Going Out on a Limb

Thursday, August 16, 2012 Road Junkies 1 Comments

Highways and Byways, Day 2:  Greeneville, TN to Bowling Green, KY

With a nagging interest in Andrew Johnson because he shares my birthday, I couldn't resist the opportunity to learn firsthand about this most unusual of presidents when I realized we'd be near his adopted home town of Greeneville, TN.  The town's Andrew Johnson National Historical Site, administered by the National Park Service, tells the story of our 17th president.

Born in poverty in Raleigh, NC, Johnson was apprenticed to a tailor at age nine, later leaving the apprenticeship to run away with his brother.  According to legend, 17-year-old Andrew Johnson stopped to rest at a spring near the village of Greeneville one day in 1826.  When he went into the village to buy supplies, locals learned that Andrew was a tailor and asked him to settle in Greeneville because the town tailor was retiring.  Johnson decided to give the town a try.

Early photo of tailor shop
He bought the tailor shop and built it into a very successful business.  With no formal schooling, the future president was left to educate himself.  Married at the age of 18, he learned significant literacy skills from his educated wife.  In his tailor shop, he hired students from nearby Tusculum College to come and read to him as he worked.  A keen student of politics, Johnson served as alderman and mayor of Greeneville, then sat in both housees of the Tennessee legislature before being elected to Congress.  After two terms as Governor of Tennessee, he became Lincoln's running mate in 1864.

Politically, Johnson believed in a strict interpretaion of the Constitution, the importance of states' rights, and conservative government spending. Taking office upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson struggled with the reunification of the nation in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War.  As a result of his lenient approach to the former Confederate states, Johnson was eventually impeached by radicals in Congress who wanted to see the South punished for disrupting the Union.  In the Senate vote, Johnson was acquitted by a margin of one vote.

This reprieve was important to future presidents as well as to Johnson since it disrupted the efforts of Congress to gain unilateral control over federal policy.  Moreover, Johnson's acquittal pre-empted future Congresses from using the threat of impeachment as a club to force the president into submission when political differences divide the two branches.

The Andrew Johnson National Cemetery sits atop what was formerly known as "Signal Hill."  Johnson had requested to be buried on this hill overlooking the Tennessee mountains.  Three years after his burial, his family erected a tall obelisk topped by an eagle.  Thirty years later, at the request of his descendents, what had been a family plot was designated a national cemetery, which continues to be used for military burials.

Grave site of President Andrew Johnson
Before leaving Greeneville, we located five letterboxes in and around the downtown area, including one at the Dickson-Williams Mansion in the heart of the historic district.  In the 1820s, William Dickson, a wealthy Irish immigrant, built this Federal style mansion for his only child, Catherine, and Dr. Alexander Williams, her physician husband.  The couple launched a life of extravagant entertaining, hosting guests such as Davy Crockett, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, the Marquis de Lafayette, and three U.S. presidents. 

Dickson-Williams Mansion
After the death of her husband in 1852, Catherine continued to hold lavish parties.  During the Civil War, she entertained both Union and Confederate officers when they were in town.  Of her four children, two supported the Union cause, while the other two fought for the Confederacy, so she never expressed a preference for either side.

With our new historical lore, we headed west toward Bowling Green, where we have an appointment tomorrow.  As Ken drove, I consulted the ever faithful Clue Tracker app for another few letterboxes along our route.  One in Crossville, TN, grabbed my attention:  World's Largest Treehouse.  That certainly demanded investigation, and the location was just a mile or so off our path.

The Minister's Tree House
There were no signs leading the way, but the directions provided in the clues were excellent.  We were quite surprised to find a designated parking lot on the private property where the tree house is located.  The lot was half full with cars bearing license plates from a variety of states.  No admission fee was collected, but a box for donations was provided and refreshments were being offered for purchase.

This remarkable structure was built by Horace Burgess, who has said that God told him to build a tree house and that God would never let him run out of supplies.  Sure enough, as word spread of his project, donated supplies began pouring in, much of it scrap from sheds or barns.  Burgess, who had himself ordained after his tree house vision, has invested $12,000 of his own funds, mostly in the quarter million plus nails used to hold the structure together.

The House of Burgess
Construction began in 1993, and the roof for this 100 ft. tall tree house was completed in 2004.  Initially the structure was built around an 80-ft. white oak but now it also embraces six other supporting trees.  Included in the estimated 12,000 sq.ft. are spiral staircases, a chapel/basketball court, school room, choir loft, countless balconies, staircases, walkways and many other rooms.  Donated wood carvings decorate some rooms, and a bell tower sits at the top.

Combination chapel and basketball court (Rev. Burgess believes in physical fitness.)
Apparently thousands of people have visited this arboreal abode, and many have left their mark.  Almost every inch of the edifice is covered in graffiti, even the windows, and many places which make you wonder how someone could have reached the spot.  We didn't find the doodling to be inappropriate, but thought it rather added to the character of the place.

Where's Kilroy?  He must be here somewhere.
We had read a bit about the tree house on our way there.  One claim we were frankly skeptical about:  When you climb to the top, you can see Jesus in the garden below.  We stand corrected.  And here's the photo to prove the claim.

We saw Jesus in the garden.  Do you?
All in all, we found the Minister's Tree House a delightful place to visit, from the quirky haphazard design to the variety of farm animals roaming the grounds.  We didn't have an opportunity to meet Rev. Burgess, but we certainly enjoyed the fruits of his labor.  And we even found the letterbox on the grounds.

From serious to frivolous, it was a very interesting day that ended with yet another visit to Bowling Green, KY—our fourth in the last year.  After we complete our appointment tomorrow, our project here should be done.

DAILY STATS:
  • Weather:  sunny to overcast, 68° to 88°
  • Letterboxes found:  8
  • States:  2 (TN, KY)  
  • Scraps of board on tree house:  95,479
  • Nails used in treehouse:  258,759
  • Nail guns used in construction:  3
More Photos from Today
Andrew Johnson's tailor shop with visitor center built around it
Is is OK for Lassie to sleep through the sermon?
A coffee tanker?
I-81, one of our favorite highways
Tree house graffiti, even on the windows
Tree house spiral entrance
Crossville, TN - definitely worth a stop
One of the kids hanging out near the tree house
A pair of farm friends
Easy way to climb a tree