Ghost Of Jonesborough

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Dominating Main Street is the old Chester Inn, a 1798 structure that was once a favorite hostelry for wealthy settlers moving westward, or politicians and merchants traveling eastward. James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson both frequented the inn, as did Jackson. As a Nashville judge, Jackson angered local citizens by supporting a resolution to limit land speculation, and in 1803 a furious mob assembled outside the inn, hoping to tar and feather him when he rode into town for his regular court duties. Jackson, forewarned, had hurried ahead to Jonesborough, arriving exhausted and suffering from a raging fever. He was lying down in the inn’s tavern when a friend ran in to tell of the “regiment” gathering outside and suggest that he lock the door. Instead, the judge rose up in a rage, flung the door open, and ran onto the porch, yelling to the rabble that he was ready to “receive” them. Whether they were intimidated by his bravado or simply reluctant to attack a sick man, the mob dispersed. Jackson had a good night’s sleep and held court as usual the next day. Years later President Jackson held a reception for friends on the same porch.

Just beyond the inn is the site of an 1818 printshop, where America’s first abolitionist newspaper, The Manumission Intelligencer , was produced. Abolitionist sentiment prevailed in Jonesborough even before the beginning of the nineteenth century, in part because of the large number of Quakers who settled near the town in 1797. The integration practiced here was unthinkable in neighboring states; from their start in the early 180Os, Jonesborough’s churches welcomed “the African born,” although they had to sit in balconies and obtain permission from their owners before entering.

By 1788, when Andrew Jackson arrived, Washington County had earned a reputation as a region full of upstarts.

The Intelligencer was soon renamed the Emancipator , and its Quaker editor, Elihu Embree, wrote eloquent essays on the blacks’ behalf. Although the paper stopped publication with Embree’s death in 1820, Jonesborough continued to demonstrate enlightened race relations. During the Civil War there were enough Northern sympathizers to threaten secession from the rest of the state and to split the church congregations.

This story, and others, are effectively told in exhibits at the Jonesborough-Washington County Historic Museum, which is housed in a contemporary center at the edge of town. One display describes a turning point: In 1857 the railroad came to Jonesborough, and while it allowed easier access to the cities in the North and East, it also eliminated the town’s strategic position as a stagecoach stop. When business stopped booming, Jonesborough stopped growing. The town hasn’t changed much in the past 130 years.

Now designated a National Historic District, Jonesborough gamely resists most invasions of modernity, and residents happily refer to their home as a “sleepy town.” With its population steady at three thousand, it’s essentially a bedroom community for nearby Johnson City. It has no neon or fluorescent lights, no fast-food strips, no video arcades. Since the old Chester Inn is now a library, overnight visitors can choose between local bed-and-breakfasts or venture out of town to nearby motels and inns.

The first weekend in October Jonesborough comes alive as the location of a huge annual storytelling festival. On Saturday night participants gather at the town’s two-hundred-year-old cemetery and tell ghost stories around a raging bonfire. It’s a great tradition, one in which the town’s history is eerily recalled to life. But one can’t count on local phantoms to be present. No doubt, Jonesborough’s ghosts, like its founders, are intensely independent spirits. They’re probably out blazing new trails.

Catherine Calhoun TO PLAN A TRIP