Deep, Surprising Histories in Clarksville, Tennessee

The Customs House Museum lit up at night.
The Customs House Museum lit up at night. Marni Patterson photos.

Where to Explore History in Clarksville, Tennessee

By Marni Patterson

Wilma Rudolph won three Olympic gold medals in track at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Wilma Rudolph won three Olympic gold medals in track at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

One of the first things people ask about Clarksville, Tennessee is whether it’s the city the Monkees sang about in their 1966 hit “Last Train to Clarksville.” It isn’t.

Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the songwriters, wrote it as a Vietnam War protest song about a man who’s been drafted. They said the reference in the song could be any number of U.S. towns named Clarksville, but it doesn’t refer to any specific one.

Clarksville is actually named for General George Rogers Clark, an Indian fighter and Revolutionary War leader who founded the town in 1784.

He allocated 1000 acres to establish the city from 150,000 acres of land he received in return for his service during the war. The town was named Clarksville because he was the founder.

Many visitors to Tennessee flock to Nashville, Memphis, and the Smoky Mountains and most have never heard of Clarksville. So, they don’t include it in their plans. Surprisingly, it has enough interesting activities to keep them busy for days, especially if they’re interested in history.

Tennessee cast the deciding vote to pass the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.
Tennessee cast the deciding vote to pass the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

Downtown is Full of Surprises

I started my trip by following the Clarksville Then & Now Trail around the historic downtown area and learned some surprising facts about Clarksville and Tennessee.

We saw a statue of someone we immediately recognized: Frank Sutton, or Sergeant Carter in the show Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. The statue felt so lifelike that we could almost hear him yelling, “PYLE!!!!!!”

Did you know the Tennessee legislature cast the deciding vote to pass the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote?

We didn’t until we saw a monument in Clarksville’s Public Square. At that time, 36 states were needed to ratify a constitutional amendment. Tennessee was number 36 and is proud of its integral role in such a significant historical event.

David Smith, a retired Army photographer who runs Clarksville Aerial Photography, wowed us by pointing out various buildings and recounting the history of each when he learned we were visitors,

Traders bought and sold slaves at the Montgomery County Courthouse and the Market House on Public Square.
Traders bought and sold slaves at the Montgomery County Courthouse and the Market House on Public Square.

Slave Trading in Downtown Clarksville

Clarksville has an African American Trail with 22 stops around town. The three that touched us the most were the Slave Market, the Wilma Rudolph Memorial, and the Monument to Colored Civil War Troops at Fort Defiance.

Before the Civil War, slaves were the foundation of Clarksville’s economy. Traders bought and sold them at the Montgomery County Courthouse and the Market House on Public Square.

As we looked at the place where slaves were caged like animals until they were sold, we could only imagine how they felt not knowing where they were going or if they’d ever see their friends and family again.

When slavery was abolished in 1863, the Union Army recruited African Americans, and almost 200,000 men signed up. Most were former slaves, and they became part of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). We were surprised to learn that by the end of the Civil War, the USCT included one light infantry regiment and 135 infantry, 13 heavy artillery and six cavalry regiments.

Fort Defiance was built in 1861 so Confederate troops could protect Clarksville from Union attacks.
Fort Defiance was built in 1861 so Confederate troops could protect Clarksville from Union attacks.

Fort Defiance Civil War Interpretive Center

At Fort Defiance, we immersed ourselves in Civil War history. Our guide even had a direct connection to the Civil War because his great-great-grandfather was a member of the 7th Tennessee Infantry.

That regiment was part of Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg, which means it’s remarkable that he survived.

Fort Defiance is on a bluff 200 feet above the confluence of the Cumberland and Red Rivers.

Our guide showed us how the Confederate Army used it as a vantage point to spot Union boats coming down the rivers. We saw the gun platforms troops used, and re-enactors dressed in authentic uniforms showed us how to use rifle muskets soldiers typically used. We all wondered how they could aim and fire them because we could barely lift them.

