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A Look At Long Hunter’s History

By John Froeschauer

 

Linear parks located along rivers connecting towns that were once significant transportation corridors for commerce remain so for wildlife. Today, narrow bands of "unusable" floodplain have become invaluable places to take a break from an ever-increasing pace of life and connect with nature and history. Long Hunter State Park in Hermitage offers just such opportunities.

Long Hunter is located on the eastern shores of J. Percy Priest Lake, an impoundment of Stones River. In 1767, the fairly shallow meandering stream originating just north of Murfreesboro was explored by a party of long hunters that included Uriah Stone. Year-long forays into the 18th century western frontier were conducted by colonists from Kentucky, Virginia and the Carolinas. Products of these "long hunts," deer hides and other animal skins, were traded with Cherokee Indians, who with Chickasaw, Shawnee and Creek Indians shared and fought over this middle hunting ground, now Middle Tennessee. Euro-American settlement began here in earnest after the establishment of Fort Nashborough in 1780 and after the American Revolution, when veterans of North Carolina, to which Tennessee belonged, were offered parcels of land up to 640 acres in size as payment for military service. By 1805, almost all Indian lands east of Nashville had been ceded to the infant state of Tennessee, effectively closing 12,000 years of occupation by Native Americans. Flint implements of the earliest Tennesseans, Paleo-Indians, have been found in two areas at Long Hunter.

The physiographic province in which Stones River flows is called the Central Basin. It is elliptically shaped and runs 120 miles north-south by 60 miles wide. Long Hunter is in the northern section, the deepest and flattest part called the Inner Basin. Beneath relatively thin, poor soils are very old weathered limestones of the Ordovician Period, laid down as sea sediments 425 million years ago. One particular formation, Lebanon Limestone, was lain in thin deposits and erodes to a fractured tabular to gravelly pavement. Interspersed with thickets of Eastern Redcedar, these strange desert-like openings called cedar glades are home to about 30 adapted or endemic flowering plants. Cedar glades make up about five percent of the Central Basin region and are present throughout the park.

The park’s endemic plants, those found only in glades and nowhere else, include two federally endangered species, Tennessee Purple Coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis), and Leafy Prairie Clover (Dalea foliosa). The diminutive Limestone Fameflower (Talinum calcaricum), grows on solid rock, as does Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa), a plant of deserts and prairies but distributed throughout the Central Basin.

In areas where thicker soils have developed, native perennial grasslands known as barrens occur and over a century or so some have developed into oak-hickory forests, which here range in age from about 40 to 100 years. White, Black, Post, Shingle and Chinkapin are among the kinds of Oaks present, as well as Shagbark, Bitternut, Mockernut and Pignut Hickory. Their hard mast crops support white-tailed deer, wild turkey, fox squirrels and a host of other small mammals. Where the glades themselves have succeeded to woods, small solution crevices and sinkholes shelter animals from predators such as Rat Snakes, Red Foxes, Cooper’s Hawks and Great Horned Owls. Earthworms, snails, Tiger Salamanders and a myriad of insects, including glade-endemic moths, complete the food webs that keep these diverse habitats thriving.

The most fertile soils of the Inner Basin were immediately adjacent to the Cumberland and Stones Rivers so there the earliest North Carolina land warrants were claimed. Very little arable land could be found above the floodplain. In the 19th century Nashville was about 25 miles away, a day’s commitment by horse and buggy. Out of isolation self-sustaining communities grew to dot early maps. One such community was Couchville, named for the Couch family who owned land and a grocery store on Stones River at a crossing site, now west of the park.

Some three miles to the east by way of the Couchville Pike was Bryant Grove. One of the earliest documented residents (1820), was Henderson Bryant, a "free man of color." His father was Sherrod Bryant, a farmer, who by the time of his death in 1854 was probably the most wealthy free African-American in Tennessee. He established and resided in a settlement called Bryant Town just east of Nashville. The Bryants owned property during a period described in the Public Broadcasting System Web site Africans in America: "The nation tripled its population, doubled in size, and extended slavery to parts of the western frontier. For black Americans, this same period was a contradictory mix of community-building for free blacks and entrenched enslavement for those not yet emancipated."

