Plaque marking the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan

Bolted into the side of a nondescript white brick building with red trim in the small town of Pulaski, TN, one block away from an exquisitely beautiful courthouse, is an aged bronze plaque. A modern sign on the door advertises a law firm within the small structure. But this building holds a secret: it was the building where in 1865 a group of five disenchanted Confederate war veterans sat in what was then the office of Judge Thomas M. Jones and decided to start the infamous group called the Ku Klux Klan. In 1917, United Daughters of the Confederacy attached a bronze plaque to the building with the inscription “Ku Klux Klan organized in this, the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones, Dec. 24, 1865,” along with the names of the five men who were present on that fateful day. But if you visit the building now, you won’t be able to read those words, but you will still be able to see the plaque. pulaski tennessee kkk plaque
I read about this building several years ago and put it on my list of places to visit. Pulaski is only about 30 minutes from my home, but I hadn’t passed through the small town in well over 30 years. My only memory of Pulaski is driving through sometime in the 1970s on a family trip and noticing a sign that mentioned the KKK. I remember asking my mother what that meant, and she told me it was a group that only cared about hate. Since then, whenever I think of Pulaski, I only think of the KKK. But the town is really is much more than that.

Yesterday I was driving near Pulaski and decided to take a short detour to see the KKK plaque for myself. Because now, the plaque looks like this.

pulaski tennessee kkk plaqueIn the late 1980s, Pulaski lawyer Don Massey bought this little building for his law practice. By this point, nobody in town was very thrilled about being known as the birthplace of the KKK. The plaque’s message reminded everyone who saw it the legacy of hate not only in Pulaski, but in many areas throughout the post-war South. The town was unfortunately a destination for followers of messages of racial inequality and hatred, and that was not good for the town’s image. Many people probably wished the plaque would simply disappear. But would that draw even more attention from the KKK?

When Massey bought the building, he did something unexpected. Instead of just removing the plaque and throwing it away, he turned it around so nobody can read the words. He described why in an interview with the Seattle Times:

“I thought by turning the plaque around it would say the same thing as turning your back on racism and the negativism that goes with it and the complacency with the racial situation that we have today, and not just in the South,” Massey said.

When I learned about this reversed plaque, I loved the story. The people of Pulaski aren’t trying to ignore their history or their past, but they are moving past it. What Mr. Massey did is such an eloquent way to remind people of the past while at the same time completely disavowing the message written on that aging piece of bronze.

After visiting Pulaski, I will no longer only think about it as the birthplace of a hate group. It’s a lovely little town, and I will now think of the elegant courthouse building, the friendly people, and the lawyer who decided to make a statement against the most notorious hate group in the country.

If you want to visit: This is an actual business. The address is 205 W. Madison St., Pulaski, TN. The office is just one block away from the courthouse square. Just look for the one story white brick building with red trim. There is plenty of parking. If you stop by on a weekend in the summer months, you’ll like find a farmer’s market in full swing.

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Visiting historic Pulaski, Tennessee

Yesterday while driving around in the middle of nowhere Tennessee, I noticed I was close to the small town of Pulaski. Even though the town is only about 30 minutes from my home, I hadn’t visited it in over 30 years. The only time I remember going through Pulaski was on a family trip in the 1970s. While on that trip, I saw a sign noting that the town is the home of the Ku Klux Klan and I asked my mom what that was. She told me a group dedicated to hate.

Ever since then, whenever I thought about Pulaski, I thought about the KKK. And I really, really don’t like the KKK.

But times change, and towns change, and Pulaski had long been on my list of small towns in my area to visit, especially because of how one small business owner dealt with a very public monument to the founding of the KKK (read about how a sign noting the birthplace of the Klan was reversed to counteract its message without erasing its history).

I drove to the small downtown district and the domed Giles County courthouse dominates the view. It’s exquisite. The architectural style of the building is French Renaissance, with a three-story rotunda with a vaulted skylight.

pulaski tennessee courthouseBuilt in 1857, this building survived the Civil War, even when Union troops occupied the town. According to a brochure I picked up on my visit, the Union forces threatened to burn down not only the courthouse, but the entire town, unless local citizens gave them $3,000–a huge amount of money during the Civil War. Thomas Martin, who founded the local Methodist college, paid the money and saved the town and its many beautiful structure.

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Shiloh National Military Park

“I saw an open field in our possession the second day, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction, stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” ~ Gen. U.S. Grant on the losses at Shiloh, Tennessee in April, 1862

On an overcast and chilly day in early April, Steve and I decided to drive over to the Shiloh National Military Park to check out the extensive battlefield and park. Before we left, neither of us knew much about Shiloh except that it was one of the biggest, and bloodiest, battles of the Civil War. Since the Civil War is not one of my favorite eras in history, I was woefully ignorant of the details of the battle before we arrived. By the end of the day, I knew much more.

Our first stop was the visitor’s center to figure out where to start. We found a small museum that had maps of the two day battle as well as artifacts from the battle and the Civil War in general. The nice brochure the park hands out provided more background about the reasons for the battle:

By mid-February 1862, United States forces had won decisive victories in the West at Mill Springs, Kentucky, and Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. These successes opened the way for invasion up the Tennessee River to sever Confederate rail communications along the important Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads. Forced to abandon Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, supreme Confederate commander in the West, moved to protect his rail communications by concentrating his scattered forces around the small town of Corinth in northeast Mississippiā€”strategic crossroads of the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio.

In March, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commanding U.S. forces in the West, advanced armies under Maj. Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell southward to sever the Southern railroads. Grant ascended the Tennessee River by steamboat, disembarking his Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, 22 miles northeast of Corinth. There he established a base of operations on a plateau west of the river, with his forward camps posted two miles inland around a log church called Shiloh Meeting House. Halleck had specifically instructed Grant not to engage the Confederates until he had been reinforced by Buell’s Army of the Ohio, then marching overland from Nashville. Once combined, the two armies would advance on Corinth and permanently break western Confederate railroad communications.

To read more about the logistics and history of the battle, check out the excellent National Park Service web page. Before you start looking at photos of what the battlefield looks like today (peaceful and beautiful), look at this 1888 Chromolithograph drawn by Thure de Thulstrup (from the United States Library of Congress). This images gives us just a glimpse into the horror of that day.

Battle_of_Shiloh_Thulstrup

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Old Stone Fort, Tennessee

It’s the middle of the summer. It’s hot, and humid, and steamy outside. I wanted to get out and visit someplace I’d never been, someplace with some interesting history, but on this particular day I wasn’t terribly inspired to drive too far, or hike too far, or do anything that would result in excessive sweating. I pulled out a map and gazed out the tiny towns within a few hours of home. I settled on a small state park near Manchester, Tennessee called Old Stone Fort. The name makes it sound like a military park, but it’s not. It’s an archaeological park with a few old mills thrown in. I’d visited the park many years ago but didn’t spend much time there, I didn’t take any pictures, and I didn’t remember much. So, I decided to drive up and spend a few hours checking it out.

The area is gorgeous. The top of the plateau is covered with a deep, dense forest and lined by two beautiful rivers that have carved deep gorges along the edges of the site. I could immediately tell it’s worth exploring.

Entrance to Old Stone Fort

I was pleased to find a small museum and bookstore close to the parking lot at the beginning of the trail. The museum is very small but has some wonderful historic maps of the site over the years. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for my checking account), I already own all of the books (mostly about archaeology) that interested me in the bookstore! There is also a large relief map of the area showing the Duck and Little Duck Rivers, the site, surrounding communities, and nearby archaeological sites. I really found the relief map and associated information interesting. Evidently, the Cumberland Plateau was very different in the days of the Woodland Indians. Instead of heavy forest, the top of the plateau was more of a grassland. The area where the park is located was an intersection of two very different ecological niches, the upper highland region and the lower river valley and forest. It would have been a great place for native people to look for many different types of plants and animals.

