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Exploring Greeneville: One of Tennessee’s Oldest Towns



In Greeneville, Tennessee, visitors will find a land with picturesque rolling hills, bucolic farms with mountain backdrops, and a historic downtown area. Embedded in this scenery is the tumultuous history of a town trying to establish its identity among divided ideals.

 

For several years during the 1780s, Greeneville, as a part of Greene County, was part of an effort to create the individual State of Franklin, which failed when members struggled to agree because of conflicting loyalties. In the next century, during the Civil War, Greene County stood as a mostly Unionist community in Tennessee, the last state to secede from the Union.

 



This town’s interesting past and ties to former President Andrew Johnson make it a hotbed of memorable experiences for visitors.

 

The Greeneville Greene County Historical Museum



This local historical museum is at the edge of downtown Greeneville, in the old Andrew Johnson School. The multi-story brick building with a 1917 American La France fire engine out front doesn’t look like much from the outside, but trust me, it’s worth going in.

 



The historical society has done a wonderful job with its thirteen exhibits and walkthrough displays diving into the history of the area. Starting on the main floor with their Paleo to Pioneer exhibit, the museum covers pre-human occupation through today.


There were so many interesting things to see from the exhibits about fine living in beautiful southern homes, to the 1950s kitchen, history of slavery and freedom in Greene County, to the 1900 Main Street Gallery.

 



My kids’ favorite sections were the Magnavox Gallery, which showed old, large TV sets much different from what they’ve grown up with, and the Klondike Gallery – an area with an outdoor pioneer theme where the kids could touch the displays and play with items.

 

The Greeneville Greene County Historical Museum had so much to offer that we could have visited here several times during our stay and still found something new each time. Stop in and see what the historical society has accomplished in the old school building.

 



Know Before You Go

Location: 101 W. McKee Street, Greeneville, TN

Phone: (423) 636 - 1558

Hours: Tues – Sat, 11:00 am – 4:00 pm

Fees: No Charge, Donations Appreciated

 

Andrew Johnson National Historic Site



Dotted among the buildings of downtown Greeneville, a National Park Service Historic Site educates visitors about the life of former president Andrew Johnson. Though Johnson was not born in Greeneville, he moved to Tennessee after running away from an apprenticeship at fifteen years old. He fell in love with the town and eventually built his family’s home there.

 

The National Historic Site encompasses several areas around town, including the Visitor’s Center, the Early Home, Johnson’s Homestead, and a National Cemetery.

 

Visitor’s Center



You’ll want to start at the brick building that houses the Visitor’s Center. It’s here at the information desk where a park ranger will tell you everything you need to know about the park. This is where you can sign up for a free tour of the Johnson Homestead as well.

 

The park ranger warned us the subject matter on the tour might be difficult for kids to hear, and we told him it was okay. However, I felt like the nice young lady who conducted our tour held back on some details. So, if you’re traveling with kids, just know you might get the PG-version of the former president’s life. It’s still quite informative and worth the time.

 



If you have much younger children who aren’t used to slow-moving tours of old homes, which involve a lot of standing and listening, this might not be the best option for you.

 

Like most national parks, the Visitor’s Center has a small gift shop in the main entrance area. To the left of the information desk is a museum about the 17th U.S. President, Andrew Johnson. The most remarkable aspect of this museum is that they constructed a memorial building around Johnson’s original 1830s tailor shop.

 

The Early Home & Birthplace Replica



This national historic site tells the story of Johnson’s life, from his humble beginnings to his successful tailor shop and his controversial presidency. They’ve created a replica of the house he was born in, across the street from The Early Home.

 



Between the Visitor’s Center and the replica of the small home Johnson was born in, is The Early Home. This is where Johnson and his family lived from the 1830s until 1851. Today, the home contains exhibits about Andrew Johnson’s life and presidency, slavery, and major events in the country around this period.

 



Dolly and Sam

Johnson had a confusing and somewhat contradictory belief system regarding slavery during his time as vice president during the Civil War. I’d highly recommend checking out the National Park website here, for information about Sam and Dolly, a brother and sister purchased by Johnson, and eventually freed to become his paid servants. These prominent figures were an integral part of reconstruction and supporting the community in Greeneville.



 

Johnson’s Homestead



Johnson’s Homestead feels as divided and unexpected as the president himself. For instance, the former president had his bedroom on the main floor of the home, so that he could easily visit guests any time, day or night. However, as our informative guide told us, a house of this size, during this period, rarely saw bedrooms on the first floor.

 



The home has many of its original features, though some things, like wallpaper, have changed. This is because Johnson’s presidency came during a tumultuous time in America, after the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln. To top that off, Johnson’s beliefs and policies were unpopular on both ends of the political spectrum; he was a strong supporter of slavery (having owned slaves himself), but was also anti-secessionist.

 



Several times during the war, the Johnson family fled their home in Greeneville while it was occupied by neighbors and troops. During this time, the men graffitied the walls with insults about Johnson. While renovating the home, the National Park Service left a piece of the wall exposed (though protected under glass) so visitors could read the more family-friendly vandalism on the wall.

 



I’d recommend touring the Johnson home if you are able. The tour takes about an hour and involves climbing multiple staircases and walking around the second-story porch. As a historic site, this building lacks many modern conveniences. You’ll want to dress appropriately for the weather and wear comfortable shoes. Before scheduling a tour, keep in mind that Johnson didn’t build his home to be accessible. It also isn’t stroller friendly.

 

National Cemetery



Though most of the stops at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site were within walking distance for us, we drove to the National Cemetery, which was about a mile away and up a steep hill.

 

According to the National Park Service, Johnson had told his slave and close friend, Sam, that he wanted to be laid to rest on the hill with the pleasant view. He purchased fifteen acres for his family’s burial plots. They buried Johnson, per his wishes, wrapped in the American flag with a copy of the U.S. Constitution resting under his head.

 



Twenty-one years after Johnson’s death, the government dedicated this area as a National Cemetery.

 

Know Before You Go

Location(s): 101 N. College Street, Greeneville, TN

Phone: (423) 638 - 3551

Hours: Change depending on the season. Click here for the most up to date information.

Fees: FREE

Parking: Available near the Visitor’s Center, Johnson’s Homestead, the National Cemetery, and throughout downtown Greeneville.

Accessibility: The Visitor’s Center and restrooms are accessible. However, Johnson’s homes were not built for accessibility. Call the park at the number above with specific questions.

Restrooms: Available outside the Visitor’s Center.

 

 

City Garage Car Museum



In the picturesque downtown area of Greeneville, Tennessee, the City Garage Car Museum stands as a tribute to the past. This privately owned, one-story brick structure at 210 S. Main Street has stood for almost a hundred years, and some vehicles inside have been around for even longer than that.

 

Originally built in the 1930s as the Kasco feed store, Willie Bullen and James O’ Keefe purchased the building a decade later turning it into City Dodge Garage. It served as a dealership until the 1970s. After several businesses occupied the building, Greeneville native Mr. Bewly purchased it to set up his car museum. Today, the museum houses many of Mr. Kent Bewly’s cars and collected memorabilia, with several of his friends’ cars periodically displayed in the building.

 



Whether you’re a car enthusiast, antique fanatic, or history buff, this museum has something for you. Every vehicle in the building is fully functional, except for the 1923 Ford T Delivery Truck and the 1929 Ford Model A oil delivery truck.

 

Signs throughout the building advise guests not to touch the vehicles. However, the gentleman working there informed us that if we wanted to sit in one, to let him know. He assisted my dad in getting into one of his favorite cars, a shiny, red 1972 DeTomaso Pantera. If you love the classics, this is your Graceland.

 



From the entrance, we enjoyed the Texaco display with old fuel pumps, signs, and some of the first vehicles produced in the early 1900s. Behind those is a beautiful mule-drawn Studebaker.

 

The most interesting part of the Texaco display was a piece that didn’t fit in with the past at all – a custom scooter built by a local man and sold to the museum. He built the fully functioning scooter with parts from a wheelbarrow, a minibike, a bicycle seat, and the fenders of a VW Beetle, and its tiny presence is quite a sight among the large shiny cars in the museum.

 



The unique vehicles spanning over a century make this a fun trip for an individual, couple, or a multi-generational family. There’s something here for everyone to enjoy.

 

Know Before You Go

Location: 210 S. Main Street, Greeneville, TN

Phone: (423) 638-6971

Hours: Fri-Sat, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm

Fees: Adults $5.00; Kids 10-under are FREE

Parking: Plenty of free parking available in front of, and to the side of, the museum

Restrooms: Restrooms available inside

 



The town of Greeneville, Tennessee, holds a lot of southern charm in a modern way. It’s a great place to spend a week or two exploring the area, grabbing a coffee downtown, and getting a little more acquainted with American history.

 



Looking for more off-the-beaten path places with fun things to do? Check out The Old Jail Museum in Hayesville, North Carolina, and 3 Adorable Small Towns in New Hampshire!


Have you been to Greeneville? Where's your favorite place to visit in Tennessee? Leave a comment below. We'd love to hear from you!

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