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One-on-One with Granville preservationist Randall Clemons

Liz Engel Clark
Wednesday, Nov 30, 2011

Granville preservationist Randall Clemons, front, and Billy Stiger stand in front of the T.B. Sutton Store.

Randall Clemons is good at crunching numbers, yes, but he’s also pretty passionate about the tiny Jackson County community of Granville, which is gearing up for its traditionally busy Christmas season. The CEO/board chair at Wilson Bank and Trust saddled up for the December edition of our one-on-one series and revealed Granville’s best kept secrets and the reason people keep coming back for more.

CBJ: You grew up in Granville. What was your childhood like?

RC: Granville was a small town that had four stores, a service station, three churches and a school. It was just a great place to grow up, and I have fond memories of my childhood there, the church I was raised in and the set of friends I had. You could walk the streets and play and go to the store.

Of course, all of that got disturbed when Cordell Hull Lake came in and took so many of our homes and farmland. We were uprooted and had to move other places. That happened right in the midst of my teenage years. I was actually 14 when we had to leave Granville. (The lake) took all of my parents’ farm and both my grandparents’ homes. But the heart of the town was preserved, so that’s what’s been wonderful.

CBJ: How did people react to that?

RC: It was a lengthy process. As people dealt (with the government), they just tried to get what they thought was fair. But then you saw the bulldozers come in and things changed. The homes were torn down or moved. It was just a major uprooting. But I think that’s been one factor that’s helped us. In 1999, we started to preserve the Church of Christ building and some of the history of Granville. The first time we opened up on a Memorial Day weekend, we had a great outpouring of people who came back, and from that, the response and the volunteer base has been tremendous. As has the support people have given financially as well as the items donated to the museum. Since 1999, it’s been a wonderful experience.

CBJ: Talk about what has happened in Granville since then.

RC: In 2000, Mr. Harold Sutton and Ms. Beverly came to Granville on our Heritage Day and discovered the Old Sutton General Store. It had fallen down and had been closed for some 30 years. He set out on a mission to purchase the store and restore it. That was the major thing that really made a difference in Granville, as you saw that store resurrected. When it opened that next May, people were able to walk in and get that feeling of a general store and the memories they had.

From that, we’ve had new additions to the Granville Museum, and then we started the Sutton Ole Time Music Hour. Our long-range goal had been (to buy) Mr. Sutton’s home place. We were able to purchase it this last May, and we raised $175,000 in a little over 30 days. The property had a metal building we were able to convert to a 1950s service station as well as an antique car museum. An old barn on the property made for a very unique place where we’ve put a gristmill shop, a blacksmith shop and a weaving shop. They’re all operating, and there’s an ag museum in the back part of the building. And then we built a gazebo stage. It has a little shed that we made into a storytelling shed. On the back part of the property, we moved one of the first log homes built in Granville. (In November) we got a roof on it. And we’ll have all the outbuildings that go with it, where we’ll be able to teach children how a primitive homestead operated in the early years of our country. We’re going to be able to make it a real unique experience.

CBJ: Besides Granville being your birthplace, why did you and the other volunteers decide to restore this little town?

RC: As a result of the lake coming in, a lot of our buildings and homes were destroyed, and there was a need to show what the town was like before that happened. We set out to do it.

The World War II maneuvers were big in Granville. And one thing that really spurred us was, was a gentleman by the name of Vincent DeNardo, who came here with the maneuvers from Pennsylvania, and he fell in love with Granville. For the next, almost 30 years, he would come to Granville every summer and spend his vacation here. He would bring a 35 mm camera, and while he was here for the two weeks, he would be out shooting shots of people on store porches, community gatherings, when you came out of church on Sunday. He was able to really capture the history of Granville. He left those pictures with the Dois Fields family in Granville; there were over 1,000 of them. We were able to take those and began the Granville Museum basically from that.

Uncle Jimmy Thompson, the first person to ever appear on the Grand Ole Opry, was from Granville. Sen. Albert Gore Sr. was born in Granville. There was a lot to tell with our history.

CBJ: What makes Granville so unique?

RC: The volunteer situation. We have 114 volunteers now that handle this whole operation. They make it happen. Then with the addition of the Sutton Homestead, which opened in October, and the tourist attraction it’s going to be. It puts the finishing touches on what we have to offer at Granville and gives a full days activities for travel groups and individuals who want to come and spend the day.

CBJ: Granville is touted throughout the Upper Cumberland as a tourist destination. How has Granville fared during the recession?

RC: It definitely has hurt tourism some. At the same time, we’re seeing more people do things locally, so we’ve been able to draw from all over Middle Tennessee. Tourism is real big for the community. Of course, every Saturday night, we do the Sutton Ole Time Music Hour, and it depends on tourists. The Upper Cumberland Tourism Association is a wonderful group that promotes the UC and they’ve been tremendous.

We do three major events each year that are real big tourist attractions: Our Heritage Day in May, we had 9,000 people this year. During our fall celebration Oct. 1, we had around 4,000. Our next event will be our Granville Country Christmas, which is Saturday, Dec. 10.

CBJ: You’ve tried to make sure Granville’s story is well known, but what is the town’s best kept secret? Why do people keep coming back?

RC: As people drive into town, they tell us they get the feeling of returning to a time of yesteryear. A real sense of peace. It’s a stress reliever. People like that small town feel. We’re often referred to as the Mayberry town. That’s why we’re doing a Christmas play, which has been huge for us, this year called “A Mayberry Christmas.” We are doing 12 performances and they’re almost sold out.

CBJ: You’re also a banker in your “spare time.” What are some unique challenges facing the bank industry right now, especially independent outfits like yours?

RC: We’re in a very difficult time right now. In the Upper Cumberland, we’ve definitely been affected with the unemployment rate being what it is. Good people want to work, but they can’t because they can’t find a job. I think that impact is greater probably in Upper Cumberland.

As far as Wilson Bank, we have been blessed in that we’ve operated in a very conservative manner, so the impact has not been as great as on some other banks. But, I always say, there’s nobody who’s not been affected by the current economic times.

Tourism has had a major impact on the Upper Cumberland, and really, a lot of people don’t understand that. We have a very unique opportunity. Operating in several different counties, the impact of the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association is major. The impact that the chamber of commerce is having with the Highlands Initiative, bringing the counties together in unity, is major. The impact that Tennessee Tech is having, with their new approach in trying to help businesses and cities and counties, is major as well. The Upper Cumberland probably has more working for it than any other part of the state.

CBJ: From your businesses’ perspective, what’s the long-term economic forecast? What’s your projection for the next year?

RC: It’s going to be a slow recovery, and I think we’re beginning to see that. I don’t think much is going change in the next 12 months. My concern at this point is what that’s really going to mean for us.

CBJ: Let’s swing back to Granville. Talk about what’s going on this holiday season and how it will be different than in years past?

RC: The Sutton General Store is open throughout the week, for tour groups and Christmas parties. We are doing the Christmas dinner play, “A Mayberry Christmas,” during the first two weeks of December. We are doing Christmas bluegrass shows every Saturday night in December featuring The Rigney’s and Jerry Butler & The Blue Jays.

Dec. 10 is our Granville Country Christmas, and the theme is “Good Old Fashion Christmas.” Throughout the month, the Sutton Homestead will have “Cider and Cinnamon - Stroll into Christmas Memories.” The home will be decorated and guides will be dressed in costume. We’ll also have a lot of children’s events on Dec. 10. We’re adding a Santa’s workshop, and the Upper Cumberland Arts Alliance is going to be working with us and helping children create Christmas crafts. We’ll have a little store set up there for the children where they can buy for their parents at very cheap prices – from 50 cents to $5. We’ll have Santa Claus. One of our volunteers, who has taken from the movie “Polar Express” and written a book, “Granville Riverboat Express,” will be telling that story as the children are seated around Santa.

We’ll have a Christmas parade that day. We have Christmas musicals that will be performed at the Methodist church. We’ll have a festival of trees, with a special focus on our military. We’ll have an antique toy show at the car museum. Later that afternoon, we have the annual Christmas tree lighting, and following that, we’ll have two guided candlelit tours of Granville. And, of course, we’ll be doing our normal Sutton Ole Time Music Hour that night with a Christmas focus.

CBJ: It sounds like you have a lot going on. Why do you do all this? What is your motivation for keeping Granville alive?

RC: It’s important for young people, regardless of where they’re from, to understand their roots and to also understand and see the times of the past. We are trying to tell the history but in a way that’s memorable. When you look back at what’s happened in our country in the last 200 years, it’s a major, major change. So many people don’t know that story anymore.

CBJ: What would the world be like if there were more places like Granville?

RC: We think it would be a lot better, and I think that’s one thing that interests people when they come here. They can think back on simpler times, times when people sat on their porches and talked. I think if there were more places like that, our world would definitely be different.

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