I had picked another topic to write about this week, but when I thought about all the turmoil in our world of today, I decided to go with something which would give my readers some pleasing thoughts and images to dream on. During this time of the pandemic, hurricane season, protests and who knows what else, the following presented itself as a pleasant interruption in our hectic schedule.
The town of Washington was the first organized settlement in Rhea County, and became the county seat for a time. It has much history to give us, if we will only “dig” for it. I found an interesting item which dates back to the early 1800’s and seems to have no authors name associated with it. This little “gem” consists of ten much yellowed pieces of tablet paper which are tied together at the top by a thin string. The handwriting is beautiful, and, at the end of the document a statement tells that it was read and won the prize at Bell’s Exhibition on August 18, 1871 at Washington, Rhea County, Tennessee. These pieces of paper are only seven and three-fourths inches long by four and three-fourths inches wide, but contain beautiful words. The document in its entirety is as follows with nothing changed; the spelling, indentation (or lack thereof), wording, all remain the same.
Travelling through East Tennessee for my health, viewing its romantic scenery, its lofty mountains, with their long line of blue, I came one evening at the close of a long, sultry day, upon a scene of such quiet sheltered beauty that it caused me to xclaim with the Poet:
“I know if there is peace to be found in this world,
A heart that is humble, might hope for it here.”
The cause of this outburst of poetry was the sight of an old dilapided smoky looking village, which my companion informed me, was Washington. It was situated on the south side of a rocky hill, with one long main street, and the houses scattered about, along it, as if by chance. The most striking characteristic of the town was the air of seclusion and quiet, which seemed to pervade the place. Not a dog barked, not a child squalled, not a pig grunted, as we rode along, although there seemed to be plenty of them about. The few inhabitants visible, were sitting in the shade of the houses, their only occupation, seeming seemed to be, to move their chairs a little, upon the approach of the sun. A few were whistling, as for life, and others seated on goods-boxes, were trying to solve the mystery, as to who we were. We stopped at the only hotel in Washington, where we were met by a smiling land-lord, who treated us in a most bounteous and courteous manner that anyone could desire, and fed us on all that was good, and when we went to leave, could scarcely be persuaded to accept any reasonable compensation for services. My first impressions were so agreeable, that we determined to spend a few days, among the sleepy-looking inhabitants, and find out something about them, and the place. We found that a quiet exterior, covered a vast amount of horse-sense; that the people were self reliant, and though not so polished, were far more kind, intelligent, frank, and useful, than most of the butterflies of the cities. In company with some of the polished and enterprising young men of the city, we visited the places of most notoriety.
First, we went to the old Church, situated on a high point, with a decided bearing towards the low-ground, and seeming by its battered, tattered, and scribbled, appearance to warn the community, of the folly and danger, of taking a high position, on this mundane sphere. But my gentleman attendant told me, that they would soon have a better Church, for Sunday. We next visited the Court-house, which is a fine, brick building, with half the window panes broken out, and spaces of broken glass, filled with white cloth, which has scarcely weathered the wear and tear of summer’s heat and winter’s storms. We made a flying visit to the County jail, and a hasty call on “Old Constitution” and his attendant Angel, who, although the frost of many winters have passed over their heads, are still vigorous and cheerful.
Then to the Academy, we directed our steps, and were entertained, by some gymnastic performances of the rosy-cheeked urchins, who, were themselves, in no way delighted by the exercises, but were sustained and encouraged, by the energy of the Teacher, who was putting in practice, the theory, “Spare not the rod.”
One peculiarity, I noticed, among the young people’s habits. This was their disposition, when seeking recreation or exercise, to bend their steps, to the village Grave-yard, where, I suppose, they went to commune, with congenial spirits, as they usually returned in pairs, much refreshed and elated, with the walk.
I also noticed that the conversational facilities, of the young people, seemed wonderfully developed, in one direction only, and that subject was their sweet-hearts. On that subject they could talk for hours.
I noticed several obliging, graceful, clerks in Washington, who looked as if they had jumped out of the band-box, as the saying is. They try to make purchasers out of their visitors, and they all wear an irresistible grin, on their countenances; but on the whole, they are exceedingly sociable, and well adapted to the purpose, of chatting an half hour, with the young ladies, who call on their store.
There are also a few old Bachelors, in and close around Washington, who look and talk serious enough, for anybody. They seem to have passed the sparkle and vivacity of youth, and their minds, doubtless, from the many disappointments they had met, were of a serious cast. They sat moping about, as if they were a nuisance, to all the world. I tried to persuade them to cheer up; that in this wide world, they might yet, find some lonely disponding, humble, maiden, who might take pity on them, and light up the gloomy cavern of their hearts, with the sun-shine of her smile.
There did not seem to be, much gallantry, about Washington. I was informed, that they did not often have a party, or social gathering of the people; that sometimes the young men escorted the young ladies to Church, on Sunday evenings, and were so powerfully affected by the eloquent sermon, they listened to, that they went fast to sleep.
I understand also, that sometimes on Friday evenings, the youngsters would go to the celebrated school, up among the rocks, to hear the boys and girls read original, and not-borrowed compositions. I also learned that once a year, the young people would wake up from their social lethargy, and when the balmy air of Spring had dispeeled the frosts of winter, when the flowers had put forth their beauteous blossoms; when the birds were carolling, their sweetest notes, and all nature was full of joy, life, and animation, that then the young men would rush, frantically, to the banks of the Tennessee River, and charter a steamer, at any cost. Through rain, wind, or sunshine, they would marshall young and old, in buggies, and wagons, and vehicles, and carry them to the river to take a pleasure ride on the boat, where they were bound to enjoy the privilege, of an eight-mile ride, up the Tennessee River, enlivened by the stirring wandering of the scenery, and by the soul stirring thought, that there is life in the old land yet.
Washington! Dear old Washington! How fondly as time rolls on, will my heart, like a weary bird, fly back, to thy peaceful happy seclusion, while my mind, looking forward through the vista of coming years, sees Rhea County, with its river on one side, and rail-road on the other, with its mountains, lining with mineral springs, and hills filled with untold wealth, becoming the garden spot of the world, and Washington its centre. I can see the steeple of the new Church towering high, and the Bell ringing loudly, warning vast congregations to assemble. I can see a large, magnificent, College, with classic halls, and beautiful lawns, surpassing surperceeding the present little Academy.
But the voice of the present Teacher will not be heard in those classic halls. But in other Forums, he will be pouring forth his irresistible logic, and burning eloquence, with all the vehemence of a mountain torrent, and swaying the minds of juries, as easily, as he now bends the will of the stubborn urchins, with his birch rod, which he administers frequently, and so gracefully.
Read and won the prize at Bell’s Exhibition, August 18, 1871, Washington, Rhea Co., Tenn.
Unfortunately, there is no name on the document to state who the author was. This is a real “jewel” for those of us today to see what life was like in Washington during the late 1800’s. Even though there were some grammatical errors, it is easy to understand what the writer is telling us. After reading this work, I’m sure we can all agree that it is important to preserve our history. Without a view of our past, we will not have a future. Maybe this will give each of us something good to think about as we continue to live in our world of today. We need to remember the importance of learning from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.