“Old Jefferson, Ghost Town”
by Ed Bell
The Nashville Tennessean, 26 March 1950

Nestled between east and west prongs of Stones River,
it was the first seat of government in Rutherford County

If the waters rise as planned Old Jefferson will shrink to a small island where wild fowl roost and
snakes sun, and that will be the final chapter the river has written for a bustling town which rose in
the wilderness, then became a ghost.

For going on 200 years it has been there in the forks, where the east and west prongs of the Stones
River unite and flow north to the Cumberland, and the stories of the river and the community have
been closely interwoven from the beginning.  It was the stream which caused the town to blossom as
a pioneer trading center and river port.  It was the river’s decline as a transportation medium which
caused it to fade to a slumbrous little place on the highway where the big buses boom through from
Nashville to Murfreesboro via Smyrna, Walter Hill and the Veteran’s Hospital.  The buses don’t
stop at Old Jefferson unless a passenger disembarks or a resident flags them down and no craft
larger than a fisherman’s boat plies the river now.  Travelers that get a fleeting glimpse of a general
store beside a vacant area which once was the public square, a cluster of mailboxes, a church, and a
dozen or so houses.

Named for the third president of the United States, Jefferson is the oldest community in Rutherford
County and its first seat of government.  It might also have been the capital of Tennessee if things had
worked out like its founders dreamed.  The old tavern vanished years ago, but faint depressions in
the earth about “The Square” and along main street still show as the traces of storage cellars for the
seven or eight whisky stores which once flourished.  Some say you can still find crumbling brickbats
from the courthouse.  It stood over across from the store in what is not the front yard of Ben Ward,
the community’s oldest resident.

It is said that lawyer Thomas Benton, later famous as a longtime senator from Missouri and ancestor
of the distinguished contemporary painter, Thomas Hart Benton, tried his first case there.  There is a
legend also that the Tennessee legislature held one session in the courthouse, but the record of this
has been lost.  It is known, however, that the pioneer settlers had it in mind that Jefferson would be
the state capital.  Big barges, boats, and log rafts left its wharves for the trip to Nashville and
Samson, the great hairless dog the whole community loved, went with the hunters into the forests
after the plentiful game.

That Old Jefferson is fated to yield up the ghost long has been in the works of the Army engineers
who plan to raise a flood-control dam on Stones River at Stewart’s ferry.  Not only the village, but
many a fine old home which has graced the countryside for a hundred years would be obliterated by
the impounded waters.  A map of the area to be flooded shows only a mere dot of earth-about
where the courthouse used to stand-remaining of Old Jefferson.

Uriah Stone braved the deep woods, Indians and wildcats to paddle up the river on an exploring
expedition as far as the forks in 1766, ten years before the Declaration of Independence was
signed.  The stream has borne his name since.  Although Uriah didn’t tarry long, after him came
others until a trading center grew up there and became a river port for a large expanse of new
country.  It became the seat of Rutherford county by an act of the legislature in 1804.  A committee,
comprised of John Hill, Frederick Barfield, Mark Mitchell, Alexander McBright, and Peter Legrand,
was appointed to secure 40 acres of land by purchase or donation, lay out a town and sell the lots at
auction., using proceeds for the construction of a courthouse, jail and stocks.

The town was laid out in 150 lots and a public square.  A tavern, known as Mitchell’s, was already
there and several homes.  A road led from the square to the river banks where the wharves for the
loading and unloading of flatboats and barges were situated.  The courthouse was started in 1804
and finished two years later, a two-story brick structure about 40 feet square.  Jail and stocks also
were built, the total cost of the public enterprise being about $2500.  County commissioners then
held approximately the same jursidiction as the circuit courts of the present day.  Cases were tried
before them and they meted out sentances consisting variously of confinement in the stocks and jail,
lashes, and sometimes death by hanging.  The justice of the Old Jefferson commissioners appears a
little haphazard and inconsistent, viewed this far away.  The records show a Negro was hanged for
housebreaking while a white man tried for murder was convicted, but fined only a few dollars and
the fine was later removed after the defendant took an insolvency oath.

In 1806 John Nash Read migrated from the eastern seaboard to Jefferson and established another
tavern.  It stood on a corner of the square.  Its prices were set up by law.  Among them were: dinner
25cents; breakfast and supper 20cents; lodging, 8 1/3 cents; horse with corn, oats and fodder 33
1/3cents; whisky per pint 12 1/3 cents; peach brandy per pint, 25cents.  Read ran the tavern for a
period of years and apparently set up a family occupation since his great grandson, Sam, later was
manager of the Read House, one of Chattanooga’s leading hotels.  In its later years the old Read
tavern became a residence and post office.  Mrs. Sally Waller Finney was postmistress there for a
spell.  She is 80 years old now and lives in Jackson, O(hio)., but comes back to Old Jefferson for a
visit each summer.  The tavern was torn down in 1901.  She was a descendant of William Waller,
one of the town’s pioneer settlers, who came out of Virginia in a covered wagon and liked the place
so well that he refused to go on with others moving westward.  He prospered and his four sons, Ball
(George), Jim (James R.), Eph, and Bill fought  through the War Between the States under Gen. Joe
Wheeler and then came back to the community to operate a thriving wagon manufacturing business.

During the first two decades, after Jefferson became a town, only flatboats and barges were tied up
at its wharves, but in 1824, the keel of a steamboat was laid by hometown boatbuilders.  When the
boat was completed it was floated down to Nashville for outfitting with a steam plant and other
equipment.  It carried 100 tons and made many trips between Jefferson and Nashville.  The river’s
advantages for transportation dwindled with improving roads and finally the county seat was changed
from Jefferson to Cannonsburg, now Murfreesboro.  By that time also the territories that are now
Bedford and Cannon counties had been taken from Rutherford.

With progress also went the big woods with their bountiful game where Sampson used to roam with
the Jefferson hunters.  A shaggy little 18-pound animal, Sampson, had won his name and a place in
the hearts of the pioneer settlers because of his prowess as a squirrel and coon  dog.  He visited all
and was claimed by all.  His big time of year was in November  and December when the settlers
formed hunting parties to run down and kill the hogs which had been let run wild and fatten on the
abundant mast of the forests.  The slain hogs were collected at a given place where they were
dressed and their meat prepared for baconing.  Removal of their bristles was expedited by burying a
slanting barrel in the earth.  This was filled with water which was then heated to boiling by dropping
in red hot stones.  Sampson looked upon these as occasions especially arranged for his benefit.  He
was permitted to stay around and feast on the scraps cast his way by the meat dressers.  One time a
large cur, owned by a newcomer to the settlement, dashed in and began gobbling up all the loose
meat in sight.  He weighed at least 60 pounds, but Sampson took him on anyhow.  The big cur
seized Sampson, shook him and tossed him aside.  Sampson landed in one of the soaking vats.  A
bystander grabbed a rake and pulled him quickly from the boiling water.  He had gone under all
except his head and the hair was beginning to slough away already, but Sampson still had a fighting
heart.  He charged the big dog again, horrible sight that he was, snarling and shedding steam and
hair.  The big dog fled in terror.  Sampson, according to legend, lived to a ripe old age and became
the bald terror of the forest trails because his hair never grew back