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Central Tennessee Tour
Horses & Whiskey, Caves & History
This Middle Tennessee Tour takes you south from Franklin through a series of towns in what amounts to a big loop that ends in Murfreesboro, about twenty minutes east of Franklin and less than half an hour southeast of Nashville. Along this Tour we’ll see plenty of history – much of it Civil War-related, the home for Tennessee Walking Horses, three distilleries, museums, mountains, the largest cave system in Tennessee, the state’s exact center, National Battlefield lands, numerous classic courthouses, and more. Let’s go!
The Tour starts just south of Nashville along U.S. 31 in Franklin, a burgeoning city with a rich history and plenty of residents in the music and film industries. The city boasts one of the top-rated, most accolade-laden historic Main Street downtowns in the country. The city was founded in 1799 and named after Benjamin Franklin; the Battle of Franklin in the Civil War proved pivotal in 1864 and we’ll see a bunch of sights related to that shortly.
The downtown area of Franklin features a number of worthy sights: the Franklin Theatre dates back to 1937 and a 2010 renovation made it a showplace once again. Guided walking tours take you past and through plenty of original buildings landmarks with plenty of dining and shopping options. The word “eclectic” is used frequently around here and the downtown hosts plenty of festivals. Just northeast of downtown, The Factory at Franklin, offers a bevy of modern and antique shops, restaurants, and more in a series of old school 1929-era brick buildings that once housed a stove and a mattress factory.
For Civil War history buffs, precious little of the original battleground from the Battle of Franklin remains (much of it became commercial development), some key historic sites remain as part of Franklin Battlefield. The Carter House was built in 1830 and survived the battle, with the Carter family hiding in the basement. The original house and three outbuildings are open for tours, with scars from the war still visible – including hundreds of bullet holes. Fort Granger includes trenches dug by Confederate soldiers, and the historic Carnton is a plantation house and museum where many injured soldiers – including four Confederate generals – were brought for treatment.
The McGavock family lived in Carnton and cared for the wounded soldiers, burying those died; over 1,500 Confederate soldiers killed in the Battle of Franklin were buried in what is now McGavock Confederate Cemetery. Family matriarch Carrie McGavock became the inspiration for the Robert Hicks novel The Widow of the South. Down the street in the historic downtown, the Lotz House Civil War Museum is chock full of Civil War-era antiques and colorful stories about the battle and the era in general. All of these sites are in close proximity and provide an incredible glimpse into the pivotal Battle of Franklin.
From Franklin, follow the “old highway” (TN 6/U.S. 31) south to Spring Hill, a town established in 1809 that quietly sat nestled in Middle Tennessee’s rolling hills until General Motors announced in the early 1990s that they would set up the Saturn Corporation in town. Though Saturn ended its run in 2007, General Motors still maintains significant auto and parts manufacturing in town. Very close to where Saturn set up shop, the Battle of Spring Hill was taking place in November 1864 – which led to the quite consequential Battle of Franklin. Battles took place on and near the Rippavilla Plantation, constructed in the 1840s and still a popular place for tours of the beautiful mansion and battlefield, complete with museum displays. Fall tours feature a corn maze. Behind Rippavilla is the little Tennessee Museum of Early Farm History, which features displays and exhibits on early farms in the state – as you’ll see, it was not an easy life.
From Spring Hill, enjoy some open road for a while. Connect to I-65 via Saturn Parkway (TN 396) and head south about 15 minutes to TN 50, at Exit 37. Head east on Highway 50 to US 431 into Lewisburg, a town of 10,000 named for explorer Meriwether Lewis (who died while traveling along the nearby Natchez Trace). Lewisburg has an old-fashioned movie drive-in named after Highway 50 and holds the headquarters of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association; we’ll see their “Celebration Grounds” shortly on the Tour.
