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MTSU helps turn Clay County Courthouse into center...

MTSU helps turn Clay County Courthouse into center of pride in local heritage

Clay County is on its way to fulfilling its plans for heritage development with help from MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation and the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.

“Flowing through Time in the Upper Cumberland: Life in Clay County” is a nine-panel display at the courthouse in the county seat of Celina, Tennessee, that chronicles Clay County’s rich history.

Display panels in the “Flowing through Time in the Upper Cumberland: Life in Clay County” exhibit were installed at the Clay County Courthouse Nov. 5. Pictured, from left, are Mary Loyd Reneau, Clay County Museum director; Mark Dudney, historic preservation planner, Upper Cumberland Development District; Mary Lean Bartlett, president, Free Hills Community Center; Harris Abernathy, graduate student, MTSU Center for Historic Preservation; and Antoinette van Zelm, assistant director, Center for Historic Preservation. (Photo submitted)

Display panels in the “Flowing through Time in the Upper Cumberland: Life in Clay County” exhibit were installed at the Clay County Courthouse Nov. 5. Pictured, from left, are Mary Loyd Reneau, Clay County Museum director; Mark Dudney, historic preservation planner, Upper Cumberland Development District; Mary Lean Bartlett, president, Free Hills Community Center; Harris Abernathy, graduate student, MTSU Center for Historic Preservation; and Antoinette van Zelm, assistant director, Center for Historic Preservation. (Photo submitted)

The panel topics include early inhabitants, the city of Celina, the Civil War and Cordell Hull, who was elected chairman of the Clay County Democratic Party at age 19 and served as a circuit judge there before achieving international fame as U.S. Secretary of State in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

CHP Assistant Director Antoinette van Zelm, digital humanities research fellow Susan Knowles and MTSU public history graduate student Harris Abernathy made several field trips to the Cumberland Plateau county 107 miles northeast of Nashville to gather information and take photographs for the panels.

Staffers from the CHP and the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, which also is affiliated with MTSU, created a heritage development plan for the Clay County Courthouse in 2011 after Dale Reagan, Celina’s mayor at the time, asked for help in turning this asset into a drawing card.Center for Historic Preservation logo

“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 an historic gem,” van Zelm said.

Mark Dudney, historic preservation planner for the Upper Cumberland Development District, said his plan is to turn the courthouse into a culture and welcome center. The first federal preservation grant he obtained brought the courthouse’s electrical system up to code.

In 2017, Dudney applied to the CHP and received a professional services partnership, which would provide local leaders with the free technical assistance they needed to develop interpretive historical exhibits for the courthouse. Plans call for the upper floor to be turned into a performing arts center.

Local residents freely shared their time and artifacts with the MTSU entourage. Mary Lean Bartlett is president of the Free Hills Community Center, located in a former school for African-American students that was established in the early 20th century with local support and assistance from the Julius Rosenwald Fund.

“We shared old photographs and told them stories about Free Hills from long ago,” Bartlett said. “We wanted to really give them a sense of the families and life in our special community.”

For more information on how professional service partnerships can help local communities preserve their histories for future generations, contact van Zelm or Lydia Simpson, CHP programs manager, at 615-898-2947, or at antoinette.vanzelm@mtsu.edu or lydia.simpson@mtsu.edu.

— Gina Logue (gina.logue@mtsu.edu)


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