Bobo headshot

Jeff Bobo

Last weekend the Amis Mill Eatery hosted hundreds of people attending a huge fundraiser for Kingsport’s Casa for Kids, Inc.

Eatery owner Jake Jacobs later told me that many of those visitors had never been to the Capt. Thomas Amis historic site near Rogersville, knew nothing of the property’s history, nor were they aware of the top notch cuisine available at the eatery.

If you know Jake, it goes without saying he spent the evening making lots of new friends, and talking about everything that’s happened there over the past 240 years.

No doubt a lot of those folks will be back to sample the eatery menu and take a closer look at the property. They might even come over and check out downtown Rogersville, and look through a couple of downtown shops.

And that, my friends, is the definition of tourism. That’s the generation of tax dollars. It’s not Dollywood or Opryland, but there’s a lot of untapped tourism potential right here in Rogersville.

Some people snicker when they hear talk about Hawkins County tourism. That’s called not being able to see the forest for the trees. When you drive by a 185-year-old courthouse and a 197-year-old hotel every day it seems normal. It’s not normal. It’s very special and rare.

Those two buildings are a big part of the reason we see folks walking up and down Main Street in downtown Rogersville peeking into store fronts.

A lot of people in this world, myself included, are suckers for history. Fortunately our town fathers had the foresight to preserve the courthouse and the Hale Springs Inn, and many other important local historic landmarks.

But, there’s still a lot of work to do.

On Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. the County Commission’s Ad Hoc Committee will be meeting again at the courthouse to hear requests and suggestions for uses of the $11.1 million federal COVID stimulus funding Hawkins County will receive, and must spend by 2024.

Hawkins County has a lot of good uses for that money, and in my opinion public safety needs come first, second and third.

Way down the priority list is historic preservation and tourism. But, not so far down the list that it should be excluded. Historic preservation isn’t a matter of life and death, but it is an investment in the future of the community.

I can think of a handful of historic preservation projects just in the Rogersville area alone that we could knock out and barely make a dent in that COVID money. Most of these projects are eligible for grants, and only need matching funds.

Here’s my list of top historic preservation project worthy of COVID funding consideration:

St. Marks Presbyterian Church: Owned by the Hawkins County Board of Education, the church is leased to a non profit preservation committee that has already completed repairs to the exterior. The 109 year old former African American church was part of the Swift College campus.

One thing downtown Rogersville really needs is a live entertainment venue. My vision for St. Marks would be to renovate the sanctuary into a 200 seat live theater for plays and concerts. The ground floor could be used for visual and performing arts classes. That’s pretty much the vision longtime teacher and school board member Ella Jo Bradley had for the church when she launched the preservation effort 20 years ago.

Rogers Tavern: Owned by the Rogersville Heritage Association, its one of the few remaining buildings in town that dates back to the 1790s. There’s already a plan to return Rogers Tavern back to the log structure as it appeared when Rogersville founder Joseph Rogers operated it 220 years ago. Among the most notable visitors was Andrew Jackson, who famously beat up a guy for criticizing the food and accommodations.

Another famous visitor was William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. There’s an effort underway by the Lewis and Clark Foundation to create a historic tourism trail following Clark’s 1809 journey from Louisville to Washington D.C. — through Rogersville. We need to get the tavern fixed up. It looks pretty rough.

The Kenner House: Owned jointly by Rogersville and the county, the 185-year-old Kenner House located beside the library in Rogersville already has a new roof and reinforced walls. It needs some cosmetic work and an interior restoration. If you’ve never seen the inside of that house, it’s beautiful and has a lot of potential. It was used by the Industrial Board and Habitat for Humanity for years. Even if they can’t find a tourism related use, Kenner House needs to be restored and opened for some public use.

Powel Law Office: Owned by Rogersville, it’s another building dating back to the 1790s that is being restored to its original log appearance. It’s incredible how much history is associated with that little building. Google some of my old articles. Restoring that building to its original appearance would just be another trophy in Rogersville’s historic building trophy case, and another good reason for visitors to go downtown and eat lunch.

The Amis Mill Dam: Jake and Wendy Jacobs restored the Thomas Amis historic site to a pristine condition out of their own pockets and with their own sweat. But, restoring that 240-year-old dam by themselves is the proverbial “bridge too far”. Engineers estimated the restoration cost at around $200,000, and because it’s on private property it isn’t eligible for grants.

One of these days — maybe one year from now, maybe 100 years from now — that dam going fall over during a heavy rain. Let’s hope you’re not driving on Burem Road’s Big Creek bridge when that happens. You might end up floating down the Holston River. This dam needs to be restored, not only because it’s the oldest stone dam in Tennessee and arguably the biggest historic tourist attraction in Hawkins County. It needs to be restored because we let it fall down, shame on us.

With this stimulus funding we will never be in a better position than we are right now to complete all these historic preservation projects.

Two or three generations down the road our descendants might be thanking us for preserving their heritage and their history. Or, they might be scolding us in our graves for letting their historic landmarks fall down and disappear.