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Think small!

All photos courtesy Tennessee Dept. of Tourism

Small towns perpetuate a state’s character and heritage. Interwoven within these communities are the lives of the rich and famous as well as the lives of those who went about their business with little recognition.

The citizens of Tennessee have built lasting traditions and close-knit communities that provide an insight to visiting groups to the character of the state’s people.
Dolly Parton calls Sevierville her hometown. Born in a small house just outside the city limits, she attended Sevier County High School in Sevierville. Many of the town’s buildings from her childhood, including Temple’s seed and feed store, which later burned down, and the Pines Theater, where she performed, have been re-created at her Dollywood theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge.

“She wanted to recapture how it was when she grew up here,” said Amanda Marr, marketing director for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. “Dolly has given so much back to Sevierville and Sevier County, and she has helped create a better quality of life for those who live in the area.”

In 1987, as tribute to Dolly, artist Jim Gray created a bronze statue of her located on the town square in front of the Sevier County Courthouse. The statue depicts a young Dolly, at about 18, sitting on a rock with her guitar in hand.

“Many people have their photo taken there,” said Marr. “It’s a meaningful spot for her fans.”

Underneath the Smoky Mountains near Sevierville, Forbidden Caverns hides formations, towering natural chimneys, numerous grottos and a crystal-clear stream, as well as the largest known wall of white cave onyx. The cave system was used by the Woodland Indians and as a hideout for moonshiners. Tours touch on the history of the caverns and the surrounding area.

Collierville, just outside of Memphis, boasts a historic town square dating to before 1870. Around the square, boutique and antique stores mix with interior decorating shops, clothiers, restaurants and a coffee shop.

A walking-tour brochure details the history of the downtown buildings and train depot. Groups can schedule a guided tour.

The Biblical Resource Center and Museum, on the square, gives tours of the museum, serves as a resource library and houses a retail shop. Sheffield’s Antique Mall, located west of the town square, offers a maze of consignment booths selling everything from large furniture to glassware.

Friday nights, mid-April through mid-October, the town hosts an impromptu bluegrass jam session in Confederate Park.

“They play until the last picker leaves,” said Laura Todd, executive director of Main Street Collierville. “Some restaurants also stay open late those nights.”

The summer concert series on the square, every Thursday night in June and July, schedules rotating events such as a bike show and an antique show plus numerous food vendors.

“Two recent years, we’ve received the Southeast Tourism Society Award for our concert series,” said Todd. “We have a beautiful backdrop with a great atmosphere for the music.”

Columbia, located approximately 45 miles south of Nashville in the heart of Maury County, has the only remaining private home of James K. Polk, the nation’s 11th president. He grew up in this small town and later practiced law there. The residence contains more than 1,500 personal items from Polk’s Nashville home and his White House years.

In April, the annual Mule Day parade attracts more than 100,000 spectators and pays tribute to the animal that helped settle the community. The Mule Day Celebration begins with a wagon train that works its way from a different location each year and arrives at the fairgrounds.

Events include mule competitions, arts and crafts, and Saturday’s communitywide pancake breakfast followed by a huge parade with antique cars, mules and floats, one of which carries the Mule Day Queen and her court.

“There’s more mules than you’ll ever see in any one place,” said Brenda Pierce, executive director of the Maury County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They come from all over the country just to celebrate with us.”


Kingsport, laid out in the early 1900s at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, claims the South’s largest concentration of antique stores within walking distance of each other.

Netherland Inn, built in the early 1800s, sits on the Holston River and offers tours. Three presidents have stayed at the inn: Polk, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson. Daniel Boone started his trek across the Cumberland Mountains from the spot.

Near the inn sits a replica of a flatboat like those used to transport salt and passengers down the river.

The Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium develops its own shows, with a new one opening in June. On the mountain’s 42-acre lake, naturalist-led barge rides pass flora, fauna and numerous beaver dams.

“Naturalists also take groups out to the wolves for a short program, which concludes with one of the naturalists going into the park and howling,” said Barbara Kite, director of group tours for the Kingsport Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That triggers the seven wolves we have in captivity. One will start, and then all will join in, somewhat like a planned concert.”

Nearby Jonesborough, the state’s oldest incorporated town, impresses visitors with its pristine condition. Walking and driving tours showcase this quintessential burg, with its brick buildings and church steeples.

The town’s International Storytelling Center helped resurrect the art of storytelling. Twenty-six of America’s best-loved storytellers serve as tellers-in-residence for one hour daily May through October. Visitors relax in a semicircle around the center’s stage while listening to spellbinding tales.

In October, the International Storytelling Festival is held in downtown under large circus-type tents with daytime and evening programming. A festival food court offers variety from barbecue to stir-fry and vegetarian burgers.

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Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.