By Jessica Mozo
Driving down U.S. Highway 41 in northern Middle Tennessee, you might miss the tiny community of Adams if you blink.
But don’t let the size of this sleepy town fool you – there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
For starters, it’s the home of the infamous Bell Witch, a spirit that tormented the Bell family from 1817 to 1821. The spirit reportedly held particular hatred toward the family patriarch, John Bell, and his youngest daughter, Betsy, and was blamed for John’s death and violent physical attacks on Betsy.
The Bell family log cabin now sits on the property of the historic Bell High School building, which houses the Adams Antique Mall, the Adams Museum and Archives, and the School House Cafeteria & Tea Room.
The Bell High School building and grounds anchor the town of Adams and attract hordes of visitors fascinated by the Bell Witch legend.
“People are so interested in it because it’s a documented event that can’t be explained to this day,” says Sarah Head, an Adams resident and president of Community SPIRIT Inc., a nonprofit organization that puts on a play about the Bell Witch every October. “This little-bitty community of 500 people is known all over the world. We often get visitors from other states and countries.”
The Bell Witch’s Worldwide Fame
So intriguing is the Bell family’s story, it has been recounted in more than 40 published books and was even the basis for a major motion picture, An American Haunting.
The film was produced in 2006 and starred Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland.
“We’re not lost – we get a lot of publicity,” says Tim Henson, an Adams historian and curator of the Adams Museum and Archives. “When An American Haunting came out, we had newspaper and TV folks lined up along the streets. A lot of the local folks don’t like the movie because it doesn’t follow all their Bell Witch beliefs, but it does tell the tale.”
Adams is also home to the Bell Witch Cave, where the spirit is believed to have retired to after John Bell’s death, and Bellwood Cemetery, where several descendants of the Bell family are buried. But visitors should make the old Bell High School building on Highway 41 their first stop.
“This property was the edge of the Bell farm,” Henson says. “John Bell Jr. had 734 acres when he died in 1862, and this is a little part of that.”
Constructed in 1913, Bell High School served northwestern Robertson County until the building burned down in 1919. The current structure was built in 1920 and served as a school until 1975.
“It’s been an antique mall off and on since 1977,” Henson says. “Central air and paneling were put in and the ceilings lowered, but many parts of the building are the same.”
Covering much of the first and second floors, the antique mall offers an array of antique furnishings and home décor as well as jewelry, candles, books and gifts.
Another classroom houses the Adams Museum and Archives, where glass cases hold class photos from Bell High School, original copies of books written about the Bell family and the Bell Witch, photos of Bell descendants and other artifacts that reveal secrets from Adams’ past.
The Bell cabin behind the school is part of the museum and was last owned by Richard Williams Bell, a son of John Bell who died in 1857. The cabin is believed to have been built by John Bell or his sons.
“Richard Williams Bell was the one from whom most of the Bell Witch stories came,” Henson says. “He was a fairly wealthy man, but he had a turbulent life.”
Southern Food Favorites
The lower level of the Bell High School building holds the School House Cafeteria, a meat-and-three open for lunch Wednesday through Sunday. The cafeteria serves Southern favorites such as meatloaf, fried chicken, catfish, vegetables and “out-of-this-world desserts.”
One of the first-floor classrooms houses a quaint tearoom that is often used for bridal and baby showers, luncheons and private events.
“Four or five Bell High School graduates come eat lunch here just about every day,” Henson says.
The Bell High School building and grounds are open year-round, though they attract the most visitors in the fall, when people everywhere are looking for a good spook.
Henson, however, claims he’s “not big on the scary side of the story.”
“I’m a historian,” he says. “I’ve been researching about the Bells and the spirit since 1995, and I’ve met almost every line of the family.”
But Henson, who works two days a week at the antique mall, is quick to admit that every so often something happens that makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
And that same feeling is what draws people to Adams from the far corners of the globe.
“People like something out of the ordinary, and there’s so much history intertwined with the Bells’ story,” he says. “Even the best of folks have a healthy fear of it.”
The Legend of the Bell Witch
Yearning to learn more about the Bell Witch?
See firsthand how the events unfolded in Adams in October, when Community SPIRIT Inc. presents its annual play, Spirit.
Held in an open-air pavilion behind the Bell High School building, the play features a cast of approximately 30 amateur and professional actors and recounts the tale of the Bell Witch haunting. Written by David Alford, an Adams native who serves as the artistic director for the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, the play is based on the book Our Family Trouble, the only written eyewitness account of the Bell Witch, written by Richard Williams Bell.
“We almost always have something unusual happen,” says Sarah Head, president of Community SPIRIT Inc. “[In 2007], we had a spectacular lightning display one night. As the stories go, one of the ways the Bell Witch appeared was as a black dog, and just about every year, a black dog comes around during rehearsals or at the performances.”
The play runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights the last two weekends in October. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students. For more information, call (615) 696-1300 or visit www.bellwitchplay.com.