One of the oldest towns in Tennessee, Greeneville beckons with a fascinating heritage set amid gorgeous landscapes and abundant waterways.
The community was established in 1783 and named for General Nathanael Greene, who successfully commanded the southern theater of the Revolutionary War. Greeneville also celebrates its hometown heroes, most prominent among them 17th President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, and frontiersman Davy Crockett. Along the brick-lined sidewalks of the compact downtown are myriad landmarks, churches, homes, and murals. Every block is an intriguing history lesson.
It’s interesting to learn that, due to the quirks of politics and changing boundary lines, abolitionist-leaning Greeneville fell numerous times under the commands of the Union and Confederacy. As a result, visitors will see references to both sides of the Civil War.
Greeneville is accredited as a Main Street community, a designation under the Tennessee Main Street Program in recognition of its economic revitalization efforts and historic preservation initiatives.
Located 70 miles northeast of Knoxville, Tennessee, and 56 miles north of Asheville, North Carolina, Greeneville sits at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The nearest airports are Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee; Asheville Regional Airport in Asheville; and McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville.
Here are my amazing experiences to put on your next itinerary, as Americana buffs and outdoor enthusiasts are sure to agree:
1. David Crockett Birthplace State Park
You probably grew up singing about Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. We did, too. The David Crockett Birthplace State Park honors the life of Tennessee’s famous soldier, bear hunter, and legislator. The 105-acre park along the scenic Nolichucky River is both a memorial to the legendary folk hero and a recreation center for camping, swimming, hiking, birding, boating, and picnicking. Also onsite is a furnished replica cabin — like the one in which Crockett was born in the nearby community of Limestone — and a living history museum depicting pioneer life in the 1700s. Of course, a coonskin cap is prominently displayed.
2. Margarette Falls At Cherokee National Forest
A stunning fan-shaped waterfall with a 60-foot drop awaits you at the end of the Margarette Falls Trail in Cherokee National Forest. The 1.2-mile trail (each way) starts off as an easy stroll, but it soon becomes a challenging uphill climb over dense tree roots and craggy boulders alongside a rushing creek. When the path dead-ended, we nearly turned around and returned to our awaiting vehicle. Finally, we figured out we needed to cross the creek via the water-covered rocks, and continue on the other side where the path picked up again. The effort was well worth it because the up-close view is thrilling, especially as the late afternoon sun peeked through the treetops onto the glistening falls. Be sure to carry water and perhaps energy bars.
3. Capitol Of The Lost State Of Franklin
In a compelling chapter from Greeneville’s expansive history book, Greene County and several neighboring counties of abolitionist sentiment were originally within the borders of North Carolina. After disputes about taxation and slavery, in 1785, the counties seceded and declared themselves the independent state of Franklin. A log cabin was erected as their capitol building in Greeneville, where constitutional conventions and other political gatherings were held. Franklin never achieved official statehood, and a few years later rejoined North Carolina. They later became part of Tennessee when the state was admitted to the Union in 1796. The Capitol of the Lost State of Franklin, identified with a historical marker, was lost but rebuilt as an authentic reproduction. The doors are open, so venture inside and imagine the dreams and risks of those pioneers who sought freedom for all.
4. The Big Spring
Like the wildlife and Native Americans before them, the Scotch-Irish pioneers who founded Greeneville in 1783 were drawn by the abundance of clean, fresh water. The Big Spring, as it is named, is today the centerpiece of a serene public garden with an arched stone bridge, manicured landscaping, mature trees, and octagonal picnic tables. This quiet little waterway meanders through town, where you can catch another view as it emerges from beneath the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site visitor center. From downtown Greeneville, the Big Spring flows into Richland Creek, which joins the Nolichucky River at Kinser Park.
5. General Morgan Inn And Brumley’s
Step inside the lobby of the General Morgan Inn, and you are taken back to the Gilded Age with its coffered ceiling, ornate woodwork, dazzling chandeliers, velvet sofas, grand piano, and brocade wallpaper. The elegant 52-room boutique hotel and fine dining restaurant are the social hubs of the town.
Originally a railroad hotel built in 1884 to accommodate business travelers arriving at the new train depot, it was family-owned and operated until 1981. It re-opened in 1996 after an extensive renovation and was renamed for General John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate army officer who was killed by Yankees nearby.
One evening I dined at the adjacent Brumley’s Restaurant and Lounge, a fine dining experience with crisp white tablecloths and wood-paneled walls. The menu — which boasts the South’s cuisine with a creative flair — offers starters, steaks, seafood, sandwiches, salads, and oh-so-heavenly desserts. My choice was a filet in red wine demi and bourbon-glazed carrots, and I’d gladly go back for more.
The General Morgan Inn was full when we visited, so I didn’t have the opportunity to stay overnight there. Instead, I booked at the Hampton Inn Greeneville, which has contemporary-styled rooms and an extensive breakfast bar.
6. Andrew Johnson Historic Site
Born into poverty in 1808, Andrew Johnson moved to Greeneville as a young man to work as a tailor. He ultimately rose to office as the 17th president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Andrew Johnson Historic Site, maintained by the National Park Service, presents the story of his life through four separate sites open for touring. Joining at the visitor center and memorial building is a museum that houses Johnson’s actual log-constructed tailor shop — a building within a building — while artifacts and in-depth informative displays address his complicated presidency and impeachment. Did he deserve to be impeached? At the end of the tour, you can decide for yourself, and vote “Yes” or “No.”
Across the street from the visitor center and memorial building is Johnson’s early home, where he and wife Eliza lived from the 1830s until 1851. Then they moved to their final and larger Homestead a few blocks away on Main Street, where they lived before and after his presidency. Both homes are furnished with family heirlooms and memorabilia.
7. Andrew Johnson National Cemetery
The fourth site of Johnson’s life story is the family burial grounds, Andrew Johnson National Cemetery. Follow the winding road up to the highest point and you’ll reach a towering marble monument topped with a spread-wing eagle, and circled by an ornate cast-iron fence. It’s the burial site of the Andrew Johnson, who died in 1875, as well as his wife, five children, and members of their extended family. The land was originally owned by Johnson, who chose it for the distant mountain views and requested it for his final resting place. It is now maintained by the National Park Service. On the lower levels of the vast hillside are about 2,000 simple white headstones marking the graves of military veterans and their eligible spouses from the Civil War through the War in Afghanistan. The cemetery has been closed to new burials since 2019.
8. A Walk With The President Tour
Take a guided tour through Andrew Johnson’s hometown, and you’ll understand some of Greeneville’s complicated political history. Among the sites you’ll visit are the dark, dank Olde Greene County Gaol (jail, in modern-day vernacular) that was built in 1882 with materials previously forged by enslaved labor; a church that was cannonballed during the Civil War; and the Greene County Courthouse with monuments to both Confederate and Union soldiers.
The 90-minute A Walk With The President walking tour starts at the General Morgan Inn Monday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m. from April – October.
Pro Tip: Can’t make a tour? Download a brochure, complete with a map and illustrations, and guide yourself.
9. Greeneville Mural Trail
A baker’s dozen of eye-catching outdoor murals hand-painted on building exteriors by local artists pay tribute to Greeneville’s history and culture. You’ll find depictions of a uniformed Andrew Johnson appearing to look out a window; a movie poster for the Walt Disney movie, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier; the first train to arrive in Greeneville in 1858; and the tobacco and dairy industries.
The murals are clustered within a few blocks of downtown, so you’re in for a pleasant walk. Follow along on this map of the Greeneville Mural Trail.
Pro Tip: You might miss Mason House Art Gallery if you don’t know where to look. It’s a former alley that was enclosed and rebuilt as a grand display corridor for fine artists in the region. Exhibits change monthly. Enter through the General Morgan Inn lobby or the hotel’s side door on Depot Street.
For more unique Tennessee experiences, check out these stories: