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History Comes Alive in Middle Tennessee

With a history that spans 220 years and a location pivotal to so many Civil War battles, Tennessee has plenty to offer.

With a history that spans 220 years and a location pivotal to so many Civil War battles, Tennessee has plenty more to offer beyond food and musical attractions (though those are definitely worth a gander, too). For those looking to experience a bit of living history firsthand, check out the below sites, beloved by visitors and residents alike.

The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville

What first started as a 19th century tabernacle morphed into the pride of Nashville, and 125 years after her inception, the Mother Church of Country Music continues to be one of Tennessee's brightest stars. In addition to nightly concerts—the Ryman regularly lends its storied stage to musicians from Garth Brooks to the Foo Fighters—this 2,362-seat, seven-time Pollstar Theatre of the Year also hosts a number of series throughout the year, including Bluegrass Nights in the summer, Sam's Place in winter months, and Amy Grant & Vince Gill's Christmas at the Ryman each holiday season.

In 2015, the Ryman debuted a significant upgrade to the tune of $14 million, encompassing an expanded gift shop and box office area, enhanced Soul of Nashville experience, and the unveiling of Café Lula, in honor of Lula Naff who ran the building for 50 years.

Carnton Plantation, Franklin

One of the most celebrated plantations in the state, Carnton was a crucial player during the Battle of Franklin in 1864, a monumental occasion that shaped the city's history and identity (see the Carter House entry for more information on the battle itself).

The 1,400-acre house and farm were originally built with slave labor in 1815 by Virginia-born Randal McGavock, who moved his family onto the land in the 1820s. After he died, his son John took over, and the McGavock estate thrived as a horse-breeding farm and a lucrative producer of crops.

During the Battle of Franklin, Carnton became a hospital, thanks to its proximity to the battlefield. After the war ended, it was turned into a burial place for the many Confederate soldiers who had died there. 

The house remained in the family's possession until 1911, when it was sold. In 1977 the house and 10 acres were donated to the Carnton Association, and today, after much repair and renovation, it's on the National Register of Historic Places.

Visitors can reconnect with the past during the annual living history event, Blue & Gray Days Nov. 4-5, 2016 which features demonstrations, historians and Civil War era campsites at The Carnton and The Carter House in Franklin.

The Legend of the Bell Witch, Adams

As the legend goes, John Bell purchased a large expanse of land for his family to occupy in the 19th century, and they'd barely unpacked when strange things started happening. They became accustomed to mysterious sounds, but never could find the source.

The kids reported such incidents as scratching on their bedposts, assaults in the middle of the night, and bed covers being pulled right off of them. Others began experiencing it, too, and over time, a voice started audibly quoting scripture, singing hymns and leading sermons. The legend became so widespread that Andrew Jackson even paid the farm a visit to check out what was going on, but quickly was deterred himself by the creepy occurrences.

John Bell suffered facial seizures with age and fell into a coma; after he died, a vial of liquid that he was said to have ingested was found near his body. No one knew where it came from, but it was force-fed to the family cat, too, who also perished.

The Bell Witch continued to haunt the family until they were all gone. People in Adams still say they hear rumblings of the Bell Witch from time to time, so keep your ears alert and see if she speaks to you. You can get into the spirit by paying a visit to Adams and sitting in on one of the many special lectures, exhibits, presentations and other events that surround her legacy.

The Hermitage, Donelson

As former Tennessee state Senator and the nation's seventh president, Andrew Jackson was a fan of parties and welcoming others into his home. So it makes sense that the tradition continues—even 150-something years after his death.

The Hermitage comprises a recently-renovated mansion, cemeteries and battlefields, slaves' quarters and a 1,100-acre plantation. The log cabin the Jacksons first occupied in 1804 before moving into much fancier digs sits out back, as well.

The house interior still maintains its original wallpaper and hardwood floors in places, and much of the furniture lives on from Jackson's days. The ornate wall coverings in the lobby foyer are 175 years old, and the whole place exudes an authentic antebellum feel, right down to the volunteers who guide the tours in appropriate period garb.

If you really want to trace Andrew's footsteps, watch the introductory film in the Andrew Jackson Visitor Center before exploring the mansion, gardens, Andrew's and wife Rachel's tombs.

Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville

Spread out over 30 acres, Belle Meade—meaning "Beautiful Pasture"—once occupied 5,400 acres (it was so big, in fact, that it operated as its own city).

What began as a working farm in 1807 has seen its share of history in the past 110 years. The original owner, John Harding, boarded stallions at the estate before later jumping head first into the world of Thoroughbred racing. His son, William Giles Harding took over Belle Meade when John aged out of the gig. William wound up having a bit of a lucky streak: When the Civil War decimated, the surrounding area and most other horse farmers were forced to give up their prized livestock to the armies, the Hardings got to keep theirs. 

(Civil War bullet holes at Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville)

After the war, William became a hot commodity in the field of racing, racking up the purses left and right and eventually becoming the first person in Tennessee to auction off Thoroughbreds.

Today, Belle Meade Plantation is a popular special events venue, but tours of the plantation are still offered daily. Be sure and poke around the well-curated store, as well as stop in at the Belle Meade Winery for tastings (free with the cost of grounds admission).

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