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Tennessee Treasures

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If the Appalachian Mountains -- the Eastern Continental Divide -- hadn't deterred settlers from exploring east Tennessee, the Cumberland Plateau might not be as wildly beautiful and unpeopled as it is now.

The plateau, averaging about 40 miles wide, is a band of highlands 2,000 feet high that runs across the state, north-south, paralleling the mountains to the east. The altitude ensures cool summers, yet the winters are mild.

Mostly family farms and hardwood forests, the Cumberland Plateau is the largest timbered plateau in the United States, laced with two-lane roads that knife through cleared fields edged with kudzu and dotted with occasional signs proclaiming the Gospel. Drying tobacco hangs in open barn doorways.

Off the blacktop, hikers and campers will discover whitewater and state parks noted for rugged, striking landscapes, including the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

Although much of the plateau is flat, it is hardly one-dimensional. Rolling hills, small mountains, steep hillsides and deep gorges invite visitors to take detours on lightly traveled back roads. Forested ravines shelter magnolias, tulip poplar, yellow birch and black cherry.

Beaver, mink and otter live in the canyon rivers, which were among the seasonal hunting grounds of the Cherokee, Shawnee and longhunters of the Daniel Boone era, who used the plateau's many caves for shelter.

While folks in Memphis have catfish for breakfast, salty "country ham" is standard fare as you head east, where diners offer several varieties of gravy as side dishes.

And while the residents of western Tennessee talk with a deeper Southern accent, the mountain people speak with a twang. They hang on to their i's, and drop the g's in "ing" words. Here, it's "Appa-LATCH-chia," not "Appa-LAY-chia."

And although "y'all" can have both singular and plural meanings, on the plateau the plural of y'all is "all y'all," as in, "All y'all please come back."

Even Tennesseans admit the humor in that expression. Still, after decades of being caricatured by television's Beverly Hillbillies, east Tennesseans can be a bit sensitive if visitors try to make sport of their accents and regionalisms.

That aside, visitors and their cash -- even Yankees -- are welcome. Add the fact that the state has no income tax and it's clear why retirees are flocking to the area. But even if you aren't ready to collect Social Security, there's still plenty of unclaimed territory for those who appreciate an artsy subculture mixed with unlimited opportunities for outdoor exploration.

Surprises in store

Consider the Cumberland County town of Crossville, population 9,000. It's on Interstate 40, about two hours east of Nashville, on the main route to Knoxville.

Crossville, which has several resorts and bills itself as the "golf capital of Tennessee," has 11 courses on which you can play nine months of the year.

The town has another surprising asset, the Cumberland County Playhouse, one of the 10 largest professional theater groups in rural America. Most weeks, it offers shows on two stages, ranging from musicals to more serious repertoire.

If you know your way around Broadway, you may be a bit smug on arriving at the playhouse for the first time, especially when the theater manager, dressed as casually as a stagehand, ambles out at curtain time to make a few announcements. As she queries the audience for the names of those celebrating birthdays and wedding anniversaries, the celebrants each receive a round of applause.

But when the curtain goes up, it becomes clear that you are not in Crossville anymore. You might be on 42nd Street, or listening to The Sound of Music, paying small-town prices for big-city talent. Busloads of people pack the theater, which sells more than 100,000 tickets annually.

Last year, only four cities were selected to produce Cats: Chicago, Sacramento, Boston -- and Crossville. For 40 years, the playhouse has been bringing first-class theater to the area.

About four miles south of Crossville is another surprise, a community called Homestead, a national historic district and the "showplace of the New Deal."

In the 1930s, it appeared that the Depression would be the coup de grace for the plateau's idle coal miners, sawmill workers and bankrupt farmers. Instead, President Roosevelt's social engineers stepped forward with a plan for communities that had little hope of recovering on their own.

The idea was to carefully select unemployed country people, teach them new, marketable skills and have them build their own communities, using native materials. The new homeowners, given wages for their work, would have 30 years to pay for their houses and their land.

Thousands of the plateau's jobless applied for the program, but only about 250 families could be accommodated. The project produced charming stone cottages for each family, with 18-inch-thick walls made from the local Crab Orchard sandstone, known for its multicolored beauty and weather resistance.

The homes, on five- to 50-acre plots, were roofed with hand-split shingles, framed with hand-hewn oak beams, paneled with pine and outfitted with hand-wrought hardware for doors and andirons.

The barns went up first, so that families could live there while their homes were being built, says Emma Vaden, 70, who was a toddler when her family was among the first chosen for the community project.

"My younger brother was born in our barn and we never let him forget it," says Vaden, who owns Grandma's Attic, one of a handful of businesses in Homestead.

Vaden says an influx of retirees has, in part, driven local land prices to about $15,000 per acre. As land values have risen during the last 70 years, many cottage families have sold off their acreage, allowing homes of every imaginable type to be built among the New Deal housing. Passers-by should not expect to see clusters of original Homestead houses, especially because many have fallen victim to inappropriate remodeling.

To preserve the community's heritage, Vaden helped establish the Homesteads Tower Museum 20 years ago. The four-room stone building, which was the federal administration building for the project, is built around a stone water tower, which supplied a nearby school and is still in use.

Staffed by volunteers and filled with artifacts donated by neighbors, the homey museum is a sort of large family album that puts flesh and bones on the New Deal. If Vaden or another old-timer happens to be around, visitors who ask questions are likely to be treated to some oral history, perhaps by someone who, with misty eyes, talks about Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited twice.

More than 200 of the cottages are still in use, including perhaps 40 owned by families who built them. Homestead is one of the largest of about 100 such communities in the country.

Public access to an original Homestead house is limited to two structures: a rental cabin at Cumberland Mountain State Park, about two miles from the museum, and the Crab Tree House, a cottage rescued and furnished last year by the museum.

The museum's cottage, accessible from a road running through the park, was hit by a tornado in 2002, ripping off the roof and sucking out the interior. But the basic structure, like the bedrock from which it was built, was unmoved.

The tornado, seen with a preservationist's eye, cleansed the cottage, which had been ruined by "improvements," including vinyl siding. "The good Lord just blew all of that away," says Vaden. Now the home, restored and furnished as it would have been in the 1930s, will be open to the public for the first time, tentatively next month.

Dining in the park

Take advantage of free admission at the state park, which was established in the 1930s as the community's 1,700-acre playground. Many of the park's structures are built of Crab Orchard stone, including a landmark dam and seven-arch bridge, the largest masonry structure built by the unemployed recruited by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

Surprisingly, the 300-seat park restaurant, a handsome building overlooking a large pond, is a favorite local spot for Southern home cooking, from pork ribs and barbeque to fried chicken and catfish. Except for Tuesday night, when the seafood buffet will set you back $11, an all-you-can-eat dinner costs $9, including made-from-scratch rolls and meringue pie.

Never mind that dinner is served from a cafeteria line. Emma Vaden insists the park's banana pudding (ubiquitous in Tennessee) is the best anywhere.

Don't leave town without stopping at the Cumberland General Store, near the museum. Although it's best known as a catalog business that has been advertising in magazine classifieds for 30 years, the retail store displays enough 19th-century merchandise to turn a short stop into a schedule buster.

The store stocks only a fraction of the items in the 250-page catalog, which offers everything from washboards and butter paddles to a full-size replica of a Wells Fargo mail coach ($22,000).

Orders from homeowners spiked sharply in 1999, when it was widely feared that the so-called Y2K software bug would usher in the new millennium with a catastrophe.

"People really went nuts," says owner Ann Ebert. "They were buying stuff they had no idea what to do with. For 16 months we couldn't keep our shelves stocked."

The walk-in customer from Chicago who wanted a gross of oil lamp wicks and others who bought lamp oil by the case are probably still storing her inventory in their cellars and garages.

Curiously, business did not surge after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack or last year's power blackout in the Northeast.

"I guess people figured that if the world didn't end at the start of 2000, they aren't going to panic again," Ebert says.

But as long as some hardy rural souls want to live far from the power grid, or others prefer to eat only homegrown food they've processed themselves, or country-style decorating remains strong, the Cumberland General Store will still be printing 100,000 catalogs a year.

A real general store

General stores were an indispensable fixture in Cumberland County as late as the 1920s, when residents shopped locally because there were only dirt roads.

