Davy Crockett’s 103rd Birthday Celebration

Reprinted with permission.

It was the grandest day! Astounding! Recorded East Tennessee newspapers as August 17, 1889 marked the 103rd birthday of Davy Crockett with a grand celebration at his birthplace. More than 5000 souls ventured to this humble spot along the Nolichucky River to pay homage to the King of the Wild Frontier.

Limestone was suddenly thrust upon the map as the East Tennessee-Virginia & Georgia Railroad added extra trains and offered a special day rate which brought carloads of passengers from Knoxville and Bristol. One reporter wrote that “every square inch of land that could afford a human foothold and bear (sic) human weight held its quota of human beings”.

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The idea for the celebration came about after Knoxville land developer Col. Benjamin Rush Strong purchased a parcel of land surrounding the birthplace of Davy Crockett. Strong built a hotel as a “cool summer resort for nearby city dwellers”. Col. Strong approached the Davy Crockett Historical Society, and jointly they planned the commemoration that would at the same time be the grand opening of the hotel.

Interestingly, the hotel was named the Strong Springs Inn. It had a room set aside as a museum and contained such historical items as a “gourd from Andrew Johnsons garden, a pair of cotton cards used by Johnson’s great grandmother, an old fashioned clock, a stone pitcher used in 1777, a cake plate used at John Sevier’s wedding, a flux hackle used by Sevier, a tin horn used by a local pioneer, and a wolf skin”. Crockett items included a stone ax found on the site and the Crockett Family brought to the event Crockett’s grandmothers brass kettle, a portrait of David Crockett by Rembrandt Peale, Crockett’s pocket watch, and his famous rifle, “Pretty Betsy” as added attractions to the celebration.

Col. Strong had developed one of the nearby springs and advertised it for “its clean taste, and restorative powers”. This spring water was provided free of charge during the day’s activities on August 17 1889 and a record kept tallied 4,300 gallons “served to the thirsty crowd”. It was also said that nobody went away hungry or unfulfilled.

Newspaper accounts give a glimpse into the days activities: “families picnicked by the Nolichucky, they listened to local bands playing patriotic music, and watched teams from the surrounding communities play baseball. Rifle Companies (The Taylor Rifles) from Knoxville, Greeneville and Johnson City entertained the crowd with drills and parades; and later in the day they had a sham battle where the soldiers ‘died’ in a melodramatic style”.

One account from the Knoxville Journal of the gathering stated the people who gathered at Limestone Tennessee in 1889, Crockett represented the lost world of the closed opportunities of the West”

The speakers of the day also reflected this theme. N. B. Remine vice president of the Davy Crockett Historical Society spoke briefly of Crockett and other pioneers “Who roamed the misty avenues of unfriendly forests, subdued the dens of savagery, and opened up the western world”.

Next the Honorable Alf Taylor who was elected to Congress in 1889 was introduced, “this eloquent orator was at his best. His powerful voice rang out like clarion notes as he poured forth in impassioned language a splendid, unforgettable eulogy on the life work of our hero of the forum and the battlefield”.

Major Pettibone was next on the program and he introduced Robert H. Crockett, the grandson of David “Davy” Crockett. The Journal records “at first he was very much affected by his welcome and the position he occupied at the celebration, but he soon recovered himself and made a speech that for eloquence has never been surpassed, we believe, in East Tennessee. The theme was a great one, and the man was worthy of the theme. After asking indulgence from seeming egotism, he referred in thrilling and touching language to the deeds of his grandsire, culminating in the tragic Alamo, an event of which human heroism has reached no sublimer heights and of which it has been said… ‘Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat…the Alamo had none’. He closed with humor which was much appreciated. Following this, there was the Military Drill and the Sham Battle. The boys killed each other in great mimic style, and after exhausting their ammunition, the battle was declared a draw…much to the relief of the trembling umpires”.

Other activities included hot air balloons and anvil shoots. Fiddle players and banjo pickers filled air with vibrant sounds as the spring water flowed freely on the hot August day. Pint jars of mountain brew made their way around too, warming up the innards of those that partook. It had to be an interesting spectacle just witnessing such a horde of humanity enjoying the celebration.

It is interesting that the Johnson City paper does not mention Robert Crockett but concludes with “after the last speaker (Crockett) left the podium, Peale’s famous portrait of Crockett was brought to the front of the crowd and exhibited along with Crockett’s watch and rifle ‘Pretty Betsy’. To the Tennesseans gathered on the river that day, Crockett had become am imperishable moment in the hearts and affections of his people’.  Crockett the man and Crockett the legend had become the symbol of the grand in all (people) that goes to make a natures noblemen”.

It is interesting too, that the Johnson City paper mentions neither Congressman Alf Taylor or his brother which the Knoxville paper also ignores, Tennessee Governor Robert Taylor who was elected in 1886 and who was also part of the program. In 1886 the two brothers ran for governor, Alf as the Republican nominee and Bob as the Democrat.  They traveled the state together and slept in the same bed. At rallies Alf’s supporters wore red roses and Bobs wore white roses. Bob won and Alf ran for Congress! Alf did become governor in 1920.

I well remember the old hotel near the birthplace. It looked like an old barn with its pine strip siding and tin roof. Back in the seventies my friends and I camped out in the old Inn on two occasions. It was a neat old building, but at the time I didn’t really know as much about it. We called it the Old Davy Crockett Hotel. I found an arrowhead and some other artifacts around it that I still have. When we camped out in the Inn we stayed on the second floor since people indulging in alcohol sometimes would hang out there. I remember a bullet hole above the front door on the inside. My Uncle said that two men got in a fight there and one shot at the other as he ran out the door. I saw a pistol through the floorboards and crawled under the building to get it, it turned out to be a cap toy and only half at that! An arsonist or lightning took care of what was left of the Inn in the eighties.

The Crockett Historical Society invitation for 1889 lists B.F. Broyles as Chairman of the finance committee. Benjamin Franklin Broyles is my 2nd great grandfather. His daughter and my great grandmother Minnie Alice Broyles is listed in the Committee on decorations. My mother was named after her grandmother Minnie Alice. B. F. Broyles wanted Mom named Minnie B since her grandmother was Minnie A. Mom endured a lifetime of explaining why the “B” didn’t stand for anything, her middle name was Charlsie.  B. F. Broyles great grandfather Lewis Broyles was one of the very first settlers in the Nolichucky settlements and was a neighbor and friend of John Crockett. Lewis Broyles and John Crockett were two of the Overmountain men who in October 1780 participated in the Battle of Kings Mountain.

I like to brag that I have not missed a Crockett Days at the birthplace since it became an annual event in 1958. I remember as a youth the preacher letting church out early so everyone could get to the birthplace before the crowd. I remember the crowds of people lined up, crowds that the newspaper usually put at well over 3500. I remember the Ruritan Club cooking hundreds of chicken halves on long fire pits made of cinder blocks. There was something for everyone at Crockett Days from music to all sort of other activities it was one of the years greatest social events.

Have you been to the David Crockett Birthplace lately? This weekend is the annual Crockett Days celebration and a good time for a short drive to Limestone. I hope to see you there enjoying the merriment of this great local celebration honoring one of our nations greatest hero’s.




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