November 1, 2019, By Greg Tucker, Rutherford County Historian
Reports on Murfreesboro’s recent “surprise” demolition of the log structure on Ewing Boulevard failed to identify the original purpose and use of the Boy Scout structure which had for several years been home to the Murfreesboro Little Theater.
In the mid-1930’s, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became concerned that the various New Deal work programs (Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, etc.) were not reaching poor, urban youth (16 to 25) who were unskilled and educationally disadvantaged. Accordingly, she personally advocated establishment of a National Youth Administration (NYA) to provide educational and work opportunities for targeted youth groups.
Few were surprised when the influential first lady got what she asked for and the NYA was initiated and funded in June 1935. The federal agency defined programs and distributed funds, but left program initiation and management to state control. According to State of Tennessee records, NYA employees “built vocational and recreational buildings all over Tennessee, including workshops and Boy Scout lodges.”
Among the first in Rutherford County to see a potential community benefit from NYA building projects were Dr. W. T. Robison and B. B. Gracey, Jr., leaders in the local Boy Scout Council. They negotiated a tentative commitment from the NYA leadership to build a “Scout hut” contingent upon finding an appropriate site where the structure could be built and dedicated to Scout use “in perpetuity.”
On January 13, 1938, the Murfreesboro City Council, Mayor W.A. Miles presiding, reviewed a request from the Scout leaders that the city “donate to the Scouts a vacant lot on Ewing… on which the Scouts may erect a hut for their use.” The requested property was Lot 76 in the Harrison-Black Addition, a residential development just west of the Normal School (now MTSU). The 80 x 176 foot lot had been acquired by the city for $140 in January 1930 as part of a waterworks project. It was one of five subdivision lots between Ewing and Bell Streets acquired for installation of a steel water tower, but as finally constructed the tower and related facilities did not use Lot 76. (Gracey was apparently quite familiar with the property. Deed records show that he had bought and sold the property just a few years earlier.) The request was referred to an ad hoc committee for study and recommendation.
Two weeks later the committee reported favorably on the request and recommended referral to the City Attorney to work out the details and draw up the necessary papers. On motion from T. J. Dement, the recommendation was approved unanimously. It took the lawyers 21 months to “work out the details,” but finally on October 19, 1939, the city council approved a deed giving the Scouts a permanent easement on Lot 76 with the city retaining title. The conveyance was actually to C. E. Watson, J. C. Mitchell, St. George Jones and Leiper Freeman, and their successors, as officers of the local Scout Council.
Within a year, the NYA completed a rustic, two-story log house with a full basement and wraparound porch. The first floor was a large open area for Scout activity. Equipment storage was in the basement, and the second floor was partitioned for small group meetings. For the next 25 years the structure was used by various Scout groups, despite leadership and organizational changes in the local Scout program. (In the 1940’s the local Scout Council was dissolved and local troops became part of the new Middle Tennessee Council based in Nashville.)
By the 1960’s, the structure had been redesignated as the “Scout Lodge” and was home to Troop 359 with Percy Dempsey as Scoutmaster. Among the Scouts were Bob Corlew, Ewing Sellers, Larry Tolbert, and Jim Garner. Corlew remembers that the Flaming Arrow and Eagle Patrols met in the upstairs rooms, and bonfires were sometimes built in the backyard. “Weather permitting, we would often play softball in the Jaycees Park beside the water tower.”
But repair and maintenance (including roof and plumbing leaks) were major concerns in 1967, and the professional Scout leaders in Nashville, technically the easement owners by succession, were not willing or able to fund renovations in Murfreesboro. Dempsey and other local leaders, including Jim Burkhalter, Roy Fairbanks and Ken Bumpas, eventually agreed to a partnership with the Murfreesboro Little Theater (MLT), an amateur theater group that was looking for a venue for their programs. Attorney Richard LaRoche was retained to resolve the complexities of the federal program mandate, the easement ownership, and the city title.
In 1968 renovations funded through MLT efforts enclosed the porch and covered most of the exterior logs. “It was originally planned that the Scouts and MLT would share the facility,” remembers Corlew, “but the MLT modifications hampered the Scout activity so the Scouts eventually decided to use other facilities.”
“Murfreesboro has lost another historic structure,” observed RCHS President Walter White. “We should at least acknowledge and memorialize the loss.”