NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee is unique in the diversity that stretches between the borders. So much so, it’s hard to find a town that doesn’t have a claim to fame.
“There’s Middle Tennessee, East Tennessee, West Tennessee. No other state has specific divisions,” said Lee Curtis, Communication and legislative liaison for the Tennessee State Museum. “If you’re from Middle Tennessee and you’re a Tennessean, or if you’re from West Tennessee and you’re a Tennessean, you say ‘I’m from West Tennessee.’ You just don’t say I’m from Tennessee.”
From way up on the foothills, all the way down to the valleys, Tennessee’s pride is great, and so are the cities that make up the state.
The Marble City
Knoxville claims the nickname “The Marble City.” It dates all the way back to 1852, when a man named James Stone opened a quarry just north of downtown Knoxville.
“If you cross the state line with this Knoxville marble from the quarries from the river, then you’ll find that the Knoxville marble is in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. – that building – [also] the New York State Capitol, Grand Central Station, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington,” Curtis said.
Just as parts of Tennessee stretch out and touch many parts of the country, just as many people are inspired to come see the state for themselves. One place they won’t find anywhere else is Mousetail Landing State Park in Linden, Tennessee.
A nickname earned during the Civil War when tanneries, or leather shops, were set on fire by Union soldiers.
“There was one tannery in particular that as soon as they started burning it – it was kind of like the exodus of mice. The community were like ‘oh my gosh, look at all the mice,” Curtis said.
Years later, the state purchased the property, giving it a name no visitor could forget.
The Gateway to the South
Speaking of visitors, how they enter the state leads to our next nickname. If you’re traveling from the north, you’ll most likely drive through Clarksville, known as “The Gateway to the South.”
“Years ago, they felt like ‘wait a minute, we are the entrance to Tennessee. Those coming from the north, they’re going to have to come through Clarksville and we are the gateway to the south. We are the gateway to Tennessee,’” Curtis said. ‘They’re going to come through here, and we’re going to be those first ambassadors that welcome them to Tennessee.”
The Athens of the South
Once you get into the heart of Tennessee, you might notice our state capitol building is shaped different than most. It’s a tower, not a dome. The reason ties into why Nashville is known as the “Athens of the South.”
“I don’t think a lot of people realize that, because everybody thinks Athens of the South, oh the Parthenon, the replica.” Curtis explained it actually comes from Nashville’s dedication to higher education.
In fact, Philip Lindsley from New Jersey, a former college president for the school that became Princeton, came to Tennessee to help the struggling Cumberland College. He ended up renaming the school to the University of Nashville. Lindsley was also the first to dub Nashville the “Athens of the South.”
The Secret City
Although Tennessee has many aspects to highlight, one city had to remain under wraps for many years. Oak Ridge, known as the “Secret City,” was developed shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers purchased 59,000 acres of this area, rural Tennessee, for a top-secret mission, which was going to be known now today as the ‘Manhattan Project,’” Curtis said. “This was to produce the world’s first atomic weapon to hopefully end World War II.”
A mission Tennesseans worked hard to protect.
“No one could know,” Curtis said. “A lot of the people didn’t even know what jobs they were doing. Why they were plugging the wires in. They didn’t even know what it was for.” He continued, “Some people – after they found out what they had done – had to get therapy for it because they realized ‘oh my gosh, we just helped produce an atomic bomb.’”
With nicer weather, you probably don’t associate Tennessee with the city of Chicago. But Johnson City got a taste of the Windy City when Al Capone would stop by on his way to Florida. During the prohibition – rumor has it – townspeople would make alcohol and bootleg it on railways that spanned from the Appalachian Mountains and crossed in Tennessee. Curtis said Capone also reportedly ran several speakeasies built just North of Johnson City.
The Biggest Little Town
Adamsville may have a population of fewer than 2,500 people, but the city boasts about offering “a small town atmosphere of knowing and being known by everyone.” The town is known for its schools, churches, and industry, which includes the more than 45-acre Adamsville Industrial Park.
Several big names have ties to Adamsville. Former Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton grew up on a farm near Adamsville. It’s also home to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first DJs, Dewey Phillips.
Curtis’ favorite prominent figure of Adamsville is Sheriff Buford Pusser, who was portrayed in the 1970s movie Walking Tall. Sheriff Pusser was known for refusing to carry a gun. Instead, he walked tall with a big stick. A practice he used up until his wife was murdered. Both are now buried in the Adamsville Cemetery.
The City with Spirit
Just about a decade ago, the people of Cleveland, Tennessee voted to nickname their town the “City with Spirit.” According to Curtis, Cleveland’s Chamber of Commerce Vice President Melissa Woody sums up the nickname best.
“She’ll tell you that they volunteer for everything. Their spirit is so high. From their religion to their faith, their hope for entrepreneurship, to so many things that they do in that little town, she said ‘this town is full of spirit,’” Curtis said. “So, they literally have gone out and branded themselves as the city with spirit.”
Believe it or not, Nashville coined the term “Music City” even before the boom of country music!
“The Music City [nickname] started on the old steam boat with Captain Tom Smith and Ryman and the Gospel and the Fisk Jubilee singers,” Curtis said. “And then the country music, Grand Ole Opry just made it that much stronger.”
But the nickname doesn’t stop there. According to historians, many years ago a group of singers from Middle Tennessee went to sing for the Queen of England. Apparently the Queen was so impressed she said “you must come from a music city.”
Even today, musicians and songwriters still head to Nashville with a dream of making it big. Curtis explained Nashville is still a city of great opportunity for musicians.
And what about the nickname for the state itself?
The Volunteer State
Perhaps the best term to represent the men and women that make up Tennessee is the nickname you probably know it best by – “The Volunteer State.”
“Most historians look at the Volunteer State nickname out of the war of 1812 when Tennesseans were called into service and they responded with a huge number of volunteers coming forward,” said Gordon Belt with the Tennessee State Libraries and Archives.
A title that still holds true, more than 225 years later, especially when you consider the trials the state has overcome in recent history. Over the last year, countless Tennesseans have come together to help restore destruction from the March 3 tornado outbreak, fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and most recently lend a hand after the Nashville downtown bombing. There’s no stopping Tennesseans from continuing to show up no matter what the next 225 years throw at the Volunteer State.
This year, News 2 is bringing you stories on the people, places, and events that have shaped the state with Tennessee 225.