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Volunteer spirit breathes new life into Granville

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As Ethel Sutton, Liz Bennett makes herself at home in the Sutton Homestead kitchen, which has been preserved to represent a mid-century American country kitchen.

GRANVILLE, TENN. – For nearly 40 years, Liz Bennett educated school children, preparing them for the future, but nowadays, the retiree spends her free hours taking folks back to life the way it used to be.

Bennett, who lives in Lascassas and was a teacher in Rutherford County schools for four decades, treks back to her roots in the rural Jackson County community of Granville several times a month where she transcends into the person of Ethel Sutton while giving guided tours of the Sutton Homestead.

It turns out the little girl from “across the river” who loved to listen to stories has turned into a storyteller.

“Growing up, my very favorite days were in the summer when it rained," she recalled. "It caused the farmers to have to come in from the fields. They all went to Granville and would be sitting on the porch in front of the stores telling tales. I would get a Popsicle and sit down in front of them and act like I wasn’t listening, but I listened to all their tales.”

The storyteller is also a writer, having penned the scripts for the tour as well as writing a book, “Say What? How To Talk Like You’re From Around Here.”

Bennett disguises herself as Ethel Sutton once more at the Granville Fall Celebration on Saturday, Oct. 6, as she presents “Everyday Living: Quilting and Canning” at the Sutton Homestead. At 2 p.m. she discusses “Say What” in the Dowell Storytelling Shed.

Bennett is one of many volunteers, including 25 Wilson Countians, who have roots or connections to this community of 300 nestled beside Cordell Hull Lake between Carthage and Cookeville.

Their labors and the restoration of several structures, notably the Sutton General Store, have resuscitated this peaceful village and made it a destination for urbanites seeking relief from the noise of the crowd. It also serves as a rest stop for cyclists and bikers, while the marina attracts boating enthusiasts and fishermen.

Granville is the kind of place where the citizens of Mayberry would come to get away from it all. However, native Bennett listened to the tales of when Granville was busy as a honeybee hive.

“I heard my dad and grandparents talk about when it was a riverboat town," she said. "It had about seven stores and a hotel, and the riverboats would come in and unload all their wares in the warehouse docks right down on the river. The people would come in wagons with mules and take goods to the surrounding communities. So Granville got the latest and the best because they had the river, which was like the interstate is now."

Bennett said was born in "across the river," noting when she was growing up, there was no Cordell Hull Lake.

"So, I was born across the river," said Bennett, who was burn a Hugg, a family who were tillers of the soil.

"After a brief ferry ride and about a 20-minute drive, we were at our grandparents' home. Now, because of the lake, it takes about an hour to get over, either going through Gainesboro or Carthage," explained Bennett, a graduate from Jackson County High School, who left home to earn an education degree at Middle Tennessee State University.

“We were a very close-knit community," she said. "Everybody knew everybody. They knew your parents and grandparents. Everybody was gonna be watching out for you.”

Bennett taught at Campus School from 1969 until 1986 and then became director of the Rutherford County Schools Teacher Center. In 1989, Bennett was named cordinator of Elementary Education in Rutherford County and launched the EvenStart and Family Resource centers. She also helped hundreds of teachers improve their skills through in-service programs in math, reading and science.

Bennett retired in 2000 and began volunteering in Granville about five years ago, centering her efforts on the Sutton Homestead.

“We have Sutton’s General Store and we had the museum. We kind of thought we were landlocked with no place to go,” she said. “When the home that Ben Sutton and his wife, Ethel, had lived in for years came on the market, almost a block of property, we knew that if we didn’t get that then maybe there would never be another opportunity. We raised about $187,000 in 30 days and purchased the house and property in June 2011.”

“Liz Bennett is an example of the dedicated people that make up our board and volunteer base," said Lebanon resident Randall Clemons, president of the Granville Museum board and a Granville native. "We have 135 volunteers who drive from as far away as Kentucky to volunteer each month.  

“Everything you see here is a result of the volunteers. Otherwise, this would just be a town on the lake without much development,” Clemons added.

In the past year, the Sutton house has been restored and restocked with furniture and other items taking on the appearance it would have had in the late-1940s.

The block of property also features a facsimile of a 1950 service station with a transportation museum, and a pioneer village includes an early-1800s log cabin, a smokehouse, chicken house, outhouse, gardens, blacksmith shop, grist mill, weave shop and agriculture museum.

“It’s been very gradual, but since 1999, there has been a lot accomplished. The restoration of Sutton’s Store was the catalyst that started the revival of Granville,” said Bennett, referring to the community’s main attraction.

The country store that dates to the late-1800s has been rejuvenated to a fastidious state and stocked with goods and candies from yesteryear, all due to the funding of Harold Sutton and his late wife, Beverly, who made their home in Mount Juliet.

“The lake was the reason people started coming back for fishing and boating, so people have vacation and second homes in Granville. This all happened about the same time Harold Sutton was remodeling the store. After he and Beverly gave the store to Granville, the store became the anchor to the community,” Bennett said.  

The results of that and other efforts by Granville residents and friends has been that the Heritage Day celebration in May drew about 9,000 people, while the fall celebration brings in about 3,000 visitors.

Not bad for a town of 300.

“With purchase and opening of the homestead, we have a lot of schools groups coming on field trips, and I coordinate those,” Bennett said. “We had 73 Jackson County High School juniors, who were studying American history, go through our Civil War exhibit yesterday.”

The Sutton house, built in 1880, maintains its original wooden floors and windows and is one of the oldest homes standing in Granville.

Ben and Ethel Sutton lived here from 1947 until Ben’s death in 1975. The house has a living room, dining room, two bedrooms, library/doctor’s office, sewing room, kitchen, back porch and cellar.   

“We don’t just take a tour of the house, we do storytelling,” said Bennett, who can gently ease into her role as Ethel Sutton. “What you see here is just the way we live every day."

And it’s that way the folks of Granville used to “live every day” that tempts visitors to step into the past, if only for a few hours at a time.

Tagged under  Education, Entertainment, Ethel Sutton, History, Jackson County, Liz Bennett, Rutherford County, Sutton Homestead, Tennessee, Wilson County

Members Opinions:
September 27, 2012 at 10:29am
Granville is a wonderful, historic, scenic little town on the banks of the Cumberland River. The townsfolk have done a wonderful job in maintaining its character and in telling its story. They are to be commended for their wonderful museum exhibits. It was my honor to tell Capt. William Sadler's story, a Jackson County Confederate soldier who died first day's fighting at Stones River, and am so pleased that this is on display in the museum.

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