The goings-on of 19th century Bryant Grove defined rural community life in general. Bryant descendant and historian Oddie Bryant-Jones wrote: "Mostly an agrarian society of people who strongly showed skills as business entrepreneurs, their livelihood had come chiefly, after the cessation of slavery in 1865, from the sales of produce off their farms; trade and bartering at the Davidson County Farmer’s Market; logging; horses and cattle; trapping and fishing; sale of furs and tanned skins; preaching; school teaching; midwifery; blacksmithing and copper forging; carpentry; stonemasonry; and fabric weaving, mostly linen and wool…" A deep section of Stone’s River known as raft shoals was a place where during times of flooding, logs floated from upstream were tied into rafts for the 21-mile trip to the Cumberland, then about 12 miles to Nashville. There, Bryant-Jones noted, at the wharves of Hermitage and First Avenues, near the site of Fort Nashborough, logs were sold and hewn into lumber. The timbermen returned home on foot. The agricultural way of life persisted well into the 20th century. Resident Lawrence Perry remembered growing up there in the 1940s: "We had cattle, goats, hogs and mules, and sold milk. We raised cotton, corn, and sold cedar logs, cut in lengths and snaked ‘em out to the road."

By the early 1960s, the demand for flood control, electric power and recreation spelled doom for Bryant Grove and Couchville, by then called Morrow-Headden. Resident Robert Hurt recalled getting marooned when high water covered roads: "The river was just a big creek, but after a big rain it got to be a man." In 1963 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) began construction on Stewart’s Ferry Dam, renamed J. Percy Priest Dam in memory of the late Tennessee congressman. Farms were bought, residents moved and hundreds of cemeteries relocated to Mount Juliet Memorial Gardens. The reservoir was completed in 1968, inundating an area of 14,200 acres. The portions of Morrow-Headden and Byrant Grove above 490 feet in elevation stayed dry, but the heart of these places, the Community Center and the Missionary Baptist Church, respectively, did not. Narrow bands of overgrown and wooded uplands adjacent to the reservoir are all that remain of these once active little towns, vestiges forming parts of Long Hunter.

In 1972 the COE leased 2,400 acres of land to the Department of Conservation for development and management by Tennessee State Parks. Facilities include two boat ramps; a non-supervised swimming beach; three picnic areas, two with playgrounds and shelters; and a visitor center.

The focal point of the park is 110-acre Couchville Lake. It formed when water backed up through a cave system into several sinkholes when J. Percy Priest Lake was impounded. It is a serene body of water where Great Blue Herons wade for fish and a large flock of Hooded Merganser spends the winter. The lake has a covered fishing pier with rowboat and canoe rental in the summer months. Electric or non-motorized boats are permitted on the lake. Catches include large- and smallmouth bass, rockfish, crappie, bream and catfish.

Encircling Couchville Lake is a paved, level two-mile trail that weaves through oak-hickory forest. It’s a favorite of runners, families with strollers and wheelchair users. Some 14 more miles of trails traverse cedar glades, old fields, former homesteads and woodlands in various stages of succession. Views of J. Percy Priest Lake are offered on the Day Loop and the Volunteer Trail that terminates at a backpacking campsite.

Upon request, rangers interpret this preserved representation of Middle Tennessee forests and globally important cedar glades, providing programs on a variety of natural and cultural history topics for schools, scouts and organized groups. Activities for the general public are scheduled year-round. Many thousands of visitors annually enjoy these pursuits in the park; chief among them is the study of the park’s examples of cedar glades. Long-time visitor and amateur botanist Darel Hess summed it up this way: "The cedar glades of Long Hunter have provided a unique opportunity to observe an all to rapidly disappearing environment. I have particularly enjoyed photographing and learning to identify the rare plants associated with a glade environment and in so doing, realize that in the face of advancing development we must continue to work toward their preservation."

Nashville is blessed with a number of city-operated parks and the beloved Radnor Lake State Natural Area. Parks in the city’s environs, rapidly being enveloped by urbanization, fall into the greenway category. As Nashville grows eastward, we could today consider Long Hunter a type of greenway, linearly configured along the reservoir.

Presently the Metro Nashville Greenways Commission is working with the Greater National Regional Council and COE on developing a regional greenway system that would include the entire western shore of J. Percy Priest Lake. The ultimate goal is to link Murfreesboro to Clarksville by way of several Metro Nashville Parks and Cheatham County’s Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail (The Tennessee Conservationist, March/April, 1998.) In Murfreesboro, the project starts with a completed trail along six and a half miles of the West Fork of Stones River, taking in Stones River National Battlefield, site of the 1863 Civil War battle. The Stones River Greenway in Nashville, under construction, follows the river from J. Percy Priest Dam to the Cumberland River and on to Two Rivers Park.

It may be too late for one continuous linear park along Stones River to happen, but having a number of oases, convenient and accessible, will ensure a quality of life for future generations.

For information on Long Hunter, call the park visitor center at 615-885-2422. To find out more about greenways in Middle Tennessee, contact the Metro Nashville Greenways Commission at 615-862-8400. Their Web site is: www.nashville.org/ greenways.

 

(John Froeschauer is an interpretive specialist at Long Hunter State Park in Hermitage. Oddie Bryant-Jones and Lawrence Perry offered help in preparing this article.)

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