Tell Me a Story: Preserving History in Jonesborough, Tennessee

Historic preservation in this Tennessee mountain town protects more than just architecture.

 By Jen Tota McGivney

As the sun sets over Old Jonesborough Cemetery, Guy Sabin returns to life. He lived in Jonesborough more than a century ago, back when he was the town’s first fire chief. He convinced his neighbors that their bucket brigade wasn’t enough, that they needed proper fire-fighting equipment to protect their town. Sabin was right, of course. During a fire in 1888, that equipment saved Main Street. But Sabin would never learn that. While attempting to save a building that night, he fell off the roof, broke his neck and died.

Because of Sabin, Main Street still looks much like it did back then. The historic downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a stroll through town feels like a stroll back through time, past 19th-century buildings that include Federal, Queen Anne and Greek Revival styles.

History Comes Alive

Tonight Sabin returns to Jonesborough to tell his story. He’s a character in a play written by local playwright Anne G’Fellers-Mason and performed in the town’s cemetery. Each fall, her plays tell the story of nine or 10 people buried here, performed on a grassy stage not far from their tombstones. Her plays give voice to men, women and children of all races and classes who lived here, long ago or just recently. They give the dead another chance to tell what it was like to be them, back then, here.

These stories draw audiences who come to the cemetery with chairs and picnic blankets to settle in for that universally beloved pastime: listening to a good story. Jonesborough is very, very good at this.

Before there was a Tennessee, there was a Jonesborough. When the town incorporated in 1779 — after centuries as the land of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Shawnee — it became part of North Carolina. When Tennessee joined the Union 17 years later, the town fell on the western side of the new state line.

It’s fitting that the Tennessee’s story begins with Jonesborough. The stories here have never stopped.

This Appalachian mountain town calls itself the Storytelling Capital of the World. Each October, the National Storytelling Festival attracts audience members from far away for the simple pleasure of listening to a good story. Each May through October, storytellers from around the world become tellers-in-residence at the International Storytelling Center, giving multiple performances each week, sometimes through song or poetry. To come here is to be a part of these stories.

“It’s amazing. You see people here from ages 9 to 90, and everyone’s spellbound,” says Cameo Waters, the director of tourism for the town. “Everyone puts away their phones, and we don’t care about anything else. We’re all just in that moment.”

Jonesborough’s storytelling tradition manages to be simultaneously old-fashioned and cutting edge. The oral tradition is millennia-old, allowing cultures to pass down histories through storytelling. But the idea fits perfectly into the present moment, when people are burned out on screens and hunger for real community and a simpler entertainment. It seems that people have been saying some version of the same thing all of their lives through all of human history: Tell me a story.

Seeking Stories

In Jonesborough, there’s always someone to tell a good story. The town government even has its own StoryTown Brigade, made up of dozens of volunteers who receive formal training in interviewing techniques. They go out and canvass just about every bit of area, from downtown to the hills to the hollers, asking people to share their stories and family histories. Then Jules Corriere, the town’s outreach programming director, writes a play each spring and an old-fashioned radio show each month based on those interviews.

Plays include stories from long ago, like the brothers who came home to Jonesborough from World War II. After witnessing the destruction of war abroad, they wanted to build something helpful back home. They built a bakery that became a town favorite, with its famous fried pies and doughnuts. The same play tells the story of 8-year-old Ben’s friend-making mission. Two years ago, Ben noticed that some kids at recess didn’t have anyone to talk to, so he created a buddy bench at his school where kids could go to meet new friends.

“What’s really cool about these plays is that they make you want to go out and see the different places that are talked about in the play,” Corriere says. “You can go see the original bakery sign. You can go sit on Ben’s buddy bench.”

The storytelling brings new meaning to historic preservation. It’s not just the buildings on Main Street that have been preserved beautifully, but the stories of the people who walked among them, and who walk among them still. When people visit Jonesborough, they don’t just get to read about its history; they get to, in a way, meet the people who made that history.

“I love the idea of just bringing history alive through stories. Our history doesn’t stay in some book gathering dust on a shelf,” Corriere says. “We take our stories out and we walk in the shoes of the people who once lived here.”

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