Monday, March 19, 2012


Jarod's grandmother remembers
Sunday afternoons on The Mountain here at Sewanee are desultory, particularly during the Spring break on the University of the South campus where we live in a modest cottage. The solution to ennui usually takes the form of a “field trip,” and yesterday we drove down the Mountain to the valley where the town of Cowan has been offering a unique Smithsonian exhibit entitled “The Way We Worked” at the Cowan Center for the Arts.

Cowan is a city with a population of 1737 people, and its claim to fame is as a railroad town, the site where the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway formerly employed 600 people from the area. It was the last stop before a steep uphill climb onto the Cumberland Plateau, and pusher locomotive engines were required to help the trains make the ascent, a 2228 ft. grade which had to be mounted before reaching a tunnel which ran through the Cumberland Mountains two miles from the town.

St. Mary's Station on the railway route
As a companion exhibit to the Smithsonian, the Cowan Railroad Museum offers a display showing railroad tools, methods of train travel, as well as photographs of Cowan’s largest employer between 1916 and 1928: the Davidson, Hicks, and Green Lumber Company which operated three sawmills and 25 miles of railroad. The coal and iron industries near Cowan are also featured in this exhibit.

The Smithsonian Exhibit includes kiosks with photographic essays of The Way We Worked, Where We Worked, How We Worked, Who Works, and Why We Work, including an interesting study of “Women Against the Odds,” documenting the war effort of women at work during WWII. An interesting statistic from the 20th Century: 37 percent of the workforce in 1975 involved women, and 63% were involved by the year 2000.

Jarod Pearson on board of Cowan RR Museum
One hundred eighty six photographs, with accompanying text comprise the exhibit, along with flip books, audio clips, and video screens. While we enjoyed the exhibit, we renewed our friendship with Jarod Pearson, proprietor of Sernicola’s Restaurant and the Franklin-Pearson House, a Bed and Breakfast facility. Jarod is on the Board for the Cowan Railroad Museum and told us that he helped write the proposal for the grant funding the exhibit. “We were pleasantly surprised when we received word that our proposal was the best proposal submitted,” he said. “I wrote the texts describing photographs and was told to put the stories in language that could be understood by fifth graders as school children would be primary attenders. I had to scan the photographs in high resolution for presentation, and create the stories that feature Cowan industries.”

In addition to the Smithsonian Exhibit and the Cowan Railroad Museum Companion Exhibit, an Arnold Air Force Base Display, Falls Mill Display, University of the South Display comprise exhibits in the Cowan Center for the Arts Theater. Next door in the Training Center, displays from the Crow Creek Heritage Preservation Society show how people of the Crow Creek Valley made a living as miners, railroad workers, farmers, brick makers, and as workers in the logging and tanbark industry. Photographs from The Grundy County Historical Society Heritage Center are featured, the latter showing photographs of the Swiss Colony at Gruetli, the Sam Werner Lumber Company, and a display about Dr. Lilian W. Johnson, Advocate for Agricultural Cooperatives. Franklin County Historical Society and Kokomo Grain Company also carried out the theme of how workers form the backbone of Franklin County.

I know the work ethic is strong in Franklin County as we have had carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and housekeepers working on the cottage during the past four years, and while they have been sometimes sporadic about showing up to do the work, when they appear, they crawl under the cottage, climb on the roof, remove windows for cleaning, working in teams of four or five, sometimes in blazing August temperatures that would fell a Louisianan.

I was amused last week when I bought groceries in Kroger's at Winchester, Tennessee and as I was checking out, an eighteen-year old man struck up a conversation (another facet of Tennessee workers-- garrulousness. They make you a part of their lives immediately). “How are you?” he asked. When I replied that I was doing well and how was he, he was off and running. “I’m so glad to be working,” he said. “Everyone should be glad to be working. I graduated from high school this summer and was sitting on the couch doing nothing and thought to myself, ‘Man, you are poor; what are you doing sitting on the couch?’ So I got up and came down here and got this job bagging groceries. I’m glad to have a job.”

No, I didn’t ask for the story, but such accounts are characteristic of the workers around these parts, and I applaud them for their work ethic. “The Way We Worked” display at Cowan illustrates the strength and endurance of workers in middle Tennessee who have kept our society and economy running despite downturns, politicians who make false promises, bank crashes, inflation, and wars.

“The Way We Worked” exhibit, offered in partnership with Humanities Tennessee, Museums on Main Street, the Smithsonian Institution, Cowan Railroad Museum, and State Humanities Councils nationwide, will be open until April 21. Lectures will be offered Sundays and Thursdays every week until April 19. The exhibits are free, but donations help support ongoing work of these organizations.

1 comment:

Isabel Anders said...

This is fantastic! What a great tribute to workers in our area then and now. We live in a house on the University of the South Domain that dates back to 1896, with history built into it--from its stone foundation through several additions, including the work we have done to expand and renovate it. We are told this land was settled by Swiss farmers and that our lot was once a working farm. We live on and enjoy the "fruits" of these earlier laborers.