Continue south on US 431 through the Middle Tennessee countryside to Fayetteville, a town of 7,000 named after the North Carolina town from which its first settlers came. The Fayetteville-Lincoln County Museum & Civic Center, located in a former Borden Milk Plant on Main Street, showcases the area’s history and features a large collection of arrowheads as well as the second largest agricultural exhibit in Tennessee. Antique shops dominate downtown; the popular Magnolia Antique Mall, occupies two 1890s storefronts with over 30 dealers covering three floors and 15,000 square feet of space. Fayetteville has the largest fabric store in the Southeast, Sir’s Fabrics, a local icon since 1948.
The historic district includes Washington Street and Mulberry Avenue, along which you’ll find many homes from the mid-19th century, some with colorful Civil War-era histories; guided walking tours take you inside the history and in some cases the homes themselves. The Best Western Fayetteville Inn is right along the U.S. 64/231 bypass on the south side of town, convenient to everything in town as well as nearby towns… and distilleries. The first distillery on our Tour is just southeast of Fayetteville down U.S. 64 in nearby Kelso: the relatively small Prichards Distillery. Prichards produces rum, bourbon, whiskey, and liqueurs. When they opened their distillery in Kelso in 1997, it was the first legal distillery built in the state in half a century. Distilling, though, had been a family tradition dating back to the 1820s. They offer free tours from 9am-3:30pm every day except Sundays.
From Fayetteville (Prichards is just a few miles from town), follow U.S. 231 north; it’s a scenic route through farmlands to Shelbyville, the country seat of Bedford County with a beautiful Greek Revival courthouse dominating on a hill, surrounded by the town square. Parts of the town may be familiar with Miranda Lambert fans, as Shelbyville was featured in her video Famous in a Small Town. Shelbyville is the hub for Tennessee Walking Horses, popular for their smooth gaits, sure-footedness, and general calm disposition. The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration takes place during the 11 days leading up to Labor Day and has annually since 1939, drawing in people from around the world. The grounds along Madison Avenue in Shelbyville (U.S. 41A) have turned into an equestrian complex, with a 30,000-seat outdoor stadium, a 4,500-seat indoor arena, a covered outdoor practice area, permanent stables, and more. Across and down Main Street (U.S. 41A) from this complex, you’ll find the Best Western Celebration Inn.
Another nickname for Shelbyville is “The Pencil City,” due to its prominent role in the history of wood-cased pencil manufacturing, which continues to this day. Oh yeah, and the Sharpie markers you like to use? They’re made in Shelbyville, too. Pick up a few while you’re there!
From Shelbyville and the horses, let’s head to the first of two distilleries. From the Best Western Celebration Inn, it’s an easy ride south (technically east at this point) on U.S. 41A/Madison Street out of town a few miles to Normandy Road. Head east on Normandy Road to the little burg of Normandy, where you’ll find a few charming buildings recently restored and offering antiques, food, and beverages. The beverages of choice? Items produced by the George Dickel Distillery, accessible just down Cascade Hollow Road. George Dickel Distillery produces five whisky varieties (they spell “whisky” the Scottish way because George Dickel felt his whisky was on par with anything from Scotland) and offers several tours, including a $10 extended tour with complimentary tastings. Their whisky has been produced with the same water running over the limestone shelf of the Cumberland Plateau since 1870.
From the Dickel Distillery, head back to Normandy via Cascade Hollow Road and connect to TN Highway 269 south to Tullahoma. Founded as work camp during railroad construction, Tullahoma today benefits from investment years ago by the Tennessee Valley Authority and proximity to Huntsville, Alabama and their space and aerospace industries. In downtown Tullahoma, you’ll see tiny planes mounted to streetlights, a salute to adjacent Arnold Air Force Base; its Development Center holds the most advanced and largest complex of flight simulation test facilities in the world. Tours are available if you call ahead. Aviation fans will also love the Beechcraft Heritage Museum located in hangars on the local airport grounds. Over two dozen aircraft, memorabilia, and artifacts are featured – and many of the planes are still air-worthy and get some flying miles in.
From Tullahoma, let’s head southwest along Highway 55 about 12 miles to Lynchburg, where candy and whiskey await (something for everyone!). Approaching Lynchburg, look for the signs guiding you to the Lynchburg Cake & Candy Company, which makes chocolate whiskey balls among other treats. Tours of their small but popular facility are available as you warm up for the big tour.
That big tour is found along Highway 55 as you get into Lynchburg’s town center: at the famous Jack Daniel's Distillery. Nestled in a beautiful wooded area next to downtown Lynchburg, “JD” features a bustling visitors’ center, shops where you can customize bottles of whiskey you buy (but don’t expect free tastings: they’re in a “dry” county), and of course tours that offer a complete look at the whiskey-making process. The Tours are frequent but busy, so be prepared for a wait… it is well worth it! A single path several hundred feet long over a creek brings you to Lynchburg’s town square, which offers plenty of car, truck, and motorcycle parking so after a tour you can relax and enjoy plenty of shops, restaurants (many featuring BBQ slathered in sauce made with Jack Daniels), and the Moore County Courthouse, which dates back to 1885. It’s usually open and you can check out memorabilia inside. Lynchburg is definitely worth an entire afternoon.
To continue the Tour, connect from Highway 55 to Highway 50/Main Street in Lynchburg. Highway 50 heads southeast out of Lynchburg and crosses the Elk River, where you can see Tims Ford Dam in the distance. The dam created Tims Ford Lake during its construction from 1966 to 1970; the lake is very popular for boating and bass fishing. The Highway 50 ride from Lynchburg to Winchester is full of twists and views that make it popular for motorcycles – and sports cars.
Highway 50 heads into Winchester, a town of 8,000 that serves as the seat of Franklin County (not, of course, to be confused with the Franklin, Tennessee where the Tour began). Winchester has great access to Tims Ford Lake, hosts the popular three-day Dogwood Festival every year, and features a bustling town square. The Oldham Theater opened in 1950 and retains its original character and spirit as it continues to show movies regularly on its two screens, right on the town square.
The Art Deco-inspired Franklin County Courthouse anchors the square, which also features a number of local stores as two US highways and two state highways converge in the city center. A few blocks to the east, the Old Jail Museum, which not only holds artifacts from the Civil War and early pioneer days, but also Dinah Shore memorabilia. Also near the town square, Winchester Speedway offers race fans Saturday night races on a 1/3-mile red clay oval.
Recreational fun can be had at Tims Ford Lake State Park, a 2,200-acre playland offering access to Tims Ford Lake, geocaching activities, hiking trails, and more. On the north side of town along U.S. 41A/Dinah Shore Boulevard, you’ll find the Best Western Inn. Dinah Shore Boulevard? Yes, indeed. The legendary singer and talk show host was born in Winchester in 1916. The city is also the childhood home of four Tennessee governors and three people who went on to be formally honored by the British Crown.
Trivia: Winchester once had the first women’s college in the United States to grant college degrees to women that were equivalent to those given to men. The college, which started as the Tennessee and Alabama Female Institute and was later renamed Mary Sharpe College after a wealthy donor, lasted from 1851 to 1896.
From Winchester, head to U.S. 41A and head east (south on the signs) out of town. The mountains are in view; before you reach them, stop in Cowan and check out the Cowan Railroad Museum. The centerpiece of town, the museum is housed in portions of the original train station along with original train cars and refurbished buildings from town. The depot, built in 1904, holds plenty of memorabilia. Admission is free.
From Cowan, follow U.S. 41A and climb into the Cumberland Plateau, a series of hills and mountains preceding the Appalachians in eastern Tennessee. The highway twists and turns as its climbs into the mountains; when you reach twin gates of brick, you’ve reached the grounds of Sewanee: University of the South. It is a private liberal arts college with one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, with many buildings constructed of locally-sourced stone, much of it with a Gothic style reflecting architecture frequently used with churches. Which is fitting, since it is owned by 28 southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church.
The school’s origins date back to 1857, although things didn’t fully develop and stabilize until after the Civil War. U.S. 41A runs along the southern edge of campus, which sits atop the Cumberland Plateau. Near the west gate of the campus as you enter, check out the spray-painted roadside rock; if you climb the steps, the overlook reveals miles of valley below; the sunsets are amazing.
The road just south of here is considered one of the most treacherous stretches of Interstate highway in the U.S., and though not part of our Tour, you can experience it in a loop from Exit 134 to 143 and back if you wish. This decline and incline has been immortalized in song by both Jerry Reed and Johnny Cash, and several runaway truck ramps indicate that the stretch is nothing to take lightly. Also near Monteagle is South Cumberland State Park, which spreads 31 square miles across four counties. The Park offers wild rock formations, waterfalls, gorges, woodlands, caves, a sinkhole and more, all accessible via over 70 miles of hiking trails – some with colorful names like Fiery Gizzard Trail.
To continue on the Tour, head through Monteagle and connect to U.S. 41/Highway 56 to Tracy City. Two places in Tracy City are open to the public for tours: the Dutch Maid Bakery, the oldest family bakery in Tennessee dating back to 1902, and the Marugg Company, which manufactures European-style scythes (scythes are agricultural hand tools and the preferred accessory for the Grim Reaper, in case you were wondering).
From Tracy City, connect to TN Highway 56 north and enjoy a scenic – and occasionally twisty – ride along the edge of the Cumberland Mountains through Marion and Grundy Counties. We head through Altamont (not the place where the legendary concert happened) and Beersheba Springs into Warren County. Several more state parks and natural areas are nearby, but nothing compares to a complex cave system – which we’re about to hit next.
Cumberland Caverns, just southeast of McMinnville, is the largest show cave system in Tennessee – and that’s saying a lot considering the state’s extensive collection of natural caves. Over 27 miles of underground caverns can be explored; check out three spelunking tunnels as well as the “Volcano Room”, perhaps the classiest cave room you’ll ever see… it holds 500 people and features a chandelier from the former Loew’s Theater in New York City. Fans of the monthly national show Bluegrass Underground will certainly recognize this room, as the show originates from here. The Caverns require a bit of a detour via Fairview Road and Highway 8 – and then just follow the signs that will guide you past the remaining dozen or so turns it takes to get there. But it’s worth the time! Highway 8 can bring you back to McMinnville.
McMinnville itself is a city of about 13,000 people, serving as the seat of Warren County. The city bills itself as the “Nursery Capital of the World,” with over 450 plant nurseries in the area. Downtown McMinnville surrounds the handsome Warren County Courthouse. An interesting old neon sign from 1955 indicates “Dinty Moore’s Restaurant,” which is now closed but may have been named after the popular 1920s cartoon character. Either way, the owner back then was named Moore and was famous for his chili. Old neon signs with interesting names are among the best things you can come across on road trips – we had to mention it!
Remember how Dinah Shore was born in Winchester? As a child, she followed – more or less – the path you just followed because from age 8 until high school she lived in McMinnville. Country music legend Dottie West grew up in McMinnville and is buried in the town cemetery. If you’re in the mood to check out early era buildings, the Black House on the corner of Main and High Streets was built in 1825 and is the oldest remaining residence in the city. Built in the Federal style, it was a pioneer for brick construction in the area; recently restored, it is open for tours by appointment. Falcon Rest Mansion & Gardens was built by entrepreneur Clay Faulkner in 1896 and the 10,000 square foot mansion was so elaborate and advanced for its time PBS referred to it as “Tennessee’s Biltmore.” The mansion is open for tours; it and the surrounding gardens host events and shows regularly. Keep an eye on the Art Deco-inspired Park Theatre downtown, too; originally built in 1939 but closed since 2006, renovations are underway and a 2015 re-opening is likely.
