Tennessee Treasures

The Cumberland Plateau offers visitors a pleasing blend of rural beauty and cultural sophistication.

Cover Story

March 07, 2004|By HAL SMITH | HAL SMITH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If the Appalachian Mountains -- the Eastern Continental Divide -- hadn't deterred settlers from exploring east Tennessee, the Cumberland Plateau might not be as wildly beautiful and unpeopled as it is now.

The plateau, averaging about 40 miles wide, is a band of highlands 2,000 feet high that runs across the state, north-south, paralleling the mountains to the east. The altitude ensures cool summers, yet the winters are mild.

Mostly family farms and hardwood forests, the Cumberland Plateau is the largest timbered plateau in the United States, laced with two-lane roads that knife through cleared fields edged with kudzu and dotted with occasional signs proclaiming the Gospel. Drying tobacco hangs in open barn doorways.

Off the blacktop, hikers and campers will discover whitewater and state parks noted for rugged, striking landscapes, including the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

Although much of the plateau is flat, it is hardly one-dimensional. Rolling hills, small mountains, steep hillsides and deep gorges invite visitors to take detours on lightly traveled back roads. Forested ravines shelter magnolias, tulip poplar, yellow birch and black cherry.

Beaver, mink and otter live in the canyon rivers, which were among the seasonal hunting grounds of the Cherokee, Shawnee and longhunters of the Daniel Boone era, who used the plateau's many caves for shelter.

While folks in Memphis have catfish for breakfast, salty "country ham" is standard fare as you head east, where diners offer several varieties of gravy as side dishes.

And while the residents of western Tennessee talk with a deeper Southern accent, the mountain people speak with a twang. They hang on to their i's, and drop the g's in "ing" words. Here, it's "Appa-LATCH-chia," not "Appa-LAY-chia."

And although "y'all" can have both singular and plural meanings, on the plateau the plural of y'all is "all y'all," as in, "All y'all please come back."

Even Tennesseans admit the humor in that expression. Still, after decades of being caricatured by television's Beverly Hillbillies, east Tennesseans can be a bit sensitive if visitors try to make sport of their accents and regionalisms.

That aside, visitors and their cash -- even Yankees -- are welcome. Add the fact that the state has no income tax and it's clear why retirees are flocking to the area. But even if you aren't ready to collect Social Security, there's still plenty of unclaimed territory for those who appreciate an artsy subculture mixed with unlimited opportunities for outdoor exploration.

Surprises in store

Consider the Cumberland County town of Crossville, population 9,000. It's on Interstate 40, about two hours east of Nashville, on the main route to Knoxville.

Crossville, which has several resorts and bills itself as the "golf capital of Tennessee," has 11 courses on which you can play nine months of the year.

The town has another surprising asset, the Cumberland County Playhouse, one of the 10 largest professional theater groups in rural America. Most weeks, it offers shows on two stages, ranging from musicals to more serious repertoire.

If you know your way around Broadway, you may be a bit smug on arriving at the playhouse for the first time, especially when the theater manager, dressed as casually as a stagehand, ambles out at curtain time to make a few announcements. As she queries the audience for the names of those celebrating birthdays and wedding anniversaries, the celebrants each receive a round of applause.

But when the curtain goes up, it becomes clear that you are not in Crossville anymore. You might be on 42nd Street, or listening to The Sound of Music, paying small-town prices for big-city talent. Busloads of people pack the theater, which sells more than 100,000 tickets annually.

Last year, only four cities were selected to produce Cats: Chicago, Sacramento, Boston -- and Crossville. For 40 years, the playhouse has been bringing first-class theater to the area.

About four miles south of Crossville is another surprise, a community called Homestead, a national historic district and the "showplace of the New Deal."

In the 1930s, it appeared that the Depression would be the coup de grace for the plateau's idle coal miners, sawmill workers and bankrupt farmers. Instead, President Roosevelt's social engineers stepped forward with a plan for communities that had little hope of recovering on their own.

The idea was to carefully select unemployed country people, teach them new, marketable skills and have them build their own communities, using native materials. The new homeowners, given wages for their work, would have 30 years to pay for their houses and their land.

Thousands of the plateau's jobless applied for the program, but only about 250 families could be accommodated. The project produced charming stone cottages for each family, with 18-inch-thick walls made from the local Crab Orchard sandstone, known for its multicolored beauty and weather resistance.

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