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History lives at Rocky Mount

Jan Hearne • Apr 2, 2012 at 10:35 AM

PINEY FLATS — Rocky Mount Living History Museum opened to the public April 1, 1962. To commemorate the site’s 50th anniversary, a celebration will be held today from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. with free tours and other activities.

Rocky Mount is the site of the Cobb-Massengill home, built in 1769 by William Cobb, considered one of the first settlers of this region.

The site is significant because of its central role in the formation of the state, functioning not only as a home to the Cobbs but also as the headquarters for William Blount and as the first capital of the Southwest Territory.

On May 26, 1790, 21 years after Cobb built his home in the wilderness, the United States government established “the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio.” President George Washington appointed Blount to serve as territorial governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs.

Blount ran the business of government at Rocky Mount until 1792, when he moved to Knoxville, establishing the new capital there. Four years later, Tennessee was admitted to the Union as the 16th state.

The house and farm passed to Penelope Cobb, daughter of William and Barsheba, upon her marriage to Henry Massengill Jr. Rocky Mount remained in the Massengill family until 1959 when the state of Tennessee purchased it for preservation as a historic site.

The house and farmland came to the state’s attention through the work of Pauline Massengill DeFriece and her efforts to form the Rocky Mount Historical Association in 1958.

“In 1962, we opened to the public,” said T.J. DeWitt, the museum’s education director. “At that point we had the house and kitchen, and, I believe, the weaving cabin, which was the smokehouse at the time.”

Volunteers kept the museum running throughout the 1960s. They conducted tours and collected artifacts related to the Cobbs, Massengills and the area’s early history.

A watershed year for Rocky Mount was 1974, when E. Alvin Gearhardt Jr. was hired as its first professional director.

Gary Walrath, the museum’s current executive director, described Gearhardt as a “true legend and innovator,” saying he “took Rocky Mount from a little-known historic site to a position of prominence statewide and nationally.”

By 1979, the museum had obtained accreditation from the American Association of Museums. The accreditation process was rigorous and the guidelines stringent, but Gearhardt was determined to protect and preserve the site’s artifacts while furthering its programs.

In the early- to mid-1980s a handful of museums were switching from third-person to first-person interpretation. Until then, visitors were greeted with information delivered by a guide, sometimes dressed in period clothes but definitely of the present time.

“They were showing the objects and saying this is a birdcage Windsor chair from the 1812 era, and this clock dates to the 1700s, and they would talk about the whole history of the house,” DeWitt said.

A few sites, like Conner Prairie in Indiana and Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, were using guides who stayed in character and spoke of the times in which they lived, never acknowledging the modern era.

“One Christmas,” DeWitt said, “there was an interpreter at Rocky Mount who just pretended she was getting the governor’s wig ready. She asked visitors, ‘Can you hear the stage coach coming?’ and they said they did.

“We’d been looking for a way to make the whole program interactive, something special. Over the winter we started developing a living history program. We picked 1791 as the year to show. People took on the personas of the Cobb family, the Massengill family and composite characters like a store owner, an overseer — not true historical characters but characters representative of historical characters.”

Ten years to the day after the museum opened Emily McClellan came on board. She made the transition easily from third-person guide to first-person interpreter, portraying the role of Mrs. Cobb for decades now.

“This will be her 40th anniversary,” DeWitt said. “She was instrumental in developing first-person interpretation along with Alvin Gearhardt.”

Grant Hardin, also a longtime re-enactor, portrays Mr. Cobb. He and Mrs. McClellan are joined by a “dozen or so” paid interpreters and about 20 volunteers who help out throughout the year, DeWitt said.

Five years after Rocky Mount became a living history site, a new 6,000-square-foot educational wing with a 175-seat auditorium and three additional classrooms were completed.

“This past year we finished another renovation with all new exhibits, and we renovated the interior and put in all new exhibits,” DeWitt said.

In addition to the re-enactors, historic buildings, interpretive exhibits, period gardens, cooking and crafts, special events throughout the year continue to draw visitors to Rocky Mount.

Woolly Days, featuring sheep shearing, spinning, weaving, cooking and gardening, will be held April 14.

Other popular events include Spirit of the Harvest in October and the Christmas Candlelight Tours.

For more information about Rock Mount, visit www.rockymountmuseum.com.

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