Out here in the heavily wooded, rolling hills a little more than an hour east of Nashville, you can’t swing a sack of powdered sugar without hitting a homemade cinnamon roll. Whiskey comes in peanut butter flavor, and tourism revolves around beer, the arts, a passel of state parks and even CrossFit.
Oh, and it has its own university (Tennessee Tech), orchestra and PBS station, so don’t start thinking it’s too backwoodsy, even though it’s highly woodsy.
The friendliness factor and outdoor attractions alone are enough to lure a body out of Nashville. This green, waterfall-strewn part of Tennessee known as Upper Cumberland includes more than a dozen of Tennessee’s 56 state parks.
You’ll run into history in the parks, too. I was riveted by the story at Alvin C. York State Historic Park in Pall Mall, about an hour east of Cookeville, where I toured the home of one of the most decorated soldiers in World War I, Alvin C. York. If you’ve seen the 1941 Gary Cooper film “Sergeant York,” this is the guy. Drafted with only a third-grade education (he was a conscientious objector, but went away), he led 16 men to capture a German gun position, killing 25 and capturing 132. His 50 medals included the Congressional Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre. This home was built by veterans groups for him and his family after the war, when he came home to farm and run a general store and grist mill.
The area’s rich in train history. The Tennessee Central Railroad drove the early commerce of the collection of small towns in this neck of the Tennessee woods, providing passenger service to the area from 1909 until 1955, so there are depot museums in both Cookeville and Monterey featuring both railroad history and old train cars.
I was surprised at the depth and variety of the arts community. Wood sculptor Brad Sells, whose work created from trees is represented in museums across the country, was working on a massive table when I visited his gallery. A Tennessee Tech grad, he’s a proud local.
At the edge of nearby Monterey, in a Mennonite enclave known as Muddy Pond, Regina Bauman was pleased to show off the leather handbags she makes with her sister. Her business, known as Urban Southern, is getting national attention. In Smithville, Appalachian Center for Craft, the branch of Tennessee Tech that offers a bachelor of fine arts in crafts such as weaving, woodwork and blacksmithing, is worth a visit. Students’ work is not only displayed but available for purchase, if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind gift.
Food is not the star attraction of Upper Cumberland’s show, but you can surely fill up on homemade cinnamon rolls. Virtually everyone bakes them. I feasted on a wonderfully sticky one at Cookeville’s Broast, where the house brew is strong and extremely hot. A rich, eggy cinnamon roll made by one of the docents greeted me at the Depot Museum in nearby Monterey, and it proved a delicious accompaniment to local artifacts. And at the Country Porch, a bakery and general store amid the cornfields in Muddy Pond, the house-made rolls are also a big draw.
If you get tired of cinnamon rolls, know that Ralph’s Donut Shop in Cookeville turns out sweet, fluffy glazed doughnuts that start the day beautifully.
In fact, I’m going to go ahead and pronounce breakfast the best meal of the day in these parts. Beyond the sweet stuff, Poet’s Coffee in Cookeville made something called a Magic Cheese, a press-grilled bagel filled with herbed cream cheese, provolone and spicy mustard, that really started the day off right.
Aside from breakfast, one of my favorite menu items was something called Bacon Cheese Grit Puppies at Seven Senses in Cookeville. Fried but not greasy, the cheesy spheres segued nicely into a plate of fried catfish sliders. At the aforementioned Country Porch, I enjoyed a perfect cheddar-packed grilled cheese. In Carthage, Ebel’s Tavern offered up bubbly chargrilled oysters and a deftly cooked tuna steak. Beer cheese soup was warm and welcome on a rainy night at Father Tom’s Pub.
In Crossville, the Pour House menu confounded me, offering everything from burgers to sushi, the latter of which I wound up ordering because I really needed a light dinner at this point. It was fresh and tasty.
Beer. This area’s good with locally brewed beer. I didn’t visit any breweries, but I very much enjoyed a dark draft from Calfkiller Brewing and Red Silo’s Home Run Red. I also tasted one of local Tennessee Legend Distillery’s many flavored whiskeys. Peanut butter cup whiskey sounds awful, but a short, neat pour serves as a pleasant sipping dessert.
The local wines weren’t much to my taste, but, really, they’re serving the local taste, which runs to sweet wines. The grapes known to produce fine dry wines don’t grow well here. Basic Concord table grapes and Traminette do. But I found a credible mellow merlot made with California grapes at DelMonaco Winery, and I’ll also note that if I wanted something sweet to pour over ice cream, I’d be happy with that winery’s Jammin’ Blackberry Port-style.
I also enjoyed Cotton Britches Chardonnay at Cellar 53 in Brush Creek. Made with California grapes, it’s crisp with citrus notes, far from a heavy, oaky chard. A nice porch wine.
Where to stay in Upper Cumberland? Alas, there’s no old, refurbished hotel, but the area near Interstate 40 in Cookeville is full of good chain hotels. I parked at the Country Inn and Suites, which was quiet and comfy.
One last thing: I did say CrossFit is a tourist attraction, and it’s time to explain. I’m told by locals that hundreds of hotel rooms are reserved each month by people visiting specifically to go to CrossFit Mayhem, because it’s owned by Rich Froning, a local who four times won CrossFit’s Fittest Man on Earth competition. The man is fit. And in Cinnamon Roll Central, that’s nothing short of inspiring.
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