They threw quite a party in Jonesborough last week.

Thousands of people brought their lawn chairs to witness a neat bit of history unfold in Tennessee’s Oldest Town. Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett came to Jonesborough Tuesday evening to kick off a celebration of the 225th anniversary of Tennessee becoming the nation’s 16 state.

Equally important, the two state officials finally returned a copy of Washington County’s first collection of property records, known as Deed Book A, which had been sent to Nashville as part of the state’s Centennial and International Exposition held in 1897.

And of course no party is complete without music. I suspect most of the folks who gathered in front of the historic Washington County Courthouse on Tuesday were there primarily to see The Oak Ridge Boys perform.

It’s hard to believe that this year also marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the country and gospel quartet’s biggest hit, “Elvira!”

By now you have probably heard the story of how Washington County sent its prized copy of Deed Book A to Nashville for the Centennial exhibition. For some reason, state officials decided it was their’s to keep, which they did for 124 years.

Officials with the Tennessee State Library and Archives have most recently argued that Deed Book A was transcribed by someone they said was acting under the authority of the state, thus making it a state record.

Thank goodness Washington County has a skilled professional serving as its chief archivist. The county was indeed fortunate to have someone with the knowledge and dedication of Ned Irwin to unravel this complicated historical mystery.

Irwin researched the background of the document and made a convincing argument for the deed book’s return to Jonesborough. The veteran archivist found records that clearly showed the person in charge of supervising the transcription of the deed book (Nathan Shipley) was not acting on behalf of the state at the time.

It also helped that county officials, including Mayor Joe Grandy and the entire County Commission, went on record asking for the deed book to be returned.

Earlier this year, state Sens. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, and Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, and state Reps. Rebecca Alexander, R-Jonesborough, and Tim Hicks, R-Gray, also got involved in the effort, meeting with Hargett — who oversees the state archives — at his office in Nashville.

Hargett said Tuesday he decided Deed Book A should be returned after reviewing all the facts presented by Irwin and the legislative delegation from Washington County. The secretary of state also made a joke about hoping there would be no late fees charged with its return.

The best unscripted moment of Tuesday’s celebration came after the photo opt when Grandy took the book from Hargett’s hands and placed it in Irwin’s safekeeping.

“Don’t you trust me?” the secretary of state asked the mayor.

One disappointing thing about the celebration was the governor’s entrance. Lee and Hargett were supposed to arrive to the courthouse by horse and carriage. Unfortunately, the horse was spooked by the large crowd and the two were diverted to the rear of the courthouse.

That meant most of the crowd didn’t get to see the horse-drawn pageantry.

I also received a call last week from a man in Greeneville who wanted to tell me that Washington County wasn’t the only local government entity to have lent something to the state for the Centennial celebration and not get it back.

James Moorehead said folks in Greeneville are well acquainted with how their town packed up the log cabin that once served as the capitol building of the short-lived state of Franklin and shipped it to Nashville to be placed on display for the 100th anniversary of Tennessee’s statehood.

It was disassembled after the Centennial, but never returned to Greeneville. No one knows what happened to the original log cabin, but a replica now stands near the intersection of Main and Depot streets.

“The lesson seems to be don’t lend anything to the state,” Moorehead said.

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Press Senior Reporter

Robert Houk has served as a journalist and photographer at the Press since 1987. He is a recipient of the Associated Press Managing Editors Malcom Law Award for investigative reporting.

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