty and perhaps have a few hang ups in their way when it comes to development and sustainability. A major challenge this area faces is being zoned as metropolitan because of it's close proximity to Knoxville. Did you notice any metropolitan characteristics about the area? Of course not. This zoning affects the county's eligibility for development funds from USDA and other organizations.

Joel said...

Leila, thanks so much for adding more information. The courthouse looks so out of place that I knew there had to be a story, but the only person I ran into all morning was the guy who blocked my car in, and he didn't seem especially chatty.

I agree with you that the area has a lot of natural beauty, but can't imagine why it's zoned as metropolitan. I wouldn't even refer to it as a suburb of Knoxville since, unlike someplace like Bearden or Farragut, there's not really a continuous line of developed areas linking the two.