The community shares history of Jellico

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By Natasha Colbaugh

Ronnie Buck has been collecting historic memorabilia for over five years.


License plates and glass bottles line the shelves above the tools and materials he sells at Buck’s Hardware in Jellico. While Buck has always been a collector of local history, the entire community is now sharing in his passion by contributing to a downtown museum next to the hardware store.

For generations, locals have walked the main street in Jellico. Dining, attending the theater, purchasing groceries and even getting married in the shops opposite the Jellico Veteran’s Memorial Park. And now the memories of the old town setting, along with much more of the communities legacy can be viewed in the exact spot that was once well populated with their ancestors.

On Monday afternoon, Buck was busy with customers. He was quickly distracted from his duties as he walked through the large museum pointing out the prominent people and events that have held an important role in history.

Glass cases holding newspaper clippings, maps and photographs are all explained with descriptive notes. The formation of banks and businesses throughout Jellico’s history are all easily identified and carefully preserved.

But the museum is more than a place for history; it is a place to experience history. Coal mining, blacksