Up first was the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County, located at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers where they form a central part of Chickamauga Lake.
The attraction there, from about early-December to early-February is 10,000 to 25,000 (depending on who’s counting) sandhill crane. If you are pretty sure you’ve never seen sandhill crane in upper east Tennessee, you would be correct.
The sandhill gather at Hiwassee to feed on corn and have shelter from the occasional hunter. This gathering is not a new event. The migration has been going on for millennia, long before there was TVA and long before there was Tennessee. Winter roosts are all across this latitude from here to west Texas. When the north-migrating flocks of crane and geese converge in the middle Plains, heading for northern Canada, I understand it is quite a phenomenon.
When TVA was established apparently someone had the foresight to create the refuge and then to keep it planted and maintained. Given the size of the lake, the refuge is not very big but it is active and noisy. This kind of legacy has a life that far exceeds Elvis or Alvin York or Dollywood. But it is not much appreciated by fair-weather tourists. Imagine that. Thankfully you can’t just walk out into the fields and take pictures. Indeed, neither a bathroom nor coffee are available.
Seen once, this place lodges in your mind. Heard once, the nearly-continuous crane cackle makes you wonder what they have to talk about.
Some 30 miles away, in Dayton is the museum commemorating “The State of Tennessee vs. John T. Scopes.” The first time I visited the Rhea County courthouse, in the middle-90s, I had taken a course in H.L. Mencken who was famous for his trial descriptions of William Jennings Bryan and the circus that the trial attracted. I wanted to get a feel for the place. I think we tend to be corrupted in our thinking about the Scopes Trial by the movie “Inherit the Wind” which requires a person to separate themselves from the real thing. The real thing is much more interesting.
The Scopes Museum has been refurbished since my earlier visits. The original relied much more on black and white newspaper reprints. The current version is more attuned to getting into the background and details. That is a plus, always. The courthouse still functions and you might get lucky to step into the actual courtroom of the Scopes Trial. If only those wall could talk!
The trial, as we know, was a world-wide sensation that put Dayton on the map, although not quite as anticipated. Ninety-four years later the images of the trial and its implications still linger across the country and in history books but the association with Dayton has long since lapsed. I can imagine there are Daytonians and Rhea Countians who have never been in the museum or seldom in the courthouse.
The museum is in the basement of the Rhea County courthouse in the middle of a growing, bustling town. Dayton is easily accessible. It has all the right business out on the bypass. But, you have to put yourself in the place and the time which is a little more difficult to do after you wrestle with full parking lots near the courthouse.
A quick aside, the Cherokee Removal Memorial, the Trail of Tears, not three miles from the refuge, was closed for the day when I was down last. The memorial is operated by Meigs County and staffed largely by volunteers. If you feel an ounce of sympathy for what people — old, new, us, them — must go through sometimes to forge a life amongst hostilities, this is a place that works on your notions of right and wrong and maybe works on your notions of where we are and how far we still have to go.
Atticus Finch tells us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. That might be difficult at Hiwassee but certainly worth a try at the Cherokee Removal Memorial or the Scopes Museum.