Above Photo: The cave spring at Jack Daniel’s, Lynchburg
I have criss-crossed my way through the western and southern United States, landing in Tennessee more than once. There was that great trip to Loretta Lynn’s ranch in Hurricane Mills over Memorial Day weekend, and I spent a week in Memphis. There was also that stay in the Great Smoky Mountains. But my most recent visit, to Lynchburg and Shiloh, epitomizes what I hoped to experience when I began this journey. In both Lynchburg and Shiloh I found peaceful, picturesque communities with warm, inviting locals and the opportunity to learn by first-hand experience. It simply does not get any better than that for me.
WHO KNEW YOU COULD HAVE THIS MUCH FUN IN A DRY COUNTY?
Following a week in Chattanooga visiting old friends, I pointed myself towards Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of Jack Daniel’s. Lynchburg boasts a population of 361, and when I pulled into town I knew better than to to argue; the burg of Lynchburg consists of one traffic light (the only one in the county), a small town square, courthouse at the center, and two streets of shops around the perimeter. As for the shops, to paraphrase Whitney Houston, if it don’t sell Jack, it’s whack.
I set up the rig in the town park just off the square, noting the $20 per night for RVs, payable at the courthouse.
It was Monday, but the courthouse was closed. A quick review of the hours on the door reminded me a lot of this old joke:
A shop owner suggested that the Chamber of Commerce lady at the Old Jail Museum might be willing to take my money.
She didn’t want it either. I made a note of where to mail it and headed off to Miss Mary Bobo’s for lunch.
Miss Mary Bobo (locals seem to pronounce it “Bubba”) ran the boarding house in Lynchburg from 1908 until her death at age 101 in 1983. The future of the boarding house was uncertain, until Jack Daniel’s purchased it and continued the tradition of serving traditional Southern dinner (that’s lunch for the uninitiated) in the boarding house’s many dining rooms.
Unlike Mrs. Wilkes in Savannah, where diners stand in line for hours, Miss Mary Bobo’s has three reserved lunch seatings, at 11:00 a.m., Noon, and 1:00 p.m. Each dining room is staffed with a host, who imparts a bit of history and chats with everyone at the table. We were lucky enough to snag as our hostess the granddaughter of one of Miss Bobo’s cooks back in the day. She admitted that three dinner sittings each day was causing her to pack on the pounds! (Nice work if you can get it!) Students from the local community college deliver the food to the tables, and it was all delicious.
Alas, no Jack Daniel’s is served in the traditional way at the boarding house, because Lynchburg is in a dry county! Yes, you read me right. Moore County is dry, meaning that no liquor may be purchased in the county or served in public establishments. Cryptically, our hostess mentioned that some of “the local product” was in the baked apples. When chess pie was served for dessert, that “local product” was also in the whipped cream on top. She suggested spooning it into our after-dinner coffee. We all felt like mischievous scofflaws.
Belly full, I headed off to the Jack Daniel’s distillery for a tour, which was fantastic. They are celebrating their 150-year anniversary this year.
In the whiskey distilling business, some of the whiskey soaks into the wood barrels, known as “The Devil’s Cut.” A portion also evaporates, known as “The Angel’s Share.” Standing on the distillery grounds in that little valley, looking up at the barrel houses along the ridge, you can smell the Angel’s Share blowing in the wind.
It was particularly inspiring to stand at the entrance of the cave where Jack got his spring water; you can still see the soot and black on the limestone where Jack lit his fires under the stills.
There’s also Jack’s old office, including the safe he kicked one day out of frustration when he forgot the combination.
A series of infections set in, which eventually took his life. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the safe that killed Jack Daniel.
About six years ago, Jack Daniel’s and all the other local distilleries experienced a coup of sorts, when the county capitulated on some of its Prohibition-era dry laws. You may now do whiskey tastings at the distilleries, and you may purchase bottles in their bottle stores.
Glory, hallelujah! What’s a trip to a distillery without a sample and a fifth? I splurged on a bottle of Sinatra Select.
Along with Miss Mary Bobo’s, you get the sense that Jack Daniel’s owns a large part of the town of Lynchburg. There’s the old hardware and general store, for example, owned by the distillery, which sells souvenirs and Jack merchandise. Some of the stores appear to still be independently owned, but if they fail someday, the town of Lynchburg must and will go on, thanks to the distillery.
