"Some people made fun of me back when I started building," Murphrees Valley resident James Tolbert explained of the old-new structure known as The Gathering Place. "But I just told them, ‘You have a bass boat and in ten years it’s not going to be worth as much.’"
While James’ "hobby" building has certainly appreciated in real estate terms during the past nearly two decades, it’s most vital role is in preserving more than a century of Blount County and Hoods Crossroads history.
While the living museum took about two years to build in the early 1990s, in actuality it is built from numerous buildings that stood in the area for more than 75 years.
In January of 1992, James began gathering "boards and lumber" from a number of buildings important to his life and many which were vital to the area’s history. Then he went on to the work of furnishing that building with as many historical tools and other items as possible.
The son of the late Ernest and Jessielean Tolbert, the "white board" was from the house James was born in. He then tore down and salvaged lumber from his dad’s chicken house and relative Howard Buckner’s barn. A high wind had blown down the smokehouse and brooder house of Swancey and Minnie Buckner, grandparents of his late wife, Anne, at Hoods Crossroads, so he salvaged as much of that lumber as possible.
He also salvaged lumber from an old barn in the Snead area and bought old doors from another resident who had salvaged them from the old Gordon Cotton Warehouse, once located in Oneonta at the intersection of First Avenue and U.S. 231 South.
While he hired a contractor to build and install the trusses and roof, James explained the remainder of the work was done by himself, friends and relatives
"Many of them have passed away since that time and I cherish the times we had working here together," James said.
Especially cherished was the materials, advice and reminiscences from the Buckner Brothers— Buddy, Howard and Wilburn.
James built the building patterned after his remembrances of the old Battles Store, which operated in the Taits Gap mining and railroad community during its heyday. Some plans were sketched on scrap pieces of paper and at least one specific design was drawn in pencil on a shingle!
James served in the Army during the Korean Conflict and then served for the next 40 years with the National Guard Unit based in Oneonta. He retired in 1992 as a Sergeant Major.
When he and his wife Anne, who died three years ago, moved to the current farm in 1959, County 39 was a windy, dirt road. They moved into a historic farmhouse whose original one-room cabin room was built in 1869.
"I originally built the Gathering Place so Shirley (daughter Shirley Cornelius) would have someplace to display her art," James explained. "At that first show, there had to be refreshments and it kind of grew from there."
For the next ten years, until James’ open heart surgery in 2002, Anne and James operated the Gathering Place as a home-style restaurant, open by-appointment-ONLY for groups of 15 to 65.
"Folks said that couldn’t be done, but we took reservations and we were always booked for the entire year by January 31st. We gave them items to choose from and then we prepared that night’s menu from their choices and everybody ate the same thing," James explained.
Anne, renowned for her cooking skills, did all of the cooking, with James acting as salad chef and chief waiter.
Anne then hosted a popular 30-minute, weekly cable-TV cooking show from the Gathering Place’s kitchen.
The couple usually served two or three groups per week, but serving 50 to 60 additional groups each November and December.
But while folks enjoyed the food immensely, it was being surrounded by history that made the place even more special.
While Shirley’s paintings, many of the carousel horses she is famous for (for a lengthy time she painted full-size, carved wooden carousel horses for Silver Dollar City), and Anne’s sewing and other artwork were displayed, numerous historical items from the former Buckner Mill and artifacts are artistically arranged.
In the early 1900s, Hoods Crossroads, about two miles toward Oneonta from the Gathering Place, was a thriving community.
Swancey and his father were blacksmiths there in the early part of the 1900s, according to James’ family history and the book, The Heritage of Blount County.
They later closed that shop and bought out Jim Hood who operated a sawmill, grist mill and cotton gin. According to the history, the cotton gin was closed in 1918 after the flu epidemic when doctors advised Swancey against working in such dust.
He and his sons operated the other mills until 1935 and he died in 1952.
His sons then operated leading dairies in the area and were proprietors of Buckner Feed Mill.
Along one wall of the Gathering Place are several of the family’s original blacksmith tools. The big grinding wheels from the grist mill are situated in the Gathering Place’s front yard. There’s a spoke knife, used to carve wheel spokes, and numerous other saws, tools and other items displayed.
Many of the old signs are from the Buckner Feed Mill. The late Rod Sanders gave James a thermometer which his daddy got when he carried the first bale of cotton to Pentie Horton’s cotton gin in the early 1900s.
There are wooden chairs made by Willena Bynum Buckner’s father and a Buffalo Rock thermometer from Ernest Tolbert’s egg business.
There’s a wall devoted to James’ Civil War items including a huge photograph from the early 1980s in Lake City, FL, where James’ Alabama group participated in a reenactment.
A century-old cradle, belonging to Grandmother Bailey, Inez Buckner’s mother, rocks a period-dressed doll.
Amongst the historic items are many beautifully crafted pieces built by James himself. There are three dry sinks one would swear are antiques; James built one from old barn boards, one from oak and one from pine.
There’s a complete Maine fishing village which James copied from a photograph of a similar model he and Shirley photographed while vacationing there.
Shirley has painted numerous areas, including the doors into the storage rooms which are adorned with a carousel horse and the bathroom door which features a dairy cow looking out from a stall!
The 14 x 28 feet back porch deck looks out on a peaceful pond which Shirley said exemplifies her father’s determination: he began digging the pond with a shovel, tractor and trailer!
James and Anne’s son, Ricky, died in an automobile accident about a mile from home, in 1974.
James explained it will be up to Shirley and her husband, Randy, as well as Shirley’s three children and their children, to carry on the building and family’s history after he’s gone.
The Gathering Place is now used mainly for family reunions and an occasional class reunion, and none of the artifacts or items James has made are for sale.
James and Shirley utilize the kitchen for canning, including making his delicious pickles. He taught himself how to cook after Anne’s death, beginning by preparing a leg of lamb with his own-grown rosemary for an event at his Lester Memorial United Methodist Church.
(The lamb was from his and Anne’s own small flock, which they began several years ago.)
Asked his favorite memory or current thought of the Gathering Place, James is quick to answer, while the history and artifacts are important: "It’s the people. I love meeting people and I love hearing their stories."
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer who lives on a farm in Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.