Beyond the Western
It was a warm Summer day and I was touring the back roads through Southern Tennessee. Taking my time and taking in the sights of this most beautiful part of the country. I was on vacation, but that doesn’t keep me from sniffing out a good story or two along the road.
My journalistic prowess was on full alert as I happened upon a small rural town called Hollow Hill. At the edge of this town was a hill with an old white church prominently sitting on the very top. My instincts told me this town might hold one of those stories.
I stopped in front of the local cafe and went in for a bite to eat. If I was lucky, I might come up with some information concerning the church on the hill. As was my custom, I took a seat on one of the empty stools at the counter where I could easily strike up a conversation with one of the locals.
I ask the old man on the corner stool if there was a story behind the old church. Sometimes you hit pay dirt when you ask the right question to a talkative type. Luck was with me. This was one of those times.
“Why yes,” replied the old man. “There is a story. That old church is called the Hollow Hill Church. Can you guess why?”
“Well, the obvious answer would be because it’s in the town of Hollow Hill???” I replied.
“True, but not the right reason,” answered the old man. “And here’s why…
“Two brothers, twins in fact, came to this town sometime in the late 1840’s. One was a preacher, the other a merchant. The preacher was named James. He built the church with help from some of the men in town and a few generous donations from the town’s local merchants, of which my Great Grandfather was one.
“The other brother was named Michael. He built the old general store that sits at the bottom of the hill. You might have passed it on your way in.
“Once Michael had finished the building, he began to raise some curiosity in town when a large mound of dirt began to show up just outside the back door of the general store. He told anyone who asked that he had decided his store needed a root cellar.
“Fact was, he wasn’t digging a root cellar at all. He was digging a tunnel into the center of the hill. Once he reached the center, he started to dig straight up. It took some time, but he finally broke through directly under the church.
“Once the tunnel connected the two buildings, the two brothers worked together to dig out a large room right where the tunnel turned to go up.”
Now my curiosity was up.”Why would these two brothers dig such a tunnel with a room in the middle?” I asked.
“Well,” the old man continued. “Turns out Michael and James had a motive for being here from the very day they came to town. Seems they were involved in what is now known as the underground railroad.
“Once they had finished their digging, they began to take in runaway slaves and hide them in their secret room. They had help from a couple of trusted parishioners of the church. Other than that, no one in town was the wiser.
“The two brothers would use their own money as well as a few anonymous donations to purchase and distribute necessities like food, clothing, blankets and any other essentials they needed.
“This went on for several years until slavery was finally abolished. How they managed to keep it a secret for that long is anybodies guess. I have a suspicion more than a few people had an idea as to what was going on but turned a blind eye to it. Maybe even helped steer away the occasional bounty hunter who ventured into town.
“ Once the room was no longer in use, Michael decided to expand and use it as a cold storage room and warehouse for his store. While expanding the room he happened to hit upon a vein of pure gold. It was a small vein that petered out quickly, but it was enough to give the two brothers a very comfortable living for the rest of their lives. The church was never want for money and the general store thrived.”
“So they were repaid in the end,” I commented.
“Yes, the Lord works in mysterious ways, doesn’t He,” replied the old man.
“I suppose He does,” I answered.
I thanked the old man for the history lesson. After I ate my lunch I walked over to the general store and introduced myself.
Turns out the store is now a museum. Upon talking with the woman at the counter I discovered she was Michael’s great great granddaughter. She filled me in on a few more details on top of what I had already been told. Plus, she was kind enough to give me a personal tour of the tunnel and the room. She even let me climb the ladder to the church.
My trip through Tennessee turned out to be very productive. I left the town of Hollow Hill with another good story. I sent it off to my editor. I figured he could use it for the papers travel section. I left Hollow Hill and headed toward the next small town and maybe another story.
© Copyright 2020 by Scott A. Gese All Rights Reserved.