Customs House Museum & Cultural Center

The Customs House Museum downtown is a former Federal Post Office and Customs House that handled the huge volume of mail generated by Clarksville’s international tobacco trade.

The entrance to Dunbar Cave, one of the largest cave complexes in the world.
The entrance to Dunbar Cave, one of the largest cave complexes in the world.

We all enjoyed the exhibit about Clarksville’s history because it provided an excellent overview of how the tobacco and river trade contributed to the city’s growth and how the Civil War impacted the town.

However, we all gravitated to the first floor to see (and play with) a huge model train exhibit.

We all acted like a bunch of kids while we pushed buttons that made cars move, helicopters fly, and amusement park rides operate while the train followed its route.

Dunbar Cave State Park

Before visiting Clarksville, I didn’t know Tennessee has over 10,000 caves. That’s more than any other state and 20% percent of all known caves in the U.S. We had the opportunity to visit one of them–Dunbar Cave, which at eight miles long, is one of the largest cave complexes in the world.

We were amazed to learn that humans occupied Dunbar Cave thousands of years ago. Archaeologists found drawings, etchings, and artifacts that date back to the Mississippian era. During the tour, our guide showed us pictographs that are most likely religious symbols and one that that’s a drawing of a Mississippian supernatural warrior.

The terrain inside the cave is rugged and uneven, and the floor is often slippery. There was also no light other than our flashlights. So, it was hard to imagine people living there.

I also learned Dunbar Cave was a popular place for parties, dances, and concerts during the 18th and 19th centuries. The area at the mouth of the cave is cool because the air from the interior provides natural air conditioning. There’s even a ledge that served as a bandstand. Since buildings weren’t air-conditioned back then, it was easy to see why this was a popular place for locals to gather on hot, humid summer days and evenings.

Historic Collinsville is a pioneer settlement that shows what life was like in rural Tennessee in the mid-1800s.
Historic Collinsville is a pioneer settlement that shows what life was like in rural Tennessee in the mid-1800s.

Take a Trip Back in Time to Historic Collinsville

I took a trip to Collinsville, which is 25 miles from Clarksville, and felt like I went 200 years back in time. Historic Collinsville is a pioneer settlement with 17 restored log homes and other commercial buildings such as a blacksmith shop, loom house, and tobacco barn.

All were built between 1830 to 1870 and are furnished with authentic period pieces and artifacts to show what life was like in rural Tennessee in the mid-1800s.

Scan the QR code on any building with a plaque to learn its history.
Scan the QR code on any building with a plaque to learn its history.

Collinsville was the brainchild of Glenn and JoAnn Weakley. They were history lovers and purchased or “rescued” many of the buildings in Montgomery County and nearby Stewart County.

Both are descendants of families that lived in the homes. Glenn’s father was born and raised in the 1830 log home that’s now the Visitor’s Center.

When I visited the log homes, I wondered how an entire family could live in such a small space. The parent’s bedroom doubled as a nursery and often a weaving and sewing room.

The living room and kitchen were one room. All the children slept and played in the same room.

We saw where the pioneers grew and canned vegetables and kept animals. We also got to make butter. Our guide led us into the kitchen of one of the log homes where jars of cream were lined up on the table. It was our job to shake the jars until the cream turned into butter. Then she produced a plate of crackers so we could try it.

An Alliance for Science study shows around half the U.S. population doesn’t know where their food comes from. We all agreed that experiences like this are worthwhile so people understand food doesn’t magically appear in grocery stores wrapped in Styrofoam and cellophane packages.

Marni PattersonMarni Patterson is a freelance journalist who writes about destination travel, local customs and cultures, and history. She’s lived all over the U.S., spent a year in Belgium as an exchange student, and now calls Phoenix, Arizona home. You can catch up with her on her website and Instagram.

Marni Patterson

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