Hancock County: Tennessee Legends, Waterfalls and Local Hotspots

25 October, 2016

Lore, mystery and the King of Bluegrass can all be found in the rolling hill country of Hancock County. Take a day trip to hear the stories but also to explore the many outdoor offerings in this Tennessee rural area.

Start off in Sneedville which lies near the Tennessee – Virginia boarder in Hancock County, home to Jimmy Martin, known as the “King of Bluegrass.” Learn more about Martin, about how he’s known for bluegrass standards like “Sophronie,” “Widow Maker,” and “Sunny Side of the Mountain.” Fun fact: He was also inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor.

About as far north as you can go and still be in the State of Tennessee sits Vardy Valley and the Vardy School Community Historic District. Vardy was originally founded by Vardeman “Vardy” Collins, an early settler of the region. Collins was a Melungeon, a term given some time ago to an ethnic group of Appalachian people often thought to be of mixed Native American, European and African descent. While the lineage and identity of the Melungeon people has been filled with myth and controversy, they nonetheless hold an integral place in the rich and often complex history of Appalachia.

Inside the scenic valley sits the restored Vardy Presbyterian Church building, the last remaining structure of the Vardy Community School. Presbyterian missionaries founded the school while Tennessee’s school system was segregated, and it served the primary schoolhouse for the multi-racial Melungeon community. Today the artifacts, images and stories of the school are preserved on the inside operated by the Melungeon Heritage Association. . It is open on the third Saturday during spring, summer and fall.

Across the road from the church is the reconstructed Mahalia Mullins cabin. Mullins is perhaps one of history’s best remembered of the Melungeon community, thanks to her now legendary moonshining exploits.

“Catchable but not Fetchable”

(Mahalia Mullins)

The story is that Mullins was stricken with elephantiasis, although she may have simply been overweight to the point of immobility. Either way, her size made her too heavy for the revenuers to bring to justice. They had no problem arresting Mullins. The issue was getting her down the mountain, into a jailhouse and courtroom. 

So the moonshiner kept cooking, possibly up until she was reported dead in 1898. Just a little more than 100 years later, her cabin, originally located on nearby Newman’s Ridge was relocated to where it sits today in Vardy. The arched windows are typical of Melungeon architecture.

About ½ hour southwest down the valley from downtown Sneedville flows Elrod Falls, a must-see Hancock County attraction. The first tier of this three-tiered waterfall can be accessed via car, and a short hike will bring you up and around to the second and third tiers.

Elrod Falls is located at the intersection of TN-31 and Elrod Falls Road, south of Sneedville.

What makes up the life and culture of Hancock County is more than stories of legend moonshiners and a collection of historic buildings. The Clinch River flows right through Hancock County, and on its banks is the River Place.

Originally a country store, the River Place on the Clinch is a rental cabin retreat, convention center, market and cafe, live music venue and outdoor recreation outfitter that occupies a building that has been standing on the same location since it was built in 1940.

Every Friday and Saturday night, the River Place on the Clinch hosts live music performances, primarily bluegrass bands. Everything from inner tubes to kayaks are available for advance rental, so that guests can float or paddle the Clinch River.

Their Market & Cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. And you can stay overnight on the hillside above the river in cabins or primitive campsites, making the River Place on the Clinch the spot to base your stay in Hancock County.

Take a drive through this rural county and discover for yourself the legends, the culture and the incredible views. 

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