To continue the Tour, head to the west side of town and connect to U.S. 70S, which offers a scenic, four-lane ride from McMinnville into the heart of Tennessee, Murfreesboro. A fast-growing city only 40 miles southeast of Nashville, Murfreesboro is home to Middle Tennessee State University. Of its 25,000-plus students, over 22,000 are undergrads, making MTSU the largest undergraduate university in the state. It’s also the geographic center of Tennessee; you’ll find the marker along Old Lascassas Road on the northeast side of town right off campus. The rock obelisk “marks the spot” and includes a commemorative plaque. [picture]
Murfreesboro has an interesting history. It started as Cannonsburgh; by 1818 it had already been re-named Murfreesboro and became the capital of the State of Tennessee. That lasted all of eight years before the capital relocated to Nashville. A major Civil War battle took place here too; we’ll check that out shortly. But first head to the center of town; there’s a lot to check out.
Just a few blocks off where U.S. 41, 70S, and 231 and TN Highways 96 and 99 all come close to each other, you’ll find an active Murfreesboro town square, with the majestic Rutherford County Courthouse in the middle. A Classical Revival structure built in 1859, it is one of only six Tennessee courthouses built prior to the Civil War that remain. On the courthouse lawn, you’ll find the Confederate Soldiers’ Monument, erected in 1901; a tablet (stone, not digital) commemorating Murfreesboro’s early years as the state capitol was added in 1912; another monument saluting its former state capitol status went up in a different corner in 1949. Several other monuments adorn the grounds around the courthouse. Adjacent to downtown, Cannonsburgh Village salutes the original town with reconstructed structures from the era including a school house, wedding chapel, blacksmith’s shop, and the World’s Largest Cedar Bucket. You can tour it yourself, and guided tours are available.
Horticulturalists and nature lovers will find plenty to like about Murfreesboro. The city snuggles up to the Stones River, where the epic Civil War battle took place. Along the greenway you’ll find the Stones River Greenway Arboretum which features a variety of native and non-native plants, with elevations that vary enough to feature different types of plants. Downtown, the Discovery Center at Murfree Spring is a children’s and nature museum that also features a boardwalk through wetlands preserving a variety of rare native plants.
Back to history, the Oaklands Historic House Museum on the north side of town showcases a home caught in the crossfire of the Civil War battles. Tours are available of the home and grounds showing original artifacts, a video, and more. A major battle in the Civil War took place in northwestern Murfreesboro: The Stones River National Battlefield on the northwest side of town off U.S. 41/70S and the Nashville Pike commemorates one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, which took place for three days over New Years’ into 1863. It was a key battle culminating in a Union victory, making Murfreesboro a Union Army Depot.
On the National Battlefield, you can drive or hike around and find plenty of information signs detailing the battle. The Visitors’ Center is chock full of fascinating artifacts, including original pieces recovered from troops in the field. The Stones River National Cemetery is inside the park, as well as the Hazen Brigade Monument, the oldest Civil War monument still standing in its original location. Plan to spend a few hours when you visit here.
Along I-24 near Highway 96 on Murfreesboro’s west side, the Best Western Chaffin Inn provides easy access to all of these sights around Murfreesboro, and a number of nearby cities.
From here, you can head into Nashville, which we cover extensively with our Nashville & the Natchez Trace Tour. If you head to Nashville via I-24 or U.S. 41, you’ll find the Best Western Music City Inn in Antioch, the Best Western Brentwood in Brentwood, and three hotels in Nashville: the Best Western PLUS Belle Meade Inn & Suites, the Best Western PLUS Music Row, and the Best Western Suites Near Opryland. Always plenty to see and do!
So there we have it: from just south of Nashville in Franklin, we got to see history, horses, whiskey, mountains, caves, museums, and much, much more through great Tennessee towns like Spring Hill, Fayetteville, Shelbyville, Lynchburg, Tullahoma, Winchester, Monteagle, McMinnville, Murfreesboro, and more. So much to see in Middle Tennessee. Enjoy!