Ann Betts, The Nashville Tennessean, June 20, 1984
Old Jefferson – The summer quiet of this rural community was broken only by two youngsters bicycling by the church. Old gaunt cedars shade the antebellum homes from the dust of the road, where newer homes stand. But according to a least one native, Old Jefferson wasn’t always this peaceful-or this ‘old.’
“There was a saloon on every corner of the square,” Everett Waller recalled. “Jefferson was a lively place.” Now covered by the waters of Percy Priest Lake, the town of Jefferson was the first county seat of Rutherford County, with the first County Court meeting in 1804 in the home of Thomas Rucker.
Situated at the confluence of the east and west forks of the Stones River, the village became a coach stop and trading post on the Georgia Road. The first store was established there in 1803 by Waller’s ancestor, William Nash. Col. Robert Weakley and several fellow veterans of the Revolutionary War, claimed government grants along the river around the turn of the 19th century. Waller proudly displayed a copy of the town plat, marked with the 1804 land prices. “This lot listed for $30.75 was about two acres. The first houses were log cabins, but many were later expanded into large homes.” Some historians list Jefferson as an important river port, but Waller suspects this may be an exaggeration. “My grandmother remembered rafts taking loads of timber to Nashville, but it was too shallow upriver to float very much.”
When the County Court convened in 1811 to select a permanent county seat, the contenders were Jefferson, Readyville and Murphree’s Spring, later renamed Murfreesboro. “Readyville is nearly to the county line to the east, we were far to the west, but Murphree’s Spring was centrally located,” Waller explained. “That’s how we lost out. The river used to flood here too, and that could have had something to do with it.”
With the seat of government moved to Murfreesboro, Jefferson’s courthouse became Jefferson Seminary of Learning. Education was also available at a combination schoolhouse/church, used for services by different denominations.
“I grew up on the square, in an old two-story house with lots of porches,” Waller recalled. “There were about three stores then, a blacksmith shop, and a church. My father ran a grocery store. There were about 150 people living in the village – big families and we all lived close together.”
Waller’s grandfather, Ephraim Waller, and three of his brothers, rode in Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry,” Waller said. “Here’s a picture of grandfather. See his white goatee? I remember he always referred to Wheeler as ‘Little Joe.’”
Cotton was the main crop for Jefferson farmers until well into this century, Waller said. “There was a large black population, who worked the cotton, but they gradually moved away and the economy changed.” Farmers “quit cotton” and went into the dairy business. “We sold out (of the grocery business) and went into farming, on Sharp Spring Road,” Waller said. “It’s mostly covered by the lake now.”
At some time, which Waller could not recall, the village acquired the sobriquet “old.” “There was a place called Jefferson Springs that became a resort. It wasn’t the same place as Jefferson. Maybe that’s how it got people started saying Old Jefferson.”
When Priest Lake changed the Rutherford County landscape, it was necessary for many families to move. The Church of Christ relocated in a modern building on Old Jefferson Pike, and, according to church member Evelyn Maynard, several families who once lived in the village still attend. A photo of the original, one-room white church is kept lovingly in the vestibule of the new building.
Everett Waller and his wife, Christine, live near the church-out of sight of the village, which, for them, is still alive in memory. He remembers the excitement of living on the square, on the low banks of two rivers that flowed together into one. “There’s many a story that could be told about Old Jefferson,” he said, “It was the center of business for this end of the county. There wasn’t no Smyrna then.”