newport tn

Newport: A City History Shaped by Transportation

Nestled on the north side of the Great Smoky Mountains is the quiet city of Newport Tennessee. Bordered by rivers, a train track, and divided by a state and federal highway, the city can be easily overlooked. But a glance into its past reveals a historic era from the late 1700’s forward worth exploring.

Cocke County Tennessee embodies a rich history of the pioneers who settled the area. The first town, Old New Port was formed in 1799 when John Gilliland, the first settler of Cocke County, donated fifty acres of land to build the town two years after Cocke County was established. New Port was thus named because it was a new port on the French Broad River. Fines Ferry, the former crossing for the French Broad River, no longer exists, and while much has changed, a few pieces of history still remain. But this history may be told differently depending on who you speak to in the present Newport.

The O’Dell house, the oldest structure still standing, is residential and has been declared an historic site. The building dates back to 1813 and was built by Abel Gilleland, son of John Gilleland, who settled in the area in 1783. The house is the primary physical reminder of the once bustling town of Old New Port. It is a significant architectural example of the type of residence built by men of prominence in early East Tennessee and is still occupied by descendants of the original owners. Few of this type of structure can still be found in this area.

Local resident, Edward Walker was born, raised, and still lives in Newport. As the history of the area goes, Walker is as much an historian as any. A former school teacher, now retired, Walker is a fount of information.

“The railroad arrived at the tiny village of Clifton in 1867,” said Walker. “This is when the controversy to move the county seat really revved up.”

Walker says you had the Cliftonites on one side and those living in New Port on the other. Whoever had the majority on the county legislative body would vote to move the county seat back and forth between the two. This happened at least three times. Finally, in 1884 the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the county seat could be on the Pigeon River in what was the village of Clifton. The name followed and what once was Clifton became New Port. If that isn’t confusing enough, Clifton was also once known as Gorman’s Depot. But in 1884 all three converged to become the county seat with the name of Newport. The original courthouse in Newport did not survive a fire so many of the original records and photographs are lost.

By August of 1869 the railroad had extended as far east as Wolf Creek. A stagecoach was required at this point if you wanted to go to Hot Springs or Asheville. There was no crossing by railroad until 1882. The earliest existing Newport on the Pigeon map only dates back to 1887.

A discerning eye, with help from a local historian, can spot a few original buildings. The railroad tracks still run through town but are now used for freight only. The original main building of Newport Grammar School is the oldest, continually used, elementary school building in the state of Tennessee.

Walker says the town hit a boom in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Capitalists once looked to come to small towns when starting an industry. “Everyone had big ideas and talked big but wanted to build their business on the backs of the locals. The businesses would succeed but often moved elsewhere after a time.”

Following the route of state road 25E, the East Tennessee Crossing Byway is an 83-mile national scenic byway that links Cumberland Gap and to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive follows the old river road pathway to Asheville and Hot Springs, and runs directly through the town of Newport.

The design plan and completion of Interstate 40 cut a path through Cocke County and Newport. As with most highway system builds, downtowns lost their sense of purpose and direction when industry, and then commerce fled to the areas along highways. Newport was no different.

But Walker says the town is making a comeback. “Downtown Newport looks better now than it has for some time,” said Walker. “We have new businesses coming to town.”

Following the lead of many larger cities, Newport is finding its way back to purpose with the renaissance of new businesses.  Newport makes for a great stopover for a cup of coffee, an ice cream treat, or a short walk around downtown to view the remaining historic buildings before trekking on to the Great Smoky Mountains.


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Newport Harvest Street Festival Oct. 7-8: Harvesting Memories

Bringing with it an atmosphere of nostalgia and a chance to create new memories, the Newport Harvest Street Festival has for 37 years served as a premier East Tennessee community celebration event

Heralding the onset of fall and launching the start of Cocke County’s annual season of weekend festivals, the Street Festival strikes a cheerful balance between old and new.

Many of the vendors and participants have been returning year after year, becoming an integral part of the festival’s identity. This continuity is essential for the festival’s charm, as it allows visitors to relive cherished memories. Whether it’s savoring a favorite treat from a familiar food stall or reconnecting with long-time friends, the Newport Street Festival has a unique ability to transport attendees back in time.

But what makes this festival truly exceptional is its capacity for  renewal, year after year. Alongside the familiar faces, there are new vendors, attractions, and activities waiting to be discovered. This delicate blend of tradition and innovation is what keeps the festival fresh and exciting. It’s a testament to the organizers’ commitment to providing a diverse and engaging experience for both long-time attendees and first-time visitors.

“We’ve got vendors that have been coming for as long as I know and  before, and then we’ve always got new ones,” said Lynn Ramsey, Cocke County Chamber of Commerce director and an organizer of the event since 2008. “We have everything from crafts and Christmas and fall decorations to children’s toys. Some people are selling different kinds of stones and herbs and handcrafted soaps and a lot of handmade arts and crafts. A lot of churches will come and give away information, and sometimes they give away free stuff like bottles of water to drink.”

Ramsey said this year’s festival will be expanding over its previous layout — something that hasn’t been done since she was attending the festival as a child.

“We are going to go out on Main Street out in front of Roscoe’s Treasures, opening that back up,” said Ramsey. “It used to be open years ago, so we are excited to be expanding it again.”

If the weather is beautiful and the sun graces the streets of downtown Newport with its warm glow, turnout can run as high as 6,000 people or more. Clear blue skies and crisp autumn air set the stage for a weekend filled with laughter, music, and delicious food.

Food trucks and tasty treat-serving tents line the streets and fill the air with the enticing aromas of all your favorite festival snacks and beverages, from fresh squeezed lemonade, corn dogs and spiral taters to funnel cakes and deep-fried desserts.

And of course, no Tennessee festival would be complete with music, and the Newport Street Festival always serves a wonderful variety guaranteed to get your body moving to the sweet beats and lively melodies. This year’s lineup includes: Stone Mountain Band, Southern Addiction Band, Mikki Norwood Band, as well as soothing harmonies by Classical Strings. Energetic dance numbers by talented local youth from Max Movement Dance and Fitness will also be showcased. On Sunday, start your morning off with a Sunday service by Bridgeport Freewill Baptist Church, everyone is invited to attend.

Make sure to see all the lovely ladies and babies that come to compete to be 2023’s Harvest Queen in their appropriate age division. Children up to 16 years of age will compete in pageants according to their age bracket. The ever-popular Miss Newport Harvest Festival, for females ages 16-21 years old, will be the last pageant of the day. All pageants will be on the Broadway side of the Courthouse lawn on Saturday at 10:30 am.

The Newport Harvest Street Festival is a testament to the enduring spirit of close-knit community and the power of Appalachia traditions. It’s a place where locals and visitors alike come to relive old memories and create new ones, where the past and present seamlessly merge in a celebration of life in Cocke County.

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Honoring Cocke County’s Century Farms Highlights TN Agricultural Heritage

As part of the festivities celebrating the Cocke County Fair‘s diamond jubilee this month, an appreciation event is scheduled Aug. 19 to honor local families whose farms have been in continued operation for many generations.

“Century Farms” are an essential part of the Tennessee Heritage Farms Program. Administered by the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, the program recognizes and works to conserve farms that have remained in the same family and in continuous agriculture production for 100 years or more.

About 2,100 such farms have been certified across the Volunteer State — a dozen of them in Cocke County:

  • Baxter Farm, 1875
  • Bible Farm, 1887
  • Dwight L. Bundy Farm, 1907
  • Heritage Farms, 1849
  • Jim and Alice Freeman Gulf Farm, 1910
  • Leibrock Farm, 1886
  • M.G. Roberts Poplar Tree Farm, 1859
  • Neas Farm, 1885
  • Oakleaf Farm, 1902
  • Ottinger Farm, 1894
  • Pitts Farm, 1897

River Dale Farm, established in 1794, is also a designated Pioneer Century Farm, meaning that its operation dates back to the founding of the State of Tennessee in 1796 or before.

“Despite drought, floods, the Civil War and the Great Depression, these families have remained tillers of the soil, persevering where others have failed,” wrote state historian Carroll Van West in his 1986 book, “Tennessee Agriculture: A Century Farms Perspective.”

The Tennessee Heritage Farms Program plays a crucial role in preserving rural culture and regional identity – especially in small, mostly-rural counties like Cocke. The program provides educational resources and extension outreach to farm families and the general public, raising awareness of the importance of keeping Tennessee’s agricultural heritage well tended.

The program helps encourage and promote a sense of community pride among the farm families, local historical societies, county extension offices, student groups, city and county governments, and other stakeholder individuals and organizations interested in conserving Tennessee’s countryside and maintaining authentic connections to our cultural roots.

The Heritage Farms Program also aims to promote economic development in rural areas by highlighting the importance of agriculture to the state’s overall economy. Historic farms often attract visitors and tourists who not only appreciate the beauty of the pastoral landscapes, but admire the character, persistence and resourcefulness of Tennesseans who make their livelihoods as producers of civilization’s sustenance.

Given the range of continuing challenges facing today’s farmers, words that Van West penned more than three and a half decades ago — in the midst of the 1980s American Farm Crisis — take on even greater import today: “In a time of agricultural crisis, the legacy of the Century Farmers is a potent reminder that farmers in the past have survived similar hard times to prosper in the future.”


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Cocke County’s Fair Means More than Mere Fun

Cocke County’s Feisty Summer Fair Marks 75 Years of Celebrating Local Culture, Building Community Bonds and Preserving Ties to Rural Life

County fairs are a beloved tradition of late summer, filled with nostalgia, excitement, and friendly competition. Fairs hold a special place in our hearts, with songs, books and movies dedicated to capturing their magic. As we stroll through the fairgrounds, memories of childhood come flooding back – the exhilarating rides of the midway, the tantalizing smells of fair food, and the vibrant displays of animals, canned goods, pies, and other products of country living vying for that esteemed blue ribbon or prize money or, perhaps most coveted, bragging rights.

The history of the modern fair dates back to 1811, when it was established as a platform for farmers to share their innovative farming techniques and foster a sense of community among farming families. It became a friendly battleground where farmers and their families competed for the title of “best of show,” presenting before the community their prized animals and delectable preserves.
Popular media celebrates fairs in small towns.  Consider the fictional town of Mayberry R.F.D when the fair took center stage in several episodes, celebrating everything from beauty pageants to Aunt Bee’s famous pickles. These depictions only served to reinforce the significance of fairs in both small and large communities.

In Cocke County, the first organized fair was held in 1948 at the fairground’s current location. Since then, these friendly community competitions have evolved beyond pickles, pageants, and poultry.  Come to enjoy Gospel Singing, Bluegrass music, tractor pulls, and the midway filled with rides and carnival foods.  The demolition derby and the firemen challenge add an extra dose of excitement to the fair. And this year, as the fair celebrates its 75th anniversary, there will be a celebration of the Century Farms of Cocke County.

County fairs are not just about the attractions and competitions; they are about coming together as a community, celebrating our agricultural heritage, and creating lasting memories. So mark your calendars for August 15-19, 2023 at the Cocke County Fair.

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The 3 Rivers of the Adventure Side of the Smokies

The three rivers of Cocke County are destinations for exciting recreational adventures on the Adventure Side of the Smokies.  The history of these rivers shaped the past and are now shaping the future of recreation in Cocke County.

The Pigeon River is synonymous with some of the best white water rafting in the southeast. The river extends 70 miles, beginning  in the mountains of North Carolina, flowing northwest into Tennessee.  The river is impounded at Walter’s Dam in Waterville.  It is the scheduled dam releases that create the exciting white water rafting between Waterville and the take-out in Hartford TN. The lower end of the Pigeon continues to the confluence of the French Broad in Newport, TN.

The 216 mile French Broad River also begins in North Carolina and serves as a drainage basin for the both the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests.  When the river enters Cocke County, it flows along the East Tennessee Crossing National Scenic Byway before entering the Holston River.  The river is known for spring time rafting and kayaking when the water is running high, and both fishermen who bank and float fish.  All thirty three (33 miles) of the river flowing in Cocke County were designated as a state scenic river.  Read more about the scenic portion of the river from local paddler and birder, Michael S, here.  ling

The Nolichucky River runs 115 miles from the highest mountains in eastern North Carolina and Tennessee until it reaches Cocke County creating the upper basin of Douglas Lake.  The river serves to create a county border with Hamblen County.   This area and the adjacent Rankin Bottom WMA is known for birdwatching, and when the lake begins to fill in the spring, locals know that the fishing is excellent.

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