By Mike Steely
The little town of Jellico is, in a way, the “first” town in Tennessee. That’s true in a way if you’re headed south on I-75 from the northern states. The town, which is my birth place, straddles the Kentucky border and was once the “Beer Drinking Capital of Kentucky” before neighboring Whitley County, Ky., went wet and voted in liquor and beer.
Jellico dates back to the 1780s and was partially settled before the Treaty of Tellico gave up Cherokee ownership to that mountainous region. During the Civil War the Jellico area was a muster ground for the Union Army with the Confederates holding Cumberland Mountain to the south. The journey across Pine and Cumberland Mountains was difficult for both armies and remained difficult until Highway 25 was cut through what is called “The Narrows” and linked Jellico with LaFollette and Jacksboro, all within Campbell County. In the late 1960s, I-75 was built up and over Pine Mountain, often called Jellico Mountain by the Knoxville TV broadcasters. The Clear Fork River gorge, just south of town, is a beautiful rough area with high bluffs overlooking the valley.
The topography of the area may someday boost the area as more and more people discover the mountains that surround Jellico. It’s a great place to visit and, for ghost hunters, the grand old post office there is said to be haunted.
Downtown Jellico is filled with 1880s buildings. One side of the town, next to the railroad tracks, is not so busy with buildings. An explosion there in the town’s early history took out many of the buildings on that side of the street.
Inside Ronnie Buck’s Hardware is the Jellico Family Museum, a private collection of memorabilia, relics, and items from the heydays of the once thriving town. A few doors down is the Jellico Public Library and both the library and the museum have items from the history of the little town.
Downtown historic churches include the Methodist and Baptist churches. The Baptist building was also the home of Jellico Elementary School. Unfortunately the town’s Christian Church burned recently. I was in Jellico briefly not too long ago and went by the Jellico library. I found three old friends there and we visited briefly. Years ago I left a packet of history and geology stories and information with Librarian Mark Tidwell there and he confirmed he still has it and occasionally makes copies of maps and information that are requested.
For lovers of the opera, Jellico was the childhood home of singer and actress Grace Moore. For gospel music fans it was also the home of Homer Rodeheaver who was music director for evangelist Billy Sunday and a composer of many gospel songs. Jellico was also a home of writer James Fox and hometown to many writers including James Hayden Siler.
The Tennessee Welcome Center, on southbound I-75, is one of the most visited welcome centers in the state. At the Highway 25 intersection and I-75 is an odd abandoned motel and the historic Crouches Creek Baptist Church.
For people looking for an interesting place to explore, a visit to Indian Mountain State Park is worthwhile. It’s the only state park to be built on an abandoned strip mine. Locals often take their evening or morning walks there and there’s a few full-hookup camping sites. The Jellico area is a mecca for off-roaders and a dirt road connects the town with the top of Pine Mountain and provides, on top, several look-off rocks, rock shelters, and wild mountain terrain.
My little birth town is struggling with surviving physically and financially. The local coal mining history fueled the community’s development and, when that went bust, the town began to see a population decrease and deterioration. Locals are doing their best to survive.