By Appalachian Places staff
GRAY, Tennessee — On one of Washington County’s oldest farms, the Boones Creek Museum and Opry mixes historic preservation with civic and private investment to enhance public awareness of community in an area rapidly growing with residential development. Museum operators have implemented a formula that combines local history with cultural tourism and traditional Appalachian music. On just about any Saturday night, area musicians will line up with guitars, fiddles and banjos to take a turn at the microphones after the featured performance — often by a regional or national bluegrass or old-time act.
Boones Creek is the site where the first permanent European settlers arrived in the northeastern part of Tennessee. The region had for centuries been home to Native Americans, most of whom were Cherokee when settlers arrived. Treaties regulating relationships between Native Americans and settlers were negotiated between 1770 and 1835 before Tennessee’s Cherokee population was moved west to what is now Oklahoma. Between May 1838 and March 1839, the federal government forcefully removed remaining Cherokees from Tennessee and northern Georgia via the Trail of Tears, — which The Tennessee Encyclopedia describes as arguably the most tragic story in Tennessee history next to the practice of Black slavery.
Longhunter William Bean is known as the earliest permanent European settler in Boones Creek. But the community was later named for Daniel Boone, the famous frontiersman who once hid from local Native Americans under a four-foot waterfall in the creek, and community, that now bears his name. Boones Creek is now largely a neighborhood of nearby Johnson City in Washington County — where the county seat is historic Jonesborough — Tennessee’s oldest town — and the county high schools are named for Daniel Boone and David Crockett.
The Boones Creek Museum and Opry is in its second year of operating from the historic Keebler-Keefauver home built in 1859. The house and its 53 acres of pasture and woodland are bordered on two sides by large and growing residential developments — something that museum officials believe complements their mission well.
“I’ve harped all of these years that people come to a museum one time and you never see them again, except when company comes to visit, and then you’ll take them to the museum,” Vicki Shell, vice president of the Boones Creek Historical Trust, said. “We’ve got to have something so that they will keep coming back.”
Music was added to the group’s monthly meetings, and Shell believes that decision boosted attendance and membership. “We’ve got more than 250 dues-paying members of the Trust,” she said. “The monthly meetings with music just sort of morphed into Saturday night music with the Opry.”
Landing the house and nearly two acres of the picturesque farm — which was purchased more than a decade ago by Johnson City as a potential city park — came during a time of unprecedented and continuous growth in and around Boones Creek. Daniel Boone likely would not recognize the place where he carved “D Boon cilled a bar” into a beech tree in 1760. A large piece of the actual tree, however, can be viewed at the museum.
Boones Creek is now mostly within the city limits of Johnson City and targeted for large commercial and retail development. Bisected by Interstate 26 and situated between Johnson City and the unincorporated community of Gray, Boones Creek has long been in the crosshairs of Johnson City’s northward progression toward Kingsport, where Interstates 26 and 81 connect. Rolling pastures and large farming operations are still present in Boones Creek, but much of the farmland is poised to become part of the urban landscape as the pace of development quickens.
That reality is not lost on the members of Boones Creek Historical Trust. Rather than dwell on the negative aspects of watching a treasured community lose its rural character, members have chosen to focus on the business of preserving and celebrating the important history of Boones Creek for generations to come.
The museum itself is located just over the ridge between Boones Creek and Gray. If that sounds a bit confusing, consider that the farm’s address, 632 Hales Chapel Road, is Johnson City. More than a decade after Johnson City annexed along Shadden Road to acquire the Keebler-Keefauver property as a potential park development, the city lived up to its promise of preserving the historic nature of the property and deeded the house and the land immediately around it to the Historical Trust. Most of the home’s ground floor now highlights the prime pieces and displays held by the museum, with many more donated artifacts stored in the upstairs and attic.
As for the museum’s mission of preserving the stories of Boones Creek and sharing that history with others, members of the Historical Trust believe they have only scratched the surface.
“I mean, we’re talking about the first stories of the state,” Shell said. “To me, these first stories are riveting and precious. That’s where we’re from.”
Like most members of the Historical Trust, Shell traces her family history to Boones Creek, where her mother and grandparents grew up, as did generations of their family before them. Although support for the Historical Trust and museum also comes from area natives who might have migrated into the community from neighboring towns and cities, the museum is finding that newcomers are among those most interested in learning about the history of the place they now call home.
“Every Opry night, we open up with prayer,” Shell said, “and then we have history. Edward Bowman, our historian, gets up and tells a history story before we start the music. They’re coming for music but we’re force-feeding the history,” she said with a chuckle.
After meeting under an event tent throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Boones Creek Opry, since October, has been held inside a newly constructed music barn adjacent to the farmhouse. Built from materials and labor donated by local individuals and businesses, the music barn is another extension of the strong community support that has helped to establish the museum and Opry as a permanent fixture.
“This community has been so generous,” Shell said. “It gives you goosebumps. We have been shown favor from every direction. The County Commission gave us $50,000. They rarely give money to a not-for-profit. But we pitched it as an investment in tourism.”
The Historical Trust began as an answer to former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander’s challenge during Tennessee Homecoming ’86. The late Ruth Marks answered the call by organizing the Trust, with an eye toward establishing a museum. Donated artifacts have been accumulating since. “People keep bringing it and bringing it,” Shell said. “We just have to go through it slowly a little at a time.”
The tourism that is still developing around all of that donated stuff and weekly live music events is the type that allows visitors to participate in local cultural activities.
“Cultural tourism,” Shell said. “That’s the new big thing. People aren’t satisfied to go and lounge somewhere. They want to lounge and learn. That’s what we provide.”