Written By Chris Hari | Photography By Bruce Hari
This article was intended to describe an event on the Hiwassee River sponsored by the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association (TCWPA), with the assistance of the Charleston/Calhoun/Hiwassee Historical Society. Before the day was over, it was clear that the story was not the event, but the incredible Historical Society and what they have accomplished in a very short time.
The Hiwassee River Heritage Center, located on Highway 11 in Charleston, has only been in existence three years. On August 26th, a groundbreaking took place for an addition that will more than double its size. The acquisition, renovation and upcoming expansion of the Center is an amazing story of what a small group of people can accomplish when they put their minds to it.
Calhoun and Charleston are small towns that have had a huge significance in American history. Between 1819 and 1838, Calhoun on the north side of the Hiwassee River was located in the United States of America. Charleston on the south side of the Hiwassee was the Ocoee District of the Cherokee Nation. It was in Charleston that a Federal Indian Agency was located that became Fort Cass in preparation for military operations to remove 9,000 Cherokees in the tragic Trail of Tears in 1838. During the Civil War, the area was very strategic for both sides because of the Hiwassee River. In the 1860s, the bridge across the river was burned and rebuilt three times. John Goins, a Charleston native, visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and in researching his home place, found an abundance of references to Fort Cass and names familiar to him, many of which are buried in the cemeteries of both towns. He couldn’t believe how significant his hometown was to the Trail of Tears and the history of the Cherokees. People of Calhoun and Charleston had a similar reaction and realized that the story must be told.
In 2008, a small group of people began to meet monthly, alternating between Calhoun City Hall and the Charleston Municipal Building, to form the Charleston/Calhoun/Hiwassee Historical Society. The group quickly grew to 50 people, and the need for a meeting place as well as a place to share the region’s history with the public was realized. In June of 2011, a vacant bank building was available on Highway 11. Historical society officers signed papers to hold it until the end of the year to give them time to raise $134,000 to purchase the building. This feat was accomplished in just six months by individual donations and some large donations by area industries. Once the building was purchased, they raised an additional $56,000 in renovation funds.
Volunteers ripped out teller windows, bulletproof glass and old carpet. Much of the needed material was donated, and local businesses gave discounts on remaining material purchases. Harold Haddock, a spry 80-year-old at the time, did all of the carpentry work. Ellis and Sherry Neidich, local stone masons, donated the stones and labor to turn the old night depository into a fireplace. The bank vault is now home to thousands of pages of information and old photographs. Carroll Van West, director for the Center for Historic Preservation and now state historian, was so excited about the project that he also donated the expertise/services of his staff members. Native McMinn Countian Jamie Woodcock visited and documented historic sites in the area, and Amy Kostine, another graduate student, did the research and design for the beautiful panels of interpretive history now located in the center, which were also donated by the Center for Historic Preservation in Murfreesboro.
Once the Heritage Center renovation was complete, facilities manager Darlene Goins invited National Park Service representatives to see what had been accomplished.
They were impressed, and the result was Certification by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, making the Center a certified interpretive site of “Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.” The importance of this certification is that the Heritage Center is now included in NPS promotional materials and is on their website at www.NPS.gov/.
Incredibly, the Historical Society has raised through donations and grants another $300,000 to more than double the size of the Center by adding an exhibit room and classroom. The day-to-day operations of the center are funded by the annual International Cowpea Festival held in Charleston Park the second Saturday in September each year and The City of Charleston, which also uses the building for meetings and pays the electric bill. At the same time as the building addition, Phase One of a National Historic Interpretive Trail will begin, which will ultimately connect the Heritage Center to the banks of the Hiwassee River. It will feature monuments depicting “Voices from the Past,” from both sides of the stories. “We want to increase the number of people who visit, especially school groups,” says Darlene Goins. “Those were sad times, and we want to memorialize the people who lived through them and preserve and share their history.”
For information, contact (423) 665-3373 or visit www.cchhistoricalsociety.org.