Wednesday, March 21, 2012


After visiting the Smithsonian Exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” at Cowan, Tennessee Sunday afternoon, we walked up the main street of town, stopping often to peer in at closed shops. At the “Book Brake,” a bookstore owned by Tom McGee, two men beckoned for us to come in, and we entered the extremely long room that houses used and collectable books. Although we didn’t buy any books, we spent almost an hour talking with proprietor Tom McGee and Tom Wagner, editor of a publication “not affiliated with any group” entitled Cowan Comment. The latter is published six times a year, “one about every other month,” and provides interesting subjects to Cowan citizens and people who visit the community. Wagner’s mission is to encourage people to visit Cowan and to open businesses that will help revive life on Cumberland Street in Cowan. He asked me to contribute guest articles, so I plan to make more forays into the community to find fodder for blogs and informal essays.

McGee gave us free tickets to the Tennessee Antiquarian Book Fair which is held in the Monterrey Station in Cowan each year. Cowan claims the distinction of being the only small town in America with a national book fair. Most of the time these annual antiquarian book fairs are week-end events held in cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco. Last year, over fifty booksellers from more than twelve states participated in the Antiquarian Book Fair in Cowan, and more than a thousand book collectors and readers from throughout the North American continent attended the event. Lectures included Children’s Literacy, the Civil War in Tennessee, and “Book Collecting 101.” Nicholas Basbanes related tales from his book, A Gentle Madness, which included stories about book collectors from antiquity to the 1980’s.

The Monterrey Station that houses the Book Fair was built in the 1920’s and is touted as being one of the largest indoor event complexes in southeastern Middle Tennessee. It was formerly used as a shoe factory and a yarn mill and contains 20,000 sq. ft. This year’s Fair will be held July 21 and 22, prior to the opening of the Sewanee Writer’s Conference here on the campus of the University of the South. Documents concerning the Civil War, the American Revolution, and both World Wars will be showcased, as well as many collectable and rare books, first editions of mysteries, science fiction, and literature. The event will offer a real book feast for bibliophiles! (A copy of the ticket for this event appears at the beginning of this blog.)

Cowan gained its fame as a railroad town, as mentioned in my last blog, but the first settlers were farmers in search of new land and a new life – Scots/Irish immigrants from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina who came to the area during the 1800’s. During the early 19th century, Cowan was a stage coach stop between Chattanooga and Nashville. Farmers sent their produce to markets by road to the Elk River at Estill Springs, Tennessee where it was shipped by river to ports on the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, notably the port at New Orleans. The town was named for Dr. J.B. Cowan, a medical officer on General Forrest’s staff during the Civil War, who is reputed to have given a large area of land to the town. Cowan became a rail center prior to the Civil War when rails were laid from Nashville through the Cumberland Tunnel two and one miles east of the town.

Cowan residents have seen various industries come and go – the Sewanee Furnace which produced 70 tons of pig iron per day at its zenith; the Davis, Hicks and Greene Timber Company that built a railroad over the mountain into Alabama and shipped logs by locomotive; a pusher terminal where special engines helped heavy freights of 125 cars and passenger trains through a tunnel in the Cumberland Mountains so that the cars could start down the opposite side; and farming operations that produced corn and cotton.

I obtained a bit of this information from an article by Dr. Andrew Rittenberry in an issue of the Franklin County Historical Review. He wrote “The City of Cowan has risen from the depths of the backwoods into a prosperous small town with industries and businesses. She possesses a great many hopes for the future: and a love and fondness of her past.” Cowan is a town whose time has come and is poised for revitalization. This Cumberland Valley town resembles many small towns in America that are gaining notice for their uniqueness and for their contributions to American culture and industry.

P.S. Thanks to my good friend and reader, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, for yesterday’s comments regarding the first blog about Cowan: “You have such a generous, appreciative voice in your blogs and make the worlds you create so real…”
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