By David Brill
This time of year, visitors to Morgan County behold one of nature’s most stunning floral displays. Lush thickets of mountain laurel line ridge tops and blanket entire hillsides, and in late May, the plants erupt with soft-ball sized clusters of delicate white blossoms tinged in pink.
Fittingly, Morgan County, and its main hub, Wartburg, have adopted the flowering shrub as the theme for the annual Mountain Laurel Festival. The event celebrates the community’s historical, cultural, and recreational riches and features music, food, crafts, antique cars, guided hikes, and tours of Wartburg’s historic structures. (Wartburg May 20, 10 am-4 pm.) And there’s much to celebrate.
Ask Knoxville’s rock climbers, kayakers, and hikers where they spend their free time, and many will point 45 miles west, to Morgan County, situated atop the Cumberland Plateau. The county comprises all or parts of Big South Fork River and Recreation Area, Obed Wild and Scenic River, Catoosa Wildlife Management Area, Lone Mountain State Forest, the Cumberland Trail State Park, and Frozen Head State Park.
But Morgan County also possesses numerous historical resources, including Victorian-era Rugby, the preserved British community established in 1880 and home to Tennessee’s oldest surviving public library. But 27 miles to the south, lies Wartburg, the county seat, whose historical roots reach back farther still.
In the 1840s, as Germans and their Swiss neighbors faced political and economic hardship, New York-based developer George Gerding enticed them to Tennessee through offers of affordable land and abundant natural resources.
Gerding’s East Tennessee Colonization Company purchased 170,000 acres on the Cumberland Plateau, including what would become the village of Wartburg, named for Wartburg Castle, built in central Germany in 1067.
To American ears, the town bears an unusual name, but to Germans, Wartburg (in German, pronounced with an initial V rather than W) had the ring—and familiar forested surroundings—of home. Between 1845 and 1860, about 1,000 Germans and Swiss set down roots in Wartburg and its immediate environs.
Wartburg boasted the requisite trades for sustaining a community: carpenters, merchants, millers, farmers, butchers, bakers, and blacksmiths. But the town also attracted a complement of educated professionals, including architects, musicians, physicians, and clergymen.
The reality of life in Wartburg didn’t live up to Gerding’s vision. Particularly troublesome were the region’s mountainous topography, marginal soils, and primitive roads. And by 1850, the community was in decline. Wartburg’s oldest surviving structure—a home built by piano maker Charles Waltersdorf—dates to 1855 and waning years of the German-Swiss settlement.
The departure of many European residents marked the close of Wartburg’s first act, but over coming years, those who subsequently arrived—along with those who remained—made peace with the rugged terrain and learned to raise crops and livestock that thrive here. Meanwhile, the community’s roads improved, and the railroad arrived in 1880, facilitating the free flow of goods to markets in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Cincinnati.
Numerous historic structures preserve Wartburg’s past and tell the story of an adaptive community determined to thrive in a region that still bears much of its elemental beauty and wildness, and several of the buildings are open to the public. The Wartburg Revitalization Committee is at work to preserve and renovate the town’s historic central business district.
Wartburg’s old jail, built in 1930, now houses the Morgan County Archives and
Family Heritage Center. The building underwent renovation in 2012, but parts of the interior retain the original cells that housed lawbreakers for nearly 80 years. The entryway features a 1930s-era admonishment that merges well-placed intentions with a misplaced apostrophe: “It Does’nt Pay to Do Wrong.”
Wartburg had its prisoners, but it also had its pious churchgoers. The folk-Victorian style Presbyterian Church has changed little since it first welcomed congregants in 1883. It was added to the National Register in 2012.
Wartburg City Hall began life as Citizens Bank and Trust in 1923 and was the town’s first building to feature central heating. Customers stored houseplants there to survive the winter freeze. The American Legion Hall, built in 1946 and home of American Legion Post 149, underwent a major renovation in 2011.
The Tennessee Mountain Laurel Festival will take place at what remains Morgan County’s most defining historic structure, the iconic and recently renovated courthouse, built in 1904. The tower houses a 900-pound bell and four-sided clock with four-foot hands. The only other clock of its kind resides in the Smithsonian.
For more information on the festival, visit: tennesseemountainlaurelfestival.com
For more information on Morgan County, visit: and http://www.morgancountychamber.com/