June 14, 2021
It was time to go to Cowan, Tennessee, Sandy’s hometown. It’s a spot on the map in Franklin County, 100 miles southeast of Nashville, 40 miles west of Chattanooga, tucked in below the long Cumberland Plateau, which stretches from the Smokies down to Alabama. I use those references to place it for others and get mostly baffled nods. We took the grandsons, my idea of a different kind of vacation for inquisitive seven- and four-year-old boys.
Cowan is a humble place, now about 900 souls, down from 2,000, once with three stoplights, now none. Many years ago, when we were first married and living in Nashville, we went often to visit Sandy’s parents. Then a couple of local employers moved away or went out of business and my father-in-law was laid off. Although the house was paid for, he and Sandy’s mom sold it, pulled up roots, and moved to Nashville. A few years later we were living in Virginia. Two decades passed, then they were gone.
We went back a couple of times a few years ago, detouring from trips to Nashville. For a while the place seemed to be perking up. A nice Italian restaurant opened, then a bagel and coffee shop. A local guy refurbished a historic downtown home as a bed & breakfast. But it didn’t last. The state built a bypass outside town. Traffic on Cowan’s main street, U.S. 41A, once a main route north and east, dried up. So did the new businesses. They’ve all disappeared. Young people who as kids attended Cowan Elementary went to high school in Winchester, the county seat. Then they left for good.
Cowan was well situated to be prosperous, a stop on the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis railroad, which attracted industry starting in the 1840s when local leaders recognized the area needed something to replace cotton-harvesting. Cowan was the last stop for trains climbing the steep Cumberland Plateau and the site where pusher engines were hooked up. The Cowan Mountain Tunnel was finished in 1852. Marquette Cement Manufacturing Company, called Cumberland Cement, opened a Cowan plant in 1926. At its operating peak the plant could produce two thousand barrels of Portland cement every day. At some point the plant was owned by Gulf + Western Industries, which had a big office in Nashville. Then G+W was acquired and disappeared. So did the plant.
Cowan always has had a spark for me, not just because Sandy grew up there. The Plateau, called Monteagle Mountain, seems to keep the weather mild when the upper reaches get snow. Cowan’s famous neighbor is the University of the South, the prestigious Episcopal school at Sewanee, six steep winding miles up 41A on the Plateau. The school, simply called Sewanee, occupies 1,000 gorgeously wooded acres of gorgeous Gothic architecture. The place seems literally an ivy tower without ivy, an otherworldly island of academia between gritty Franklin and Marion Counties. I once gave a talk to students there. A colleague rented a house on campus, now hidden by new forest.
Franklin County’s and Cowan’s history has its hard points. Markers at Sewanee and around the county bring up the tragic story of the Trail of Tears, when in the 1830s the U.S. Army uprooted the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other Native American tribes in nine Southeastern states and forced them to walk to bleak reservations in Oklahoma. Tennessee was a primary route. The signs strike a dissonant note within walking distance of Sewanee’s lush greenery.
We stayed in Monteagle, at the top of the Plateau, just off I-24, about eight miles out of Cowan. For our Sewanee visit we drove slowly through stately stone gate and past the academic buildings. Since the students had just left, the streets and walkways were empty and serene. We turned onto Tennessee street, which ends at the edge of the Plateau, and gawked at the spectacular 50-mile view of deep-green Middle Tennessee farmland. The boys and I stretched our legs on a nearby trail, then stopped at the university bookstore to let the older one browse.
That evening after dinner we took a drive from Monteagle down a mountain road I had never traveled. We passed into neighboring Grundy County, where the road stretches from the foot of the mountain out into the rich farm and pastureland of Middle Tennessee. New corn grew along the road for miles, cattle grazed near prosperous-looking homesteads. It was a pretty evening. Farmers were still out working their machines.
I didn’t remember how the road down the mountain twists sharply and steeply until it spins us onto the straightway into Cowan. We drove through Sandy’s old neighborhood and stopped at her childhood home, pleased to see it had been nicely kept up by the same couple who bought it from her parents. But up and down the street, houses showed the wear of hard times.
We stopped at the railroad museum across the tracks in the center of town where you can learn about the prosperity of former years, when the place was a minor rail hub. The boys climbed over an old engine and fuel car, balancing along the ledge where coalmen used to stand. We stood near the tracks and watched a 100-car CSX coal train chug through, heading up the mountain powered by three locomotives, the engineer sounding his claxon and waving at the boys.
The five-mile drive into Winchester, the county seat, took us past a couple of shut-down factories and the former site of a popular motel, now a vacant lot. The roadside burger joint where Sandy worked as a teenager is long gone. The Catholic school she attended has been closed, the church now is hemmed in by drive-in banks. The city streets are busy, but 41A continues as a dreary stretch of the usual small-town dreck: fast food, car dealerships and car washes, storefront Mexican eateries, 7-Elevens, payday loan shops, and, of course, a giant Walmart.
Hard to say when or if we’ll see Cowan again. Sandy has lost interest, but the place still has a strange attraction. We looked back at a complicated world, a mix of affluence and depression, rough seams of poverty and rich history, the unique history of the Mountain South. The kids seemed to enjoy it, although I’m not sure exactly what part they enjoyed. Someday, when they’re older, maybe we’ll go back.