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Travel tips for Chaco Canyon

This is the last post of my ongoing series about visiting Chaco Culture National Historic Park. If you’re planning to visit the park, there are several things you need to know to have a more pleasant trip. To read my posts about hiking and other activities in the park, here are links to my other posts:

First, you need to know that Chaco is in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t see any hotels or any grocery stores within two hours of driving there from Santa Fe. If you’re coming in from the northwest, Bloomfield is probably the last town with any real supplies. Take what you need with you, especially if you’re planning to camp. Cell phone service is somewhat spotty in the area (and forget about cell service if you have AT&T). The last unpaved portion of the road is really awful. It took me about an hour to drive that little section of road. I ran into a couple who drove in from the south route–they got a flat tire. The southern road is evidently a lot worse than the northern route. Don’t take the southern route if you’re driving an RV or towing anything. I wouldn’t even try it in a car, only a truck. Also be sure to call the park before you head out to check on road conditions.

Road to Chaco Canyon

Beware of taking a cooler or food that needs to stay cold. I thought it would be pretty mild weather while I was there so I took a cooler full of food. I had milk, cheese, lettuce, and a few other perishables. The ice melted in a day. My lettuce wilted and turned into a bag of green mush. The cheese started to smell really, really bad. Luckily, I also had a good supply of dry foods and canned food so I didn’t starve.

Things to bring with you:

Must-haves:

  • Large water container: Individual campsites don’t have water. You can find a water pump near the visitor’s center
  • Small water containers: If you plan to hike or even spend lots of time exploring the ruins, take a small water bottle with you and fill it up before leaving the visitor’s center. No water is available at individual ruins or along trails.
  • Plenty of cooking fuel: If you run out of fuel you’re out of luck. There isn’t a camp store.
  • Food: No food is available at the park, either. Take everything you need.
  • Sunscreen: Even the in cooler times of the year, you’ll get a sunburn!

Nice to have:

  • Binoculars: There are lots of things I wish I could have looked at through binoculars. Staircases on distant cliffs, the ramp up onto Fajada Butte, and distant views while hiking. Next time I’m definitely taking binoculars.
  • Firewood: If you visit in the cooler months, you can bring firewood with you and build a campfire at your campsite. You can’t buy or collect firewood in the park.
  • Telescope: If you have a telescope, this is one of the best places to use it. It’s very, very dark at Chaco and many of the park rangers and campground hosts are astronomy enthusiasts.
  • Tarp for shade: There are no trees or anything to provide shade at the campground. I didn’t haveĀ  a tarp and one hot afternoon ended up sitting on the ground in the little piece of shade my car offered. A tarp/shade tent would have been better.

General tips:

  • Try to plan your visit during the week in the spring and fall if you’re planning to camp. The park is most popular when the weather is mild and the campground can actually fill up. If you can arrive during the middle of the week the campground will likely be pretty empty. If you must arrive on a Friday, try to get there pretty early in the day so you can grab a campsite. The campground filled up while I was visiting. If you don’t mind really hot weather or really cold weather, you can probably find a campsite anytime in the summer or winter.
  • When you first arrive at the park, stop by the visitor’s center and watch the introductory video. It’s really helpful. You can also pick up guides to the various great houses and a wide variety of books.
  • The campground bathrooms don’t have hot water. The bathrooms at the visitor’s center do. I would wash my face in the mornings at the visitor’s center.
  • There are no showers. If you can’t stand going without a shower for a few days, don’t camp. I took a baseball cap to hide my hair.
  • If you’re going hiking on any of the backcountry trails (Penasco Blanco, Pueblo Alto, South Mesa Trail, or the Wijiji Trail) buy the Backcountry Trail Guide from the Visitor’s Center. It’s only $2 and provides an awful lot of information about things you’ll see on the hike. It’s totally worth it.
  • Either borrow or buy the guides to each pueblo. They contain really interesting and useful information.

Helpful books:

The reason I visited this park was because I read Craig Child’s book House of Rain. There are other fabulous books about Chaco, the Anasazi, and modern pueblo cultures. Reading about the area before visiting will help you better understand the culture and get more out of your visit. Some of my favorites are:

Museums:

If you have a chance, visit some pueblo museums in Santa Fe or Albuquerque before heading to Chaco. That way, you can see some of the artifacts recovered from the area before you visit. Ireally enjoyed the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. There’s also a good museum at Mesa Verde National Park.