The bell tower at the Lynchburg courthouse plays a song and tolls the hour each hour, chiming on the half hour. At 6:00 p.m. the town shuts up tight. If you want dinner in Lynchburg, you’d better order it at 4:30, or you are stuck with Subway or the Chinese buffet up the road. There’s no nightlife in a dry town, and by 7:00 p.m., when the sun sets, the town is vacant, but beautiful by moonlight and the occasional street lamp.
I enjoyed myself so much, I stayed an additional day. The next day I toured the George Dickel distillery about a half hour’s drive away, learning still more about making charcoal from sugar maple wood, ratio of corn to rye to barley, white oak barrels and staves with no nails.
With the weekend in Lynchburg came a private event at the Jack Daniel’s distillery, so I got while the getting was good. I left Saturday morning for Shiloh, site of an early but one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The drive itself was spectacular. I spent three hours on Tennessee back roads, avoiding interstates entirely. There was a hint of fall color in the foliage. The weather was warm and sunny. There was hardly any one else on the road. I struck up a conversation with a motorcycle gang at a gas station; when they caught up to me later on the highway, they honked their horns and waved as they went by with a rumble.
A DAM, A RESERVOIR, A WATERING HOLE
Research on the Internet suggested that Pickwick Landing, 12 miles from the Shiloh Military Park, was a good place to stay. The Pickwick Dam, a Depression-era TVA project harnessing the power of the Tennessee River, created Pickwick Reservoir, which extends 53 miles south from the dam along the Mississippi-Alabama state line and east into Alabama.
October is such a perfect time of year for RV travel without reservations. Loop C of the campground was completely empty. I positioned the rig with a view of the reservoir from the main windows, then went for a walk with the dogs.
To my surprise and delight, immediately outside the campground gates sat the Botel, an historic hotel and bar.
I knew where I would be having dinner that night, and within walking distance to the rig!
On the short drive from Pickwick Landing to Shiloh, I passed two Mennonite women on the side of the road, selling home baked goods. They were attracting quite a crowd, as a record number of bikers were in the area that day to raise money for cancer research. What a juxtaposition – the women with their bonnets and horse and buggy, conducting business with wizened and gnarled chopper riders, holding fistfuls of fried pies, jams, and peanut brittle.
THE WINDS OF SHILOH
I have never been much of a military buff. Reading about who outflanked whom held little interest for me. Then, about ten years ago I finally got around to watching Ken Burns’s documentary, “The Civil War,” which left me with more of an interest than I thought was possible. It’s the storytelling that got me; I’m a sucker for a good tale. I determined that as I traveled through the country I would stop at the major sites and battlefields. My sister and I toured Vicksburg while I was in Mississippi, and my friend’s parents, her father a Civil War Reenactor from North Georgia by way of Louisiana and Mississippi, took me on a tour of Chickamauga while I was in Chattanooga.
He even “loaned” me his prized book listing all Civil War sites in the United States.
I texted Johnnie to tell him I would be touring Shiloh that day. He texted back, “Listen for the soul whispers. You can hear them, maybe even feel them.” As I entered the park, a breeze was moving through the trees. I walked past the national cemetery down to Pittsburg Landing, the site of Grant’s original encampment,
then returned to the car to drive the rest of the park. Moving across the land that Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and Nathan Bedford Forrest and Albert Sidney Johnston (killed in this battle) once inhabited was humbling and moving.
The battle of Shiloh was fought early in the conflict, in April 1862. Americans were shocked by the 23,000 casualties, forced to face facts that the war was going to be long and arduous. More Americans were killed in two days at the Battle of Shiloh than in all previous American wars combined.
I pulled along the sides of the road in various locations, parking, walking, and taking photos. Over by Shiloh Church, where Union soldiers pushed back the Confederate troops not once but twice, I stood in front of the cemetery gates and closed my eyes. For a moment, the wind rustling through the trees, I felt a vibration and heard a low moaning sound that rose the bumps on my flesh.
It was time for a drink.
The Botel – what a joint! A motel shaped like a boat on the banks of the reservoir, looking nowadays like it’s been washed ashore.
A lot of bikers were in town, which I already knew, and the place was densely populated with them that night. Dogs wandered aimlessly and untethered around the bar. Thick steaks and baked potatoes and whiskeys on the rocks were being served all around. No one took much of an interest in me until the karaoke started. After my renditions of “Harper Valley PTA,” Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” and Loretta Lynn’s “One’s On The Way,” friendships were forged and backs were slapped and rounds were purchased. It was a perfect evening. I drank Jack Daniel’s, of course.