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Goodbye, Kingston Springs

ksEditor’s note: I would like to tell you when and where this article appeared, but I’m not sure. What I do know is that Leslie Liles Allen presented it me many months ago in hopes that we could print it, and perhaps more of the memories of those days, (and maybe some pictures as well, would surface as folks got a chance to read it. I have contacted a few of the folks who were around then to see if they have any pictures, no luck so far. What we do know about the author, Vince Matthews, is contained in his short bio that accompanied the story, and that he died several years ago.

Please enjoy this precious look back at the 60s in Kingston Springs, and if you have any tales to tell, or photographs to share from these times, please contact us a so that we can pass them along.

Vince Matthews is a songwriter and singer whose songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and many other country artists. His concern for Kingston Springs led him to compose an entire album, Kingston Springs Suite, about the small town. As yet. the album is not commercially available.

Before the developers moved in, it was just a little country town. It was a laid-back picker’s Paradise.


Detroit is damned, Chicago’s gone
Cleveland baby bye-bye so long
The L.A. freeway ain’t the way
It ain’t free
Oh, Good Lord, can you find
In Your heart to be kind
Can You spare/ Kingston Springs, Tennessee*

*from “God Save Kingston Springs” by Vince
Matthews and Jim Casey. © Jack Music, lnc.

Driving west from Nashville on Highway 70, it’s easy to miss the Kingston Springs turnoff. Just a small sign and an arrow pointing towards a blacktop road that bounces over the railroad tracks, cuts through a hill and crosses the Harpeth River bridge.

My wife Melva said it was a magic pass, only special people could find it, and all the people who lived in Kingston Springs were hobbitts and had hairy feet.

Paul Fahle was the first one to show us the place. He discovered it one day while driving around. Knowing we were looking for a place to live he took us there. “I’ve found this little town,” he said, “way out in the middle of nowhere. It’s almost like it has no reason to exist.”

I related to it immediately.

I lived in Kingston Springs, Tennessee, for six years. When I settled there in 1967, it was just a little country town. When I left in 1973, it had changed. Progress had come to Kingston Springs. Kingston Springs is like a lot of American small towns.

Place yourself in 1967. You are driving south down the blacktop past perfectly placed cows grazing in rolling meadows with old settled farmhouses on either side. You are entering the timelessness of the Harpeth River Valley.

Historians are in doubt as to the origin of the name “Harpeth.” Since there are two tributaries. the Big Harpeth and the Little Harpeth, some maintain it was named after the two outlaw brothers, Big Harp and Little Harp, who terrorized this region around the time of the settlement of Kingston Springs. Others say it is an old Cherokee Indian name. It was one of the last scenic rivers in the state of Tennessee.

On your left, laid back in the hills, you pass the old hotel built on the site of the mineral springs now owned by the Beard family. It is surrounded by guest cabins and a log building, still standing, that was used as a medical aid station during the Civil War. Although the hotel is a mid-Victorian architectural gem, it is badly in need of restoration. The cabins show the years, and weeds hide the springs that were dammed long ago.

Around the turn of the century this place was a health resort and fashion spa. Special passenger trains out of Nashville would pull into the siding for the weekend. Horse drawn hacks would carry the ladies and gentlemen to the hotel to dance, talk, play croquet and take the waters. Squint your eyes and you can see the gaslights flickering across the stage built in front of the hotel for the plays. You can hear the music, the laughter and see the dancing.
The image fades. The era passed.

You are now entering Kingston Springs, population 510, settled in the 1830s by ol’ man Samuel Kingston, who married into the Dunn family and disappeared into history.

On your right is the Tinsley homeplace, a huge log home as warm and charming as the Tinsleys themselves. On your left is the patriarchal Billy Beard’s estate, brooding on the hill overlooking the town that Billy swore would remain small and country as long as he lived. You pass the general store that Billy ran for fun, turn right, pass the original one-room schoolhouse and Nig Whited’s dirt-floor garage where his hounds sleep beside the wood-burning stove while he repairs school buses, lawnmowers and sports cars, then – don’t blink, you’ll miss it – two stores, a post office, and Mr. Bruce’s cafe and garage. Before it burned, another hotel stood where Robert Harris and Clarence Sullivan run the new post office now, and just this side and to the left of the railroad tracks, you can still see the outlines of the old depot.

If you go straight across the tracks you’re in the Lovell’s driveway. Just go up on the back porch, open the refrigerator door, leave an empty gallon jug and a dollar, and take home a gallon of sweet milk with two inches of cream and a pound of freshly churned butter.

Turn right and you’ll pass Mr. Sam Ament’s home on the left. Mr. Sam worked on the L & N for fifty years and now lives with his lovely wife, Lorene, in a sprawling white frame house beside the same lines he served for so long. His yard is full of railroad treasures, some of which he’ll sell, some of which he won’t, dogs, cats, and a pickup truck painted red so it’ll go faster.

Driving east now, then a left turn onto a gravel road, and you’re going up Pinnacle Hill, overlooking the town behind you and the Harpeth River way down below.

Main U. S. Highway 70, which runs from Memphis to Nashville, would have gone through town, but one of Mr. Ernest Page’s ancestors wouldn’t sell them a favorite tree of his, so that bit of commerce passed us by.

That’s about it. That’s Kingston Springs. Melva and I rented a large white farm-style house from Jesse Eden right in the center of town. I wrote songs while she worked at Peabody University. Down the street was a community center where we played baseball, drank Cokes and rode horses. A hundred yards behind the house ran the Harpeth River, where you could fish, float, loaf, swim, wade or daydream while hiding from your chores.

The first friend we made in town was Mr. Vernon Newsome. He pulled up in front of our house one morning in his buggy with his good horse, Will, resplendent in pink tassels. Bouncing up the steps and whipping off his hat, he said to Melva, “Good mornin’ missus! I’m Vernon Newsome. yo’ blacksmith! Where’s de bull?”

The bull – me – was sick, sober and sorry, sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the next room. I heard him as in a dream.
“Vincent is resting, Mr. Newsome. Won’t you come in please?”
“Thank you kindly, Missus. Here, I’ve brought you something. Something to make you feel good! Yes sir!”

Reaching into his old denim jacket pocket, he pulled out half an angel food cake, six double-yoke fresh eggs and two pounds of home-cured country ham.
Mr. Newsome is the real thing. As a young man he heard the calling and his house became a church filled with happy, shouting people led by his own free spirit. This faith gave him the courage to start over after losing his life’s savings in a fire. It gave him the wisdom of a true philosopher that he’ll share for free with anyone who’ll take the time to listen. It gave him a family of two wives, countless children, grandchildren, great and great-great grandchildren. His years as a traveling blacksmith gave him his incredible physical strength. As he says, “why if that hoss, lissen to me now, if that hoss don’t want to give me his foot to shoe I just takes his leg and bends that gentleman to my will!”

I’ll always see him in my mind’s eye driving down the road in his rubber-tired buggy with his wife Mattie sitting beside him, both of them draped in the natural dignity of an ancient king and queen.

The fourth of July had been an annual tradition but for some reason had been discontinued. One year we got it back with a bang!
Jim Burroughs and I drove to Pittsburgh, Tennessee and brought back a ton of fireworks complete with mortars and a United States flag that would light the heavens. Jim, being a blasting expert, would do the honors.

Someone donated a flat-bed trailer and Captain Midnight emceed a show of pickers and politicians. Fred Boyd and the Young Country played beautifully all day in the broiling sun. Bobby Boyd brought the Oklahoma crew and Bobby Barnett (one of the greats) delivered a masterful set. Billy Roberts brought the house down with his french harp.

The pickers would draw a crowd and the politicians would run them off.

Year after year we blocked the streets off and square danced. Fiddles and banjos and guitars wailing in the night. Virginia Harris trying to teach me the steps with Wayne Walker choosing to play the wallflower. But the real star of the show was always the barbecue. Ben Pack and Marshall Green were given up to be the best barbecuers in the county.

First you buy a couple of fifths to make it through on, then kill and dress the hog, leaving the back skin intact. Lay the hog face down above a two-foot pit on a fence nailed to a couple of cross ties. Build a hickory fire well off to the side and shovel coals under the hog. The heat should never be greater than to allow you to hold your hand above it for ten seconds without burning. Otherwise you’ll sear the meat. Throw a few chickens and a couple of shoulders on there for good measure. Keep the coals comin’ and pass that damn bottle, Ben, sing a few songs, relax, keep the coals comin’. About 14-16 hours later the skin will pop up. Time to turn the hog over, Marshall. Now put the soppins on! Homemade sauce in a 25-pound lard stand. Lots of it! Sing some more, drink a little, eat some chicken and let ‘er cook for another few hours. Happy 4th of July, boys.

Continued next week . . .

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