Not every treasure in Tennessee makes a marquee.
Though everyone knows where to find the Country Music Hall of Fame and Graceland, not everyone knows the story of the famous author Alex Haley. Tennessee’s version of Mayberry in Granville is also a quieter attraction than some, but just as memorable for many visitors.
Whether groups are interested in Johnny Cash, science exhibits, historic penitentiaries or Appalachian crafts, these Tennessee hidden gems will pleasantly surprise visitors.
Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center
When Alex Haley sat on his front porch as a child, his grandparents’ stories of Kunta Kinte captured his imagination. Haley later turned these accounts of Kinte and other family ancestry stories into the famous book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”
Groups can stand on that porch at the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center in Henning. The site offers tours of Haley’s boyhood home, his burial place and a museum with exhibits on Haley’s life and works.
The museum details Haley’s unlikely life. He started his career as a penniless freelance writer, sometimes surviving on nothing but canned sardines. After gaining some recognition writing articles about prominent African Americans such as Malcom X, Haley embarked on an ambitious retelling of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, as well as their rise to freedom.
The 1976 novel caused a national sensation and won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1977, the “Roots” television miniseries capture a record-breaking 130 million viewers.
The museum’s exhibits chronicle his remarkable career, with artifacts including Haley’s handwritten family tree, his director’s chair from the set of “Roots” and a full-size replica of a slave ship. The museum sits next to the original 1920 home in a $1.2-million facility with a theater room that plays a documentary about the author.
Discovery Park of America
At the end of a winding road lined with fields of cotton, corn and soybeans, an architectural wonder emerges from the horizon. The Discovery Park of America in Union City seems out of place in a small Tennessee town; normally, a museum of this caliber would appear in a major city.
Founders Robert and Jenny Kirkland wanted to give back to their community, which is why a Southern town with 10,000 residents is now the home of this $100 million museum. Described as a miniature Smithsonian, the 100,000-square-foot museum and 50-acre outdoor heritage park focuses on topics like science, space, technology, the military, natural history, regional history, art and transportation.
Groups can explore the hands-on exhibits with docents. An extensive dinosaur collection, an earthquake simulator, an observation tower and a replica of the Rosetta Stone are some of the most popular exhibits.
The museum’s military gallery honors those who have served with affective artifacts, such as handwritten letters from a son to a mother during the Civil War. The War Remembrance Theater features oral histories of local residents who fought in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.
The Native Americans gallery displays over 4,500 arrowheads and spearpoints. The exhibit contains a 12,000-year-old woolly mammoth excavated from a riverbank in Russia.
Outside, visitors can find a working gristmill, a full-size antique train and landscaped gardens.
Storytellers Museum and Hideaway Farm
When the spotlights darkened after a concert tour ended, Johnny Cash retreated to his home in Bon Aqua. For 30 years, Cash lived in this quaint town 40 miles southwest of Nashville.
Opened for visitors in 2016, the Storytellers Museum and Hideaway Farm lets groups get closer to the real Cash with exhibits and memorabilia about his life. The site preserves his home, which he called “the center of my universe.”
After Cash bought the 107-acre farm, he soon began holding weekly concerts at the nearby general store. The general store now serves as the Storytellers Museum. The museum displays artifacts from the Man in Black, such as handwritten song lyrics, letters, guitars and a Cadillac inspired by Cash’s song “One Piece at a Time.” It also hosts live musical performances that carry on Cash’s tradition of community concerts.
Brian and Sally Oxley bought the Cash farm and general store in 2015. The Oxleys teamed up with the Cash family to restore the two buildings and honor Cash. Guests can watch rarely seen footage of the Cash family that the Oxleys found in the two-story farmhouse.
Groups can learn how Cash purchased the farm in the 1970s when his accountant used the singer’s money to buy several properties, including the Bon Aqua farm. When Cash discovered the fraud, he sold all of the properties except for Bon Aqua, which became his songwriting sanctuary.
T.B. Sutton Store
People love “The Andy Griffin Show” partially for the nostalgia of a simpler time. Visitors claim they feel that same contentment when they visit historic Granville, known as Tennessee’s Mayberry.
Though it has fewer than 400 residents, Granville was saved from obscurity when an effort was made to preserve the history of the riverboat town. Groups can purchase a ticket to tour the town’s various historic attractions, including the T.B. Sutton General Store.
Built in the 1800s, the country store was recommended by Southern Living Magazine as the No. 1 store to visit in 2018. The charming shop showcases 20th-century light fixtures, museum-quality furnishings and memorabilia.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the store sells handmade items that recall times gone by, such as antique toys and old-fashioned candles. Its second floor houses the Arts and Cultural Center for local art and a quilt shop.
The store’s ice cream counter serves hand-dipped ice cream, root beer floats and milkshakes. Inside the store, groups can enjoy a country-style meal with cobbler for dessert.
A small corner of the general store has garnered the most attention. Known as the World-Famous Corner Stage, the small stage hosts Tennessee bluegrass bands broadcast every Saturday night on the “Sutton Ole Time Music Hour” program.
From the general store, groups can explore the Granville Museum to learn more about the river town’s history with the military, religion and schools. A more intimate portrait of the past comes from the Sutton Homestead. The 1880 home contains original furnishings along with a grist mill shop, a pioneer cabin and a blacksmith shop.
Tickets to tour the town also include the Pioneer Village, the Car Museum, and the Mayberry and I Love Lucy Museum.
Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary
Fear and curiosity go together on a trip to Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros. The prison began as a convict-lease program where inmates worked in coal mines or farmed.
The original wooden prison was replaced in the 1920s with a castlelike building constructed from quarry stone on the property. It became a maximum-security prison that housed criminals such as James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.
The prison closed in 2009 before reopening for tours in 2018. Guides who were former guards at the prison frequently give tours to lend some personal insight into prison life.
During the tour, groups watch an 18-minute documentary to delve into the history of the penitentiary. A museum on the property displays old record books, photos and contraband artifacts confiscated from prisoners.
Tours last between 60 and 90 minutes. Groups can see the cell blocks, the gymnasium, the exercise yard and the “hole,” where the most troublesome inmates underwent isolation for 30 days in complete darkness.
Warden’s Table serves Southern food, such as barbecue and cheeseburgers. The restaurant can accommodate large groups with cafeteria-style dining.
The once-illegal practice of making moonshine is now part of the prison experience. The End of the Line Tennessee Moonshine legally distills spirits at the prison, and it is free to visit. A tasting bar is located in the gift shop.
Museum of Appalachia
The historic buildings left behind by the proud, hardworking people of Appalachia tell a story. The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton saved 30 log cabin structures from decay to give voice to that story.
The living-history museum brings to life the struggle for survival that pioneer and early 20th-century Appalachian residents endured. Groups can explore the 63-acre museum to wander through a rare cantilevered barn, a chapel and a schoolhouse. The Mark Twain Family Cabin on the site was once inhabited by Mark Twain’s parents.
The museum also contains over 250,000 pioneer relics. The gardens grow crops typical of the period, while goats, chicken and turkeys roam the grounds freely.
The setting for rural Appalachia remains so authentic that the museum has been used in several television shows, such as “The Heartland Series,” “American Pickers” and “Young Dan’l Boone.”
The outdoor museum contains one of the nation’s largest folk art collections in the People’s Building. Woodcarvings, mugs, jugs and furniture made in the region show the variety of mediums used by Appalachian artists.
The Restaurant at the Museum of Appalachia serves regional cuisine such as casseroles, hearty entrees and homemade desserts.