Contemplating the Past, Present, and Future at Montgomery Bell State Park

Back in June, my husband and I had a rather spontaneous one-night retreat at Montgomery Bell State Park.  I sat down and began to write this blog post the following week, but somehow got distracted while doing some of the research and didn’t get it up right away.  And then, a couple of weeks after this impromptu trip, I received some news that effectively derailed any writing for the better part of this year.  I found out that I am expecting our first child!  I won’t go into too much detail about it as this blog post is meant to finally finish what I started writing back in June about Montgomery Bell, but I am now almost 25 weeks pregnant and it is the answer to many years of prayers! 

So back to our June weekend….We had tentatively planned to visit Montgomery Bell and do some day hiking on Friday after our annual doctor visits (yes, we go together to back-to-back appointments like old people), but we ended up staying one night at the newly renovated Lodge there and enjoying a nice meal in the restaurant by Lake Acorn.

Ever since I started my goal to visit several local Tennessee State Parks to hike new trails, Montgomery Bell has been on my list to visit, but unlike most of the other places I have visited or would still like to visit, Montgomery Bell is a park that I have already spent a pretty significant amount of time visiting in my younger days and have many wonderful memories of family.

As a child we would go to visit the park fairly often, whether to eat at the restaurant, paddle boat around Lake Acorn, or even staying for a few days as a family in several lodge rooms one memorable summer when my cousin and his family were in town and chose to stay there in a cabin.  I visited the park a few times by myself in the last year or so I was living on my own in Nashville, just taking a Sunday afternoon drive there after church and walking around the lake.  Those moments would always remind me of my grandparents and Sunday lunches with them after church when we would drive down there.

Maybe because I felt like I was already pretty familiar with the park, it wasn’t one of my top priority parks to check out, but I was still wanting to go as I haven’t visited it in a while and despite spending so much time there as a kid, I hadn’t previously hiked any of the many trails there.  My grandparents who I spent much of the time with when I visited the park, mostly would eat at the restaurant there and enjoyed the scenery of the lake but weren’t ones to hit the trail so I realized that most of my experiences with the park were just eating there.  As I perused the website in the last couple of years as I searched for good hiking spots in middle Tennessee, I realized that I had barely scrapped the surface in exploring the park and that there are actually two other lakes within its borders besides Lake Acorn where the Lodge and restaurant sit.  

So, on a sunny Friday, having the day off from work because of our doctors’ appointments, my husband and I visited Burns, TN to explore new areas of a familiar to me park.  We stopped in at the visitor center to collect a trail map and that afternoon, we hiked Creech Lake Hollow Trail and the Spillway Trail.  Both were absolutely beautiful trails and by the time we got back to the car, we had decided to stay for the night and not rush back home. 

The following morning, we hiked the Wild Cat Trail and stopped again at the visitor center.  While waiting for my husband to use the bathroom, I started to look at some of the old pictures of the construction of the spillway we had visited the day before and read about the history of its construction.  I don’t know why it hit me so strongly (maybe the news I shared at the beginning of the blog post had something to do with it), but I almost got choked up thinking of all the lives that had passed through that place, the blending of so many little histories, both the ones whose dedication helped to build the park we enjoy today and the lives of those people I love who I have so many fond memories of right there at the park.

Montgomery Bell State Park, like so many other state protected lands has a rich history that includes being the center of a once thriving iron industry in the early 1800’s, the site of the first Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and being a small part of the nationwide program to help combat the Great Depression known as the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC.

Montgomery Bell, for whom the park is named, came to the area in the early 1800’s and built a thriving business in the iron industry.  The business left the land badly eroded and deforested by the time the Civil War brought a halt to the iron industry. 

Skipping ahead to the next century, the next major development of the land came about after the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC began in 1933 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s package to help the nation rise out of the Great Depression.  The idea was that the program would put young, unemployed men to work on various projects around the country, with focus being on creating access to public lands such as national and state parks.  In addition to the training that enrollees received for forestry and construction work, they also were given educational opportunities to study a variety of subjects such as forestry, biology, and other sciences related to conservation.

Despite the good that the CCC did for many individuals, it still fell victim to the era in which it lived as Jim Crow laws stopped the program from being equally accessed by people of color.  The legislation had language that stated “no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, or creed” but like many other federal legislations to come during the civil rights era, this language was ignored by local officials who argued that African American men had plenty of other opportunities and didn’t need the opportunities afforded by the CCC.  There were internal struggles within the CCC with some state officials ignoring the segregationist views of the head of the program and integrating their programs, while other states ran African American only companies that didn’t have the same opportunities that the white companies did.

Montgomery Bell State Park was one of the parks in Tennessee that’s infrastructure was mostly completed by African American CCC Companies.  The CCC Companies built a couple of camp areas that are still in use today and built the dam with the rock stair step spillway that is one of the park’s most notable features.  They completed survey and mapping work, and created two of the parks’ lakes, Lake Acorn and Lake Woodhaven.

CCC Company 4497 worked onsite at what would become Montgomery Bell State Park from 1935-1940

In 1943, the land for the park was transferred from the federal program to the state of Tennessee to create what we now know today as Montgomery Bell State Park.  Over the next few decades, the park continued to grow with the formation of Lake Creech Hollow, the park’s Inn, the golf course, and many other amenities.  With its growth, the stories of the park continued and are too many to note, but one little bit of the history I will point out is that the 1987 movie, Ernest Goes to Camp, was filmed at the park.  That was a fun little fact that I had forgotten until the weekend we spent there but was reminded of because we had inadvertently shown up on the weekend they were having Ernest Day at the park and commemorating the movie.

That brings the history of the park up to my own timeline and the many memories I have visiting the park as a child.  I’ve since lost my grandparents who I spent so much time with visiting the park as a child and I thought quite a lot about them and my entire family that weekend that Daniel and I stayed there.  We took pictures around Lake Acorn at many of the same views that I have pictures with my grandparents and when we got back home, I was showing him some of the pictures for comparison. 

Me at Montgomery Bell State Park by Lake Acorn around 1994
Daniel and I standing on the same dock by Lake Acorn as the picture above

I’m still not sure why the emotions hit me so strongly that Saturday in June standing in the visitor center looking at survey maps and pictures of the spillway construction, but I guess it was just a reminder of the many lives that have passed through that place and the people I have lost.  And now as my husband and I look ahead to a future that we could have scarcely envisioned that weekend in June, I am grateful for the people who helped to build a park that became a small part of my family’s history and will continue to be a place for families to come together for many years to come.

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