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History lessons at the Chester Inn Museum

For more than 200 years, the Chester Inn has witnessed the changing face of downtown Jonesborough. Now — as home to the relatively new Chester Inn Museum — it’s being given a chance to share it’s story.
“The Chester Inn was truly Jonesborough’s gathering place,” said Deborah Montanti, executive director of The Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, the nonprofit organization that oversees the museum. “People would come into town (via stagecoach or train) and town folks would gather around them.”
The museum, opened since October 2011, seems to be having the same effect.
Created as both a tribute to the 1797 structure and a window into the past capturing the streets and businesses around it, the Chester Inn Museum has continued to draw visitors through its doors in steady numbers since last fall.
“I kept waiting for a lull, and it never came,” Montanti said. “In July, not counting Jonesborough Days, we saw 886 visitors.”
Those numbers include locals, tourists, children, adults, history buffs, lovers of architecture and more.
“It’s a mixed bag,” she said. “And that’s so rewarding for us.”
It’s a reward that has been a long time coming.
Built in 1797 by Dr. William Chester, the Chester Inn has housed a plethora of Jonesborough businesses including an apothecary, postmaster’s office, barbershop and more, but was perhaps best known as a boarding house and eating establishment.
Originally half the size it is today, the building was expanded in 1830 to accommodate more guests and thereby meet the needs of the burgeoning stagecoach line. An ornate Victorian porch was added in 1883.
It wasn’t until about 1986 that the seed idea of a museum began to take root.
Jimmy Neil Smith, International Storytelling Center founder and president emeritus, remembers those days well.
“We had literally bounced around from one office to another office during that time and realized we really needed a home,” Smith said. “At the same time, here was the Chester Inn and a community that hoped to see the Chester Inn at some point be restored.”
Smith, on behalf of what was the National Association for the Perpetuation and Preservation of Storytelling at that time, approached the state with the proposal that Tennessee buy and restore the inn, with NAPPS occupying and acting as caretakers for the inn.
Smith was successful in convincing the state that the historic inn was worth preserving, and the Tennessee Historical Commission spent more than $1 million to purchase and restore the inn.
The idea was for the Chester Inn to eventually develop into some type of museum, but even with a restoration project in the early ‘90s, it took until last year for it to become a reality.
“We’re finally telling the story of the Chester Inn and its role in Jonesborough’s history,” Smith said.
Part of a capital project funded through the Tennessee Historical Commission — which includes other new exhibits at both the Rocky Mount Museum and the Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site — the Chester Inn Museum faced special challenges because of limited space, low ceilings and its ground floor location.
But what emerged, Montanti believes, is not only amazing to view, but also perfectly fitting for the space for which it is intended.
Using a remarkable collection of historic photos to chronicle the history of downtown Jonesborough from its inception in 1779 to the present, the museum gives visitors who step through its doors an honest look into the past.
“It’s vaguely chronological,” Montanti said. And it’s all very personal — from dapper barbers getting ready for a day of business to men, women and children uniting in protests on the steps of the old courthouse.
Visitors can learn about the establishment of the State of Franklin, view a diorama of Jonesborough in the 1850s, glimpse into the horror of the 1873 cholera epidemic and come face to face — in a photographic sense — with some of Old Towne’s earliest merchants.
A scavenger hunt where children can search for items within the museum’s many photos and displays is available. Columns highlight various architecture elements found throughout the town.
Visitors who remember the inn from long ago can get see how it looks today. History buffs can spend as much time as they like looking over the inn’s old ledger, complete with graceful signatures from long ago.
A parlor and dining room are also available to tour upstairs.
“I want this museum to honor this incredible structure,” Montanti said.
The museum is normally open Wednesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday 1-6 p.m. through October.
As part of the ongoing “We Dig Jonesborough” campaign, the museum will remain open until 8:30 p.m. on Fridays, adding itself to the growing number of downtown events, including extended shopping and Music on the Square.
Hours for November and December will be Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday 1-5 p.m. There is no admission fee.
— Lisa Whaley is a free-lance writer contracted by the Town of Jonesborough to write “Talk of the Town.” Have a suggestion for a topic for the column? Call Town Hall at 753-1031 or e-mail [email protected]