For a taste of that kind of experience, visit a true general store in the nearby Mennonite community named Muddy Pond.

On a recent visit, you might have purchased nails and chainsaw oil along with Hillbilly Soppin' brand chow-chow (relish), muscadine jelly, an Amish straw hat ($9), a freshly made Virginia ham sandwich ($2.36) and a bottle of sarsaparilla. Upstairs, for tourists, are handmade quilts starting at $500.

On the way out the door, a bulletin board offers local services: "Wild Boar Problem? Call Brandon. Your choice: trapped or shot."

A short walk down the road is Aaron Bauman's Leather Shop, where you can buy buggy whips, saddles, handbags, neat's-foot oil by the gallon and running gear for all kinds of horse-drawn conveyances.

Although Muddy Pond consists of little more than a handful of businesses on the edge of hayfields and pastures, it's beginning to attract tourism, especially at harvest time in September and October.

The sorghum outlet, for example, draws a crowd to watch a team of horses power a grinder that crushes a fresh crop of sorghum cane. Then the cane juice is boiled down in large evaporators, filling the sap house with clouds of sweet mist. A plump, gray-haired banjo player selling hand-cranked ice cream adds a festive atmosphere. If it's a sunny day, across the lane you may see Mennonite girls in long dresses bouncing on a backyard trampoline.

If you visit the region with children, take them to Cumberland Caverns, the largest in Tennessee, near McMinnville, off the western edge of the plateau.

Water percolating through the sandstone bedrock has created some of the largest cave rooms in the eastern United States, including a "ballroom" that seats 500 people and is lighted by a three-quarter-ton crystal chandelier salvaged from a movie theater in Brooklyn.

If you are lucky, your underground guide will be Roy Davis, the robust 70-year-old general manager who rediscovered and began developing the cavern about 50 years ago. Before Davis and his friends began exploring them, the caverns may have last been used in 1812 to manufacture saltpeter and gunpowder.

"The day is probably past when a guy can find a hole in the ground and just start excavating it," Davis told a recent tour group. "A cave by itself is not worth much unless you have a man who loves it."

One recent visitor, somewhat susceptible to claustrophobia, felt entirely comfortable on the tour until, 500 feet below ground and a half-mile from the entrance, Davis turned out the lights before starting a semi-religious "light show" at the farthest end of his "subterranean cathedral."

In total darkness, it was hard to imagine how or why Davis, a minister, initially explored the boundaries of the cavernous maze with nothing but a miner's headlamp to light the space around his feet.

When he decided to make a business out of tramping around the caverns with tourists and hordes of school kids, he couldn't find anyone who knew how to use dynamite to improve the entrance. So he became a self-taught expert, and now says he's the only cavern demolition consultant in the country. He travels internationally to blow holes in other entrepreneurs' holes.

Artistic crafts

About 30 minutes north of the caverns, the hills and hollers of Dekalb County are a hotbed of talented craftsmen clustered around the Appalachian Center for Crafts, near Smithville. Founded 25 years ago to preserve traditional mountain folk crafts, which include ladderback chairs and baskets, the center has become known for contemporary fine crafts based on traditional skills.

Art glass by a resident artist, for example, is in the Louvre, and the resident metal artist is from Japan. Other artists teach fiber arts, ceramics and woodworking. The center presents 25 public exhibitions of student work annually, and its outstanding gift shop -- not a place to shop for corn-husk dolls -- features faculty and regional artists.

As a branch of Tennessee Tech University, the craft center offers a bachelor of fine arts degree and invites the public into its studios for demonstrations at its annual open house, which includes good food and music ranging from rock and folk to West African, bluegrass and mountain standards. This year, the event takes place April 3.

About half the student body comes from Appalachia, and many alumni and former faculty have settled in the area. As they have gone on the road over the years to sell their work at shows, word has spread: the picturesque, uncrowded, temperate Cumberland Plateau region, where mountain folk have been serious about crafts for generations, is hospitable to new artists.

Another way to see the crafts of the region -- and to meet the craftsmen in their workshops -- is the Off the Beaten Path Studio Tour, held on the last full weekend in October. Be prepared to explore the back roads because many of the artists live an alternative lifestyle.

William and Sharon Kooienga, who relocated from Asheville, N.C., in search of a slower pace, live at the end of a narrow, rough dirt driveway, deep in a hollow.

First-time studio tour visitors often say, "We were just about to turn around," says Sharon, a weaver. William, a woodworker and sculptor, has built hundreds of drums for musicians, including members of the Grateful Dead and Santana.

The Kooiengas display their artwork in their home, which is probably as much an attraction as their craft work. It's a log house built with local osage orange, which William says is the hardest wood in the forest: "It will rip the teeth out of a chain saw."

Solar panels provide electricity to power a DVD player and TV for their video-gaming teen-agers.

While the Off the Beaten Path tour features only about a dozen craftsmen in Dekalb County, do-zens of artists and galleries are expected to sign up for the Cumberland Craft Trail, which is set to make its debut May 1. It will provide a scenic guide to artisans on a 200-mile route through five counties.

Other art makers and lovers discover the area at Smithville's annual Fiddler's Jamboree and Crafts Festival, which brings up to 150,000 people to the village of 4,000 on the Fourth of July weekend.

The jamboree, an all-amateur, down home competition, features old-time Appalachian music, which predates bluegrass. This is unplugged, pure heritage music, first played by early American immigrants from the British Isles who fought the Cherokees and settled the eastern frontier.

The songs, which Davy Crockett might recognize, have long since passed into the public domain. The musicians play them for fun, not money. If you go to the jamboree, you'll be primed to visit Nashville, about 90 minutes away on either I-40 or I-24. Stop in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, one of the capital's treasures.

It tells the history of America's music, starting with immigrant voices in the mountains, bluegrass, slave songs and Memphis blues. The story is told in a grand structure that showcases the same material used in Homestead -- sandstone from Crab Orchard, the oldest village in Cumberland County.

An ideal day

9 a.m.: Browse country living books and kitchen and gardening tools in the Cumberland General Store. Would your brother-in-law appreciate a genuine coonskin cap for Christmas?

11 a.m.: Visit the Homesteads Tower Museum. Discover why many mountain old-timers still believe the New Deal was the real deal.

Noon: Drive a few miles to the Crab Orchard House, a restored stone cottage open to the public and one of 250 inspired by federal idealists and built by local people.

1 p.m.: Lunch at Cumberland Mountain State Park. Friday the park restaurant fries up catfish. Try the homemade banana pudding, a local favorite. Enjoy the serene view of a landmark stone bridge and large pond.

5 p.m.: Cajun-style dinner on the patio at Crawdaddy's Restaurant in downtown Cookeville. Watch out for the hot stuff.

7:30 p.m.: It's show time at the Cumberland County Playhouse. Then head back to your cabin in the state park, convinced that you don't have to go to the Big Apple to see a rousing Broadway show.

-- Hal Smith

When you go

Getting there: The two largest towns in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee are Cookeville and Crossville, just off I-40, about 2 hours east of Nashville. It's about a 600-mile drive from Baltimore. Several airlines fly to Nashville from BWI. Recent Internet fares were about $175.

For more information about attractions, lodging and dining in the area:

* Upper Cumberland Tourism Association: 800-868-7237; www.uppercumberland.org

* Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce: 931-484-8444; www.crossville-chamber.com

* The Appalachian Center for Crafts will hold its annual Celebration of Craft April 3 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 615-597-6801; www.tntech.edu / craftcenter / events.htm

* The Cumberland Craft Trail is set to make its debut May 1. 800-235-9073; www.artscenterofcc.com

* For information about the Off the Beaten Path Studio Tour (tentatively Oct. 30-31) as well as the Fiddler's Jamboree and Crafts Festival (July 2-3), contact the Smithville / Dekalb County Chamber of Commerce: 615-597-4163; www.smithvilletn.com

* Cumberland County Playhouse: 800-746-8455; www.ccplayhouse.com

* Cumberland General Store, in Crossville: 800-334-4640; www.cumberlandgeneral.com

* Homesteads Tower Museum: 931-456-9663

* Cumberland Mountain State Park: 931-484-6138; www.state.tn.us / environment / parks / parks / CumberlandMtn /

* Cumberland Caverns: 931-668-4396; www.cumberlandcaverns.com

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