By Kim Green
In 1967, the waters took Randall Clemons’ home.
But first, the waters gave birth to his hometown – tiny Granville, Tennessee, a riverboat town first settled in 1799 on the Cumberland River in Jackson County. Then, in the 1960s, when the Army Corps of Engineers created Cordell Hull Lake in this pastoral river bend, the Clemons family home ended up underwater. “The lake took my parents’ home and my grandparents’ home,” he says. “Granville became somewhat of a ghost town.”
Clemons never forgot Granville. He bought a weekend retreat there in the 1990s, just as an influx of retirees had begun to resettle the area. And then in 1999, the tide turned for the town: an old local church closed down, and the community rallied to save it. In saving the church, the citizens of Granville realized that they could breathe new life into their town, one building at a time, by telling the story of what Granville once was.
In the last year of the 20th century, Granville’s small community of preservationists founded the Granville Museum and the town’s annual Heritage Day celebration in May. Now the museum’s president, Clemons says that over the past decade-plus, Heritage Day has grown into a major event, drawing thousands of visitors to the Uncle Jimmy Thompson Bluegrass Festival, square dancing, storytelling, antique car show and other activities.
A Mt. Juliet man named Harold Sutton found himself at one of the early Heritage Day celebrations and discovered his namesake – the T.B. Sutton General Store – neglected and decaying. He made it his mission to restore the place and, in 2007, gifted the store to the Granville Museum to operate as a general store.
Now the town had a central meeting place again, a front porch on which to sit and gossip, a beating heart for the community. The two-story store evokes a bygone age of ice-cream counters and soda jerks. And on Saturday nights, the old walls ring with the sounds of a hundred years ago: the Sutton Ole Time Music Hour is a live bluegrass radio show engineered to sound like the early days of the Grand Ole Opry. “The acoustics are wonderful in there,” says Sam Stout, who manages the weekly show. “Old-time bluegrass music and the old store really go hand in hand.”
Grammy-winning mandolin player Mike Compton agrees. “It’s just more down-home, a simpler place to play, and it’s real cozy,” he says. “It’s American fiddle tunes and gospel songs, songs about Mom. An older style of music … that would’ve been played in a setting like that.”
Compton says the intimate setting, the rich sound and the Southern-style dinner makes the Ole Time Music Hour feel like “a throwback from days gone by.” The bucolic, small-town atmosphere puts him into the mindset of a less harried era.
“It makes me take a deep breath and slow down,” he adds.
With the general store’s resurgence and the growing popularity of the radio show (broadcast on several stations and to U.S. armed forces worldwide), Granville’s historic preservationists seemed to reach a tipping point and gather speed. Two bed-and-breakfasts have since opened, and Clemons converted an old bank building into a gift shop.
And then last spring, Clemons says, the town raised more than $175,000 in 30 days to buy the old Sutton estate, refurbish it and begin operating it as a homestead museum with guides in period dress and an ever-growing array of exhibits, such as blacksmith and weaving shops, a smokehouse and corn crib, and a car and transportation museum. The town is also working on a log house with adjoining orchard and garden that will become a primitive homestead exhibit.
Clemons says the momentum behind these restoration projects has invigorated his hometown and cemented a sense of community. The museum and homestead are largely run by volunteers, he explains – longtime locals, retirees who moved to Granville and enjoy offering their time and talents, and folks who drive in from Nashville and other areas just to help out. “It just kind of caught on,” he says, “and everybody wanted to be a part of it.”
Compton says that Granville’s renewal is evidence that the traditions of small-town life in the South, though harder to find these days, have not disappeared. “It may be just beneath the surface,” he says, “but it’s still alive. It’s a refreshing thing to see.”
For Clemons, Granville’s rebirth means he can go home again, to a place where commerce, community and church are all a stone’s throw from the front porch. “It’s meant so much to me to have a place to come back to,” he says. “Not many places in America can you do that anymore.”
If You Go …
The Sutton Ole Time Music Hour takes place Saturday nights at 6 p.m. at the T.B. Sutton General Store. Granville’s annual Heritage Day occurs in May, the Saturday before Memorial Day. For more information on which radio stations air the music hour or to make a reservation (recommended for the all-you-can-eat Saturday night dinners), visit www.granvilletn.com or call (931) 653-4151.