On November 8, local officials welcomed visitors to the Clay County Courthouse to celebrate the installation of nine large display panels, each showcasing a different subject of Clay County history. The welcoming event capped off a decade-long collaboration between local leaders, the Upper Cumberland Development District and the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation.

The project actually began in 2011, when Mayor Dale Reagan requested assistance from MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) regarding the best use of the historic courthouse. The MTSU CHP and the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area staff created the Clay County Courthouse Heritage Development Plan, a document designed to help local leaders best use their unique cultural asset.

In 2016, the Upper Cumberland Development District (UCDD) developed a comprehensive plan for Clay County. For historic preservation, my primary goal is to transform the courthouse into the Clay County Culture and Welcome Center. My recommendations reflect the spirit of the CHP’s Heritage Development Plan, as well as follow-up discussions with my Clay County partners about the best adaptive re-use of the courthouse. The first federal preservation grant that I administered brought the courthouse electrical system up to code.

In 2017, Clay County Chamber of Commerce Director Kevin Donaldson and Clay County Three Star Program Director Dr. Doug Young requested that I apply to the CHP for a Professional Services Partnership grant, seeking technical assistance to develop interpretive historical exhibits. This grant represented the next step in realizing the goals of both the MTSU Heritage Development Plan and the UCDD Comprehensive Plan. MTSU awarded Clay County the grant in the late summer of 2017.

Over the next year, I worked with MTSU CHP Assistant Director Antoinette Van Zelm, Digital Humanities Research Fellow Dr. Susan Knowles and graduate student Harris Abernathy. We collaborated closely with our local partners in Clay County and made multiple field trips to collect information and photographs for the interpretive panels. The results were outstanding. The general theme of the project is “Flowing Through Time in the Upper Cumberland: Life in Clay County.” The displays cover the following subjects: Introduction to Clay County; Earliest Inhabitants; Celina: From River’s Edge to Higher Ground; Free Hill: A Long and Proud History; In the Crossfire of the Civil War; On the Mainstream; The Heart of the Community; Cordell Hull; and A Rich Cultural Heritage.

Dr. Van Zelm stated, “We were thrilled to follow up on the heritage development plan that we did for the courthouse in 2011 and work with the community on an exhibit for the courthouse, which is truly a historic gem. The community embraced the project, welcomed us as researchers, and shared wonderful stories and images with us. We¬†hope that the exhibit will encourage a greater¬†appreciation of the Upper Cumberland’s unique history among both visitors and local residents.”

Our local partners in Clay County were central to the project’s success. They included Clay County Courthouse Curator Thomas Watson, Clay County Museum Director Mary Loyd Reneau and Free Hills Rosenwald School/Community Center President Mary Bartlett. Mr. Watson stated, “”These panels are a significant step in continuing the tradition of the courthouse being the most important building in Clay County and the symbol of our past. Making the upstairs courtroom a performing arts center will help uphold this tradition for our future.”

Ms. Reneau echoed Mr. Watson’s comment about the importance of celebrating Clay County’s past to guide its future. She commented that, “To prepare for the future, you must know your past. This exhibit has been developed to help us remember the past, which should help us move forward to better the future of Clay County.” Ms. Bartlett stated, “Vertie Davis and I helped Mark and the folks from MTSU several times over the last few months. We shared old photographs and told them stories about Free Hills from long ago. We wanted to really give them a sense of the families and life in our special community.”

This emphasis on successful partnerships led to Clay County’s inclusion in the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development’s new Best Practices series. TNECD Project Consultant Bridget Jones stated, “the Best Practices Series is a growing resource that highlight success stories that show other community leaders how projects can be replicated to achieve similar outcomes.”

In addition to the project partners already mentioned, I would like to thank the following people for their contributions to and support of this project: Celina Mayor Joey Rich, Edward Arms, Vertie Davis, Nick Fielder, David “Maxey” Garrett, Irene Hamilton Hurt, Amy Kostine, Paige Silcox and Eva C. Terrell. The courthouse is open during limited hours. People interested in viewing the exhibits should contact Mr. Thomas Watson.


Mark Dudney, UCDD Historic Preservation Planner

Special to The Citizen-Statesman