Nancy De Gennaro, The Daily News Journal, April 23, 2018
State funding to purchase the historic Johns-King Home in Smyrna has fallen through for the second year in a row, said state Rep. Mike Sparks.
Also known as Liberty Hill, the home at 845 Old Jefferson Pike bore witness to historically significant events in United States history, said historian Susan Harber.
“We’ll try again next year. We’ve been talking about this and we’ve got to continue to make this sell to the General Assembly and the chairman of finance (state Rep. Charles Sargent),” said Sparks, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Bill Ketron.
On Monday, Sparks made a “last-ditch effort” to add the bill to the budget, but it’s a “hail Mary” move, he said.
“This is a hail Mary pass,” Sparks said. “We are one step closer, closer than we’ve ever been.”
In 2015, the Johns-King House was named by the Tennessee Preservation Trust as one of the state’s most threatened historic sites.
Liberty Hill was built in 1807 by Revolutionary War Col. Robert Weakley on a 187-acre land grant.
“The home is the most beautiful example of Colonial architecture in the county,” Harber said. “It’s also second to the Sam Davis Home (where Confederate Boy Hero Sam Davis grew up) in historical significance with Wheeler’s Raid and the Trail of Tears.”
Witness to history
During the winter of 1838, a detachment of 4,000 Cherokee passed by Liberty Hill during what became known as the Trail of Tears.
“The Johns-King home is one of the very few 19th century homes still standing that bore witness to the Trail of Tears,” Harber noted.
Not long after the Cherokees’ forced migration happened, the Weakley family sold the home in 1840 to Thomas Johns. A little more than 20 years later, the Civil War literally arrived on the home’s doorstep.
“In 1862, Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler launched a raid against the Union wagon train on Old Jefferson (Pike) and following a skirmish (that became known as Wheeler’s Raid), the house was used as a Confederate hospital,” said Pat Cummins, co-founder of the Native History Association who has been a staunch supporter of Harber’s efforts to save the home.
At some point, a .58-caliber bullet entered the exterior of the home and has visibly remained intact. Lead balls and bullets were found in the yard and blood-stained floor boards were present in an upstairs bedroom that once housed wounded soldiers, Harber said.
The Johns family “forged major restorations” and sold the property in 1863 to Benjamin Seawell and Mary Neal King, who are ancestors of former Rutherford County historian Ernie Johns.
Harber’s ties to Liberty Hill run deeper than an interest in preserving history.
“My grandmother Emily Johns and mother Judy were in and out of this home in Smyrna and had very endearing memories. My great-grandmother Helen Johns, a master quilter, lived in later years in the modern log cabin still standing beside the home. Adeline King was the last resident of the house, and she passed away in 1998 at age 92,” Harber said.
‘Stand tall again’
Since that time the house has fallen into disrepair. A restoration project would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Harber said.
Sparks said a fiscally conservative legislature has been slow to spend money on historic sites, but if the bill is unable to pass, he is hoping someone in the private sector would want to buy and restore it.
Harber isn’t totally discouraged about the setback in the purchase of the home.
“I have a lot of emotions and feeling about (the bill’s failure),” said Harber, who has made tireless efforts to garner support to save what became known as the Johns-King House. “I have great hopes to see the home stand tall again.”
Reach Nancy De Gennaro at [email protected] or 615-278-5148 and on Twitter @NanDeGennaro.