For us, Franklin, Tennessee, was an easy reach. In even the worst traffic, it’s 3 hours from our home base and we gained an hour because of a time zone change. Accordingly, we had a leisurely morning, knowing that an early arrival would leave us frustrated with many sites yet to open.
For a variety of reasons, we chose July 4th, the day that we in the U.S. celebrate our Independence Day, to head out for Franklin. Before departing, we talked with the folks at VisitFranklin.com, which might just be the best tourist visitors’ center we’ve encountered. They were so helpful we made it a point to visit their physical location to thank them personally. Yes, they were open on July 4th, as were most of the town’s businesses.
Downtown Franklin is less than 3 miles from I-65 south of Nashville, Tenn., about 20 miles from Tennessee’s State Capitol building. We chose to avoid the heavily commercialized area around Cool Springs Galleria and chose to enter Franklin along Murfreesboro Road. That’s the exit where our hotel was, too. AirBnB would be the only choice for lodging closer to the historic district.
But before traveling downtown, we thought we’d check out something called “The Factory,” which we knew to be near to a taco place we wanted to try. Read about it at a previous post, “Finding Lunch Grub in Franklin, Tenn.”
The Factory is a unique retail, dining, arts, and performance complex. Here’s the history, from its website:
The Factory was built in 1929 and served as the home of Dortch Stove Works, Magic Chef, and later the Jamison Bedding Company. Recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, the campus was purchased and renovated by local developer Calvin Lehew in 1996, preserving many of The Factory’s original features and architectural details in a new mixed-use design.
Another change in ownership in 2012 led to a renewed vision and a mission-driven approach to revitalizing the property. The Factory at Franklin is on its way to becoming an interactive cultural destination for excellence in the performance and visual arts, dining, and retail experience.
We enjoyed a brief tour, though the artists’ galleries were mostly closed, or at least unmanned. We were mostly satisfied with our visit to Mojo’s Tacos – enough so that we’ll never pass by Franklin without at least considering the idea of grabbing a taco and a mojito. The day was off to a great start as we meandered to downtown.
What we didn’t know was that Franklin turns its downtown into a pedestrian paradise on July 4th, with the streets turned into a festival of crafts, food, games, and promotions (including politicians campaigning for Tennessee’s August primaries and general elections).
The municipal complex provided free garage parking, as did the nearby county government complex. Given the heat of the day, we felt ourselves fortunate to be able to park under cover.
Franklin’s town square appears to be one of the “Lancaster” plan, a marker of Scots-Irish migration in the U.S. Instead of single block housing the county courthouse, the Lancaster plan encompasses at least 4 city blocks that surround a centering intersection of primary roads. Accordingly, the county courthouse (and the city hall) are on adjacent blocks.
Thus, the town square is, in fact, a giant roundabout with 4 outlet streets. Occupying pride of place is a plinth topped with a 6′ 6″ marble statue representing a generic Confederate soldier. Erected in 1899 by the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, he faces 3rd Street to greet visitors arriving at the local rail station.
This might be a good time to address Franklin’s fame as the site of a significant battle of America’s Civil War (1861-1865), The Battle of Franklin may well be the last major battle of the war, but it remains little-known outside local environs. There were more casualties and fatalities in this +/- six-hour battle than in the entire first 24 hours of World War II’s D-Day invasion of Normandy.
We’ll offer up a separate post conveying our impressions of the Battle of Franklin elsewhere on the blog.
May I pay a compliment to Franklin and its acknowledgement of its place in history, however? My bride’s family were indubitably Union folk from Indiana. I, on the other hand, have an ancestry that includes a hero of the Confederate effort. James Keelan (my relatives today spell it Keeling) was known as “The Horatio of the South” for his single-handed defense of a strategic East Tennessee bridge and subsequently was awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor.
As we planned our visit, we speculated about what we might encounter in 2018 as we visited a Civil War battlefield site. Times change, of course, but we didn’t question whether we would encounter a glorification of the Southern cause, but when.
To our surprise, on our visit we found no semblance of glorification of the righteousness of secession. I had told my wife that she should punch me the first time we saw a display of the “Stars and Bars,” the Confederate battle flag. We saw none.
That’s not entirely correct, We saw none in Franklin, except as displayed in historic perspective through photographs. We saw not one Confederate flag during our visit to Tennessee. We did see some as we returned through Kentucky, but in Franklin, we saw nothing that would offend modern sensibilities.
Franklin’s downtown thrives. There is no other way to describe it. It would be the envy of any small city or town. We’re not big consumers, and other than a few postcards, we bought nothing. But Franklin’s downtown offers everything from high-end art to provincial souvenirs and there are no empty shops. We were startled to see an outlet for Anthropologie on Main Street.
The Franklin Theatre on Main Street was a wonder. It serves as a live music venue for artists and for touring musicals, but also offers a repertory-like array of second-run and vintage films. On the day we visited, it offered an animated children’s movie, an Avengers film, a 50s classic, and a contemporary drama.
In August, the theater is offering B.J. Thomas and Chubby Checker in live performance on consecutive weekends. In October, they feature the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Just south of downtown is the county historical museum.
We were struck by the commitment to preservation that was evident throughout the city. We drove around the residential areas and noted a distinct lack of vinyl siding on the houses. For us, that’s a clear sign that the city and its residents have a spirit of authenticity.
In outlying areas, of course, we saw plenty of signs of conformity and monoculture. A protestant mega-church occupied a major chunk of real estate. Traditional private schools like Battle Ground Academy were prominent. And in addition to “McMansions” in the more rural areas, we stumbled across a diversity of actual mansions occupying enormous horse farms and ridge tops.
But as a microcosm of American small-towns America, Franklin is hard to top.
Nearby to Franklin is the Natchez Trace Parkway, which we visited, too. Operated by the National Park Service, it is a limited-access parkway (roughtly 50 access points along its 444-mile length from Nashville to Natchez, Miss.) that, as closely as possible, recreates the major 19th-Century land route of the Mid-South.
Leiper’s Fork is the just a few mile south of the iconic bridge at Birdsong Hollow. It’s as rustic as you can imagine (our first gas stop had only a portable toilet – no fun when the temperatures are in excess of 100 degrees (F). The town has become a small artists’ colony revolving around the original Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant, which features live music and a traditional counter menu of “meat and three” country cooking. Separate owners operate a number of restaurants of the same name, including a seafood restaurant and a country cooking restaurant in Franklin proper. Do not miss a trip to Leiper’s Fork. It’s about 8 miles from downtown. We’d like to try the new 1892, a casual place off the main road. Its reviews are impressive. Next time.
Below, I offer a broader essay on Franklin and its growth. It’s worth reading, but has little to do with our 2-day visit.
The first time I visited the quaint middle Tennessee town of Franklin, it was just that – both quaint and just a town. In 1990, Franklin had a population of about 12,000. Today, the population is somewhere near 76,000, making it Tennessee’s 7th-largest city.
Yet, Franklin is contained and retains its rural character. Vast tranches of cash and industrial investment have made the city one of the richest in the state. Depending on your perspective, Franklin is between 10 and 30 minutes from Nashville, and many of the wealthiest people in the Volunteer State receive their mail in that zip code.
Like my current hometown, Franklin benefited from its late growth. Growth came late and thus there was no incentive in the go-go 60s and 70s to destroy the old and replace it with new. Yes, buildings remained vacant, but with no new demand, there was no incentive to destroy buildings erected in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Make no mistake. Franklin would never have grown without the dynamism of nearby Nashville. Music industry movers and shakers discovered the beauties of rural Franklin and secured their enclaves on the outskirts. The growth of the airport (BNA), and the ample transportation network of railroads and interstates made Franklin the next hot spot in a growing megalopolis.
Healthcare and health insurance companies are among the largest employers in the county, but the North American headquarters of Nissan is the most prominent. Thirty years ago, Franklin could only dream of being the home of such an international industrial powerhouse.
For all its current wealth, Franklin became a locus of retailing because its land was cheap but close to the Nashville area’s wealthiest suburbs. The West End of Nashville, including Brentwood and the neighborhood of Belle Meade were ripe pickings in 1991 when the Cool Springs Galleria opened. This massive retail complex is just a short jaunt from Nashville’s richest census tracts and continues to thrive in the face of national trends in retailing. If one were to eat at a different restaurant every evening, it would take more than a month to sample from all the restaurants in the Cool Springs area.
We avoid chains whenever possible, so we did not visit the Galleria are during our 2-day visit. Franklin proper, as defined by its downtown, offers more than enough choice for dining, especially for a short visit.
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I have no excuse for my delay in writing about delightful Franklin, Tennessee. Honestly, each element of our visit deserves its own blog post and that’s why I’ve been hesitant to write up a comprehensive narrative. In addition, I made no particular effort to document the city in photographs – partially because I was the driver and partially because this was a very personal vacation trip for us. Yes, I was scouting for future tours, but @VisitFranklin does such an amazing job in promoting the city and surrounding Williamson County, I had no incentive to delay my own pleasure just to take prize-winning photos. Visit them on Twitter.
Also, it’s important to note that the days we visited were among the hottest on record. Crashing at the hotel each afternoon saved us from utter exhaustion.