Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Jonesborough docents give inside look of history

Jacob Simpson stands watch in front of the Christopher Taylor House in Jonesborough.


Associate Editor

[email protected]

“We have really extended the reach of the museum,” said Joe Spiker, Head Docent at the Chester Inn Museum as he discussed the impact of the Heritage Alliance’s History Happy Hour. As he talked, Anne G’Fellers-Mason, Special Projects Coordinator, was setting up a presentation for a talk and slide show on Jonesborough native Rhea Wells. 

Anne Mason poses in front of the Chester Inn.

Anne’s mother, Dr. Brenda G’Fellers along with Kristin Pearson, both employees of the Bristol Library, were giving the program. Spiker and Jacob Simpson, Exhibits Coordinator, were telling what it is like to be a docent in Tennessee’s oldest town when Gordon Edwards, a volunteer docent and President of the Heritage Alliance, arrived for the Wells Happy Hour.  

“We have been lucky so far in our programming,” Spiker said of the Happy Hour. “I’ve handled a lot of the scheduling for the program, and Deborah Montanti (Executive Director of the Alliance) came up with the name. They take up 35 to 40 minutes followed by questions. This year we have scheduled nine or 10 presentations.”

The History Happy Hour is only one of the duties that Spiker, Simpson and G’Fellers undertake in keeping the community’s heritage in the forefront for both residents and visitors.  Running a museum requires a variety of skills, including those of a docent. The following definition gives the essence of the position and its history.

Docent is used at some (mainly German) universities generically for a person who has the right to teach. The term is derived from the Latin word docēns, which is the present active participle of docēre (to teach, to lecture). In the United States it is usually a person who acts as a guide in a museum, art gallery, or zoo.

Research on available artifacts in the Alliance Archives, designing and installing exhibits, research, writing, talking to visitors, both in the museum and on the streets of Jonesborough, and designing educational programs are all part of the duties Spiker and Simpson undertake each month.

Joe Spiker can be found at the Chester Inn in Jonesborough.

In addition, docents help research and staff the Christopher Taylor house on Main Street. Gordon Edwards, a long-time volunteer for the Heritage Alliance mostly known for his cemetery work, is the projects director of the house. “It is a cool artifact on Main Street. We are trying to have more activities there,” he said. Mason adds, “We can now have people in the house. We are opening it on weekends.”

Simpson helped initiate one new program at the cabin for 2018. From May through September the House is the venue for an Old-Time and Bluegrass Jam Session. Held on the first Thursday of the month, the “Jam” is open to musicians and spectators. Audience members are asked to bring a chair or picnic and listen to the musicians on the lawn in front of the house. Attendance this summer has usually included 25 to 30 persons. No admission is charged for the jam session. The music lasts from 6:30 until 8:30 p.m. “While no admission is charged, donations will be accepted for the Christopher Taylor House Restoration,” Edwards said.

Docents also help by conducting town tours of Jonesborough along with a staff of volunteer tour guides. The tours are available at 1 pm on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and at 7 pm on Thursday. Town tour guides are dressed in various period costumes from the tri-corner hats of the early republic to a 1905 Jonesboro baseball team costume. Docents offer a regular schedule of historic walking tours of downtown Jonesborough. These tours depart from the Chester Inn. There are some seasonal changes in the schedule, so people interested in taking a tour are asked to please call ahead at (423)753-9580 or (423)753-4580 to confirm the tour schedule. The guides discuss the history of the town, its people and the lives they built. Tickets are $5 per person and can be purchased at the Museum.

This year the Alliance also offers tours of the Old Jonesborough Cemetery at 2:30 p.m. on the first and third Saturday of the month, going through mid-October. Tickets for the cemetery tour are $3 per person. In addition to town and cemetery tours, there is a “Myth Busting Tour” and “Railroad Tours.” A special combination ticket for two tours is available at $7 per person.

Gordon Edwards is a volunteer docent and President of the Heritage Alliance.

All the docents said they enjoy leading town tours. Some tours involve only a few people while groups have been as large as 25 people in the past. Weather does not usually halt the tours aside from possibly the cemetery tour. “I like to ask people where they are from,” said Spiker. “I had members from as far away as California. Most are interested in the fact that this area was once part of North Carolina.”

Docents Spiker and Simpson explained that the Chester Inn Museum, located downtown, chronicles the history of Jonesborough from its inception in 1779 to the present. The museum is located on the street level of the oldest commercial building in town. The Inn is a state owned historic site operated by the Heritage Alliance.

Exhibits include information on the State of Franklin, a diorama of Jonesborough in the 1850s and the history of the Chester Inn. Many of the exhibits feature Jonesborough’s extensive collection of photographs. The upstairs parlor, dining, and lodging rooms of the Inn, restored to the Victorian era style of the late 1800s, are also open for viewing.

Kids’ activities include a museum scavenger hunt, a coloring book that features some of Jonesborough’s historic buildings and a primary source activity with the cholera epidemic of 1873. “The first activity children are interested in are pushing buttons in the diorama,” said Spiker. “If I can catch their attention in that activity, then we go to other items in the museum including toys. With children, the more visuals you use, the better the presentation.”

Another Alliance program involves the Oak Hill School, built in 1886 to serve the community of Knob Creek. The building served local residents as a school and as a center for community events until the school was closed in the 1950s.