Museum in downtown Greenback is homage to residents' personal heritage

The Greenback Museum is located in the middle of what was once a bustling downtown strip. 

Kristi L. Nelson
GREENBACK, Tenn. In a 1920s-era storefront, smack-dab in the middle of what was once a bustling downtown strip, are vestiges of what Greenback used to be.

Here, a calendar and yardstick from the old Greenback Motors.

There, shelves of merchandise, some still in original boxes, from long-gone King's Department Store. Nearby, a wall-mounted sign from a beauty shop owned by the same family.

And nearly a whole back corner devoted to the legendary Greenback Drug Store which actually still exists right next door in diner form, albeit without its pharmacy counter, 5-cent machines of pea-size chlorophyll gum, and the famous aqua-blue stand mixer that made many a milkshake.

"I loved to get milkshakes and chocolate sundaes with nuts," said lifelong Greenback resident Betty Carroll, a member of the Greenback Heritage Museum committee, gazing at that mixer.

The original drugstore was opened in 1923 by Carroll's uncle, and she remembers everything on the shelves, from the green-and-white striped paper sacks prescriptions came in to the "Rx pads" kept in local doctors' offices, ordering "Disp: Ice cream cone, one dip" for "brave" children who had gotten shots.

Greenback, at the junction of State Road 95 and Morganton Road in Loudon County, began as a tiny town a few miles west of larger Morganton, which had a ferry and a port of trade. But with the establishment of a railroad depot in Greenback, the town outgrew Morganton. By the early 20th century, it was home to several stores, industries and banks. Though fires throughout the Great Depression stunted its growth, Greenback incorporated in 1957.

The railroad left in 1978, the same year the town built a community center housing a library, recreational facilities and the city hall. As families migrated to larger Maryville and McMinnville, the town once again became tiny by today's standards: The 2010 census showed 1,064 residents.

All that history and more is outlined in the Greenback scrapbooks put together by the town's historical society. Vol. I, which goes up to 1900, is complete; Vol. II, 1900-30, is nearly ready to publish, and the society has Vol III, 1930-60, well under way.

But what's on display at the museum, from a hand-carved "drinking gourd" to Greenback's first television set (a small, round-screened Motorola), is not so much the town's history as its families' memories.

And then one glass shelf holds a circa-1980s heart monitor, long replaced by Greenback's rescue squad with newer equipment and decorated with a brass plate noting it was donated "in memory of Norma and Bobby Tarwater, from their friends."

Carroll can tell the rest of the story: Norma Tarwater donated a kidney to her sister and had numerous health problems thereafter. The rescue squad didn't have a heart monitor so the townspeople, through garage sales and other fundraisers, bought the rescue squad the heart monitor Mrs. Tarwater needed.

The same community spirit raised the museum, put together by committee and opened in March 2006. For two years before its opening, community members carried in objects. Old newspapers and phone books. A loom, a butter churn, a milking stool. Greenback High School memorabilia that includes annuals, the school's first marching band uniform, and a woman's basketball uniform from 1931, buttons holding the shirt and shorts together so no midriff would be bared.

"Our mothers made our suits," original owner Kathleen Hammontree said, "and we thought they were fine."

All the items are donated, "on loan" (which Carroll confides usually also means they're willed to the museum) or, cards for a few items note, "from the First Presbyterian Church yard sale."

Today, the museum draws both area residents and school groups, and tourists some with connections to the area, some without.

"People look around and see things they've never seen before," said Carolyn Peck, one of 26 volunteers who staff the museum on rotation.

She can see her personal history on a shelf displaying items from the Merchants & Farmers Bank, where her father, Clarence "Cash" Melton, worked when she was a child.

"Carolyn," he told her, "don't ever bury your money in a jar in the back yard."

"I remember it vividly," Peck said. "People would bring in their money and it would be damp, shredded. You couldn't even tell what denomination it was," so the bank couldn't replace it.

One of the museum's most intriguing items predates both Peck and Carroll: a 100-pound limestone basin with a hole drilled in the middle. This, a card explains, was a "foot-warshin' stone" from a nondenominational church known as Hoe Cake, where for a time a congregation known as the "foot-warshin' Baptists" worshiped.

The stone outlasted the church, which was burnt down one night by two residents who'd been drinking and decided the church was "stirring up trouble." It came into the museum's possession after years of being used, upside-down, as a front step to a farmhouse porch.

But Peck's favorite museum display is less grandiose: shelves of notebooks and albums near the museum's front, containing pictures and stories from Greenback families. Lore of a particularly big snake, of a freight barge that docked at Morganton for a week on which parties and dances were held.

"I can spend the whole (volunteer shift) just looking at one of those books," Peck said.

Some days, it's quiet enough to do that. Others, the museum is busier. Last fall, a quilt show there drew a record number of visitors. This year's quilt show, scheduled for Oct. 6-8, is likely to do the same.

Some committee members' dream would be to acquire the old train depot that sits across the street. But for the time being, at least, it's just a dream, as they have neither the capital to purchase it nor the means to repair and maintain it.

Then again, they made a museum.

"People talked about it and wanted to do it," Peck said. "So we did."