Brian Wilson, Daily News Journal, March 30, 2015
SMYRNA — Old Jefferson, the first county seat in Rutherford County and literally taken off the map 50 years ago, is the subject of a Rutherford County Archives project published earlier this month.
The archives uploaded a digital exhibit about the community, once near Smyrna, to the county’s website two weeks ago, said Rutherford County Archivist John Lodl. The town of Jefferson was established in 1803 as part of a newly created Rutherford County that needed a center for government and business. The community located near the Stones River split was the county seat before Murfreesboro was even incorporated.
Lodl described the town as a “mini-Murfreesboro” with its own square and community that was a prime point for river-based trade even after the county seat was moved.
Jefferson’s proximity to the water was also its biggest liability, Lodl said. The community was often prone to flooding well into the 20th century that could turn the area into an island away from the rest of the county.
“That’s the risk they took,” Lodl said. “They could be cut off from civilization.”
The town retained its own community and character even as the areas around it changed, said Ginny Williams, who went to the Jefferson School and still lives on West Jefferson Pike in Smyrna.
She, like many others, came to the Smyrna area because of the Sewart Air Force Base built there during World War II.
Williams said the school was the central point for the community for the different programs and opportunities it offered.
“Even though it was a little country school, it had a lot of activity,” Williams said. “It really brought the community together.”
The community nature, however, was forced to be only temporary. The Army Corps of Engineers were tasked with creating the J. Percy Priest Dam in the 1960s. It was projected to flood more than 30,000 acres of land in the Nashville area, including most of Jefferson.
The Corps of Engineers forced landowners to sell the homes and farms they owned, at what they cons idered to be market value, and then leave.
“To this day, there are families that are still upset,” Williams said.
While some people could literally move their houses onto new property, others had to leave before the entire town was taken down in the middle of the school year.
“Physically, everything was torn down,” Lodl said. “They flooded the lake and nothing could be done.”
When the river was dammed up, however, the water never reached as high as the engineers projected, Lodl said. The land that once was Old Jefferson was still dry.
Even after all of the controversy, Williams supported the Corps’ decision because of the stability it brought to the region. Her family lived far enough away that their property wasn’t in the flood plan.
“It was definitely something that was needed,” she said. “It was really prone to flooding.”
Decades after Old Jefferson was technically abandoned, the land that is now near the Jefferson Springs Natural Area is a place for water enthusiasts and history buffs a like. Former residents of the community still lead people along the trails of the old town and show them where certain houses and landmarks used to be.
A group of Middle Tennessee State University students taught by Lodl found artifacts and building remains along the old roads. The class used photos collected by longtime Smyrna and former Old Jefferson resident Toby Francis to see where the community used to be while researching for the digital exhibit on the archive’s website. “We literally went in one day and were able to see everything from the pictures we had,” Lodl s aid.
Former students at the Old Jefferson School also came back to Smyrna for reunions every few years. Many of the old classes of students return to reminisce about their once here, now-gone hometown.