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'Dandridge is a special spot' | A walk down my hometown

The Jefferson County seat is the only town to bear the name of the nation's first first lady. The streets are lined in history, with the future inching closer.

DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — Dandridge is one of the oldest towns in the state of Tennessee. The Jefferson County seat is filled to the brim in history but is also making room for the future.

Bob Jarnagin is the county's jovial historian. He never misses a chance to take others on a trip through the past and heads up to the second-floor office any chance he can get.

Inside the courthouse, in the middle of downtown Dandridge, sits the archives office with two vaults, a handful of chairs and shelves full of books, records and maps.

"I've spent an untold number of hours and a good part of my time," Jarnagin said. "The volunteers will tell you I stop in here on a daily basis."

Jarnagin is committed to keeping his hometown's history alive. He takes groups on walking tours regularly.

Each step transports listeners back in time. He takes people through the downtown graveyard, next to the Shepard Inn, down to the courthouse and right by the old jail.

"It is exciting to me, it's probably not to everybody, but, you know, that's part of how I guess I came about to be the county historian; it's my passion," Jarnagin said.

He recalls every fact from memory, starting with the basics, like when the town was founded.

In 1783, because of a progressive choice, one of the oldest towns was named after a prominent woman.

"I'm very proud that they honored our first first lady," Jarnagin said. "Her maiden name is Dandridge, she's from Virginia, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington."

Historians can only guess as to why her name was picked, but Dandridge is the only town to ever bear her name.

The historic founding of Dandridge set the groundwork for a slew of major moments, like how Davy Crockett stopped in Dandridge to get his marriage license to Polly Finley.

The town's four original taverns downtown still operate as businesses today.

"Downtown Dandridge is not a museum town like some historic districts have become," Jarnagin said. "When you come to Dandridge, you walk around, go into shops and old historic buildings, but it's a business that's being run in there. It's not just a showplace or museum.”

It also survived a looming wipeout in the 1940s. When TVA built Douglas Dam, the community banded together to build a dike. The walled creation of earth and stone saved Dandridge.

Credit: WBIR

If it weren't for the dike, water would be up to a few steps on the courthouse.

While the dike saved downtown, the creation of Douglas Lake still destroyed homes, farms and cemeteries.

"We have people who were displaced, and some of them more than one time, that lived on the river bottoms," Jarnagin said. "They lived there for generations. The families that lived there had to move. Their land was covered by the water of Douglas Lake."

Through the years, the landscape of Dandridge has changed, but what stays the same is the natural beauty. More and more people from across the nation are discovering the draw of Dandridge and relocating.

"Lots of people are moving into Dandridge now, and a lot of them are interested in buying some of our historic buildings and running shops in them," Jarnagin said.

While there are still the local staples, like Peggy Fain at Tinsley Bible Drug store, things are changing.

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“Our growth is going in multiples now," Jarnagin said. "Housing is being built, the farms are turning into subdivisions. That part of it makes me a little bit sad.”

Roads are more crowded in the once quaint town. Jarnagin has watched the progression throughout his life.

"Sure, it worries me," Jarnagin said. "I think that what our draw for the people moving here, we stand to lose the very thing that is drawing the people to Dandridge."

It's something Rob Beuch, who volunteers in the archives office, understands. He was a fireman in Southern California for 37 years. Although he's a transplant, like many others, he dedicates his free time to improving the community.

"I'm just not going to come here as a newcomer and take up space; I'm going to help," Beuch said.

Mary Ruth Walker and Zack Taylor Jr., who are native East Tennesseans, volunteer with Beuch every Thursday to do their part in preserving the past to pave the way for the future.

Walker scrubs and cleans old documents, Beuch indexes and scans documents that have been transcribed and Taylor primarily does genealogy research.

"I know a lot of people like to go to Virginia or some place to see something historical, but all they've got to do is just come to downtown Dandridge and you've got some of the best history that's around," Taylor said.

In the digital age, sharing history is taking a new shape.

"Project Let's Chat" is an online video project, which aims to preserve history in a digital space. Jarnagin is part of multiple videos, where he gives "tours" of various landmarks and historic spots in Jefferson County. It's easily accessible and free for anyone who's interested.

"Without the past, how will we know who we are?" Jarnagin said.

In the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains and reflection of Douglas Lake, Jarnagin believes it's the kids of today who will make the difference in Dandridge.

After all, if Jarnagin is any proof, all roads will always lead home.

“I was born and raised in Dandridge," Jarnagin said. "I've lived here most of my life other than four years off in college. I chose to come back here and live because I love Dandridge. I love Jefferson County. I wanted to raise my children here in Dandridge, which I got the opportunity to do.”

Dandridge is a very special place to WBIR Reporter Katie Inman too. She was born and raised there and now gets to tell stories about it for a living.

Watch Katie trace her family's history back to Dandridge's earliest settlers, with the help of the archives office: