Whitwell, Tennessee

A few weeks after our biking adventure, Alexandra and I headed south to explore a few notable places in rural Tennessee.  It was a beautiful fall day, with bright blue sky and just a hint of “crisp” in the air.  We had a few goals and fortified ourselves with a latte and chicken biscuit for the road, we let life manage the timing.  About an hour later, we headed off the interstate, west to the Sequatchie valley, driving down the side of the mountain into a narrow idyllic valley that runs north and south through east Tennessee. On this day, it was picture perfect. 

Our first stop of the day was a bit of a whim, Dayton, Tennessee.  We had been there many years before so I knew the history of the town, most famously, the old brick courthouse of Rhea county.  This was the site of the big trial of the 1920’s, often called “Scopes Monkey Trial” that was the inspiration for Inherit the Wind staring Spencer Tracy, one of Alexandra’s favorite movies.  During the trial, William Jennings Bryan, a former presidential candidate, and Clarence Darrow argued for the right to teach evolution in school. Religion versus science was on trial. Two of the most famous lawyers of the day battled out the concept of free speech during the hot Tennessee summer where the proceedings had to be taken outside under a shade tree.  Today the courthouse has a little museum and statues of Bryan and Darrow to commemorate the great trial that brought the theories of evolution to a national debate and put this tiny town on the world stage. 

After our walk around the courthouse, we headed south and made a stop at a local fruit and vegetable market that was piled high with pumpkins and other joys of the fall season.  I ordered a fried green tomato BLT and we shared it on some haybales that were turned into a makeshift couch, everything you would want in an autumn adventure, beautiful scenery, local food and good company.

Our next stop was the even tinier town of Whitwell (whit-whul), Tennessee, population 1700.  This was the main reason for our adventure and a true pilgrimage to honor victims of the Holocaust and the young students who wanted to honor their tragic stories.  The middle school teachers wanted to do a project to teach their students in this isolated community the concept of tolerance and the tragedies of the Holocaust.  Over the course of the multi-year project the students decide to collect paperclips to represent each person who died in the Holocaust, a daunting project as they needed six million paperclips, an incomprehensible number.  The teachers were able to get national publicity and the support of Holocaust survivors to build a small memorial behind the school to remember the terrible consequences of intolerance. This story is told in the moving documentary Paperclips which can be rented on Amazon.  

Alexandra and I found our way to the outdoor memorial in the back of the tidy school complex. There was no one else there and the memorial was closed because of Covid but we wandered around an old railroad box car that originally took people to the death camps but now holds the millions of paperclips gathered by the students.  A memorial is inscribed with the names of children who died in the camps and a bittersweet poem by one of these lost children.  This rural town, many years and miles from the tragedy of the Holocaust, seems an unlikely place for such a powerful memorial, but inhumanity and intolerance are universal problems that can only be solved by changing society one person at a time, one school at a time, one town at a time.

We finished our tour with lunch at an outdoor restaurant, a real treat these days, and a visit to our favorite used bookstore as well as some coffee at a cat café with 36 adorable cats.  We headed home, back north towards the sunset and dusk with our own bittersweet memories of the day. We humans have so much work to do to fight our lower natures and find openness and tolerance of others. This year has reminded us that we are globally connected and what we do as individuals effects those around us. We need to find our own place, rural or urban, in the world to bring tolerance and open-mindedness to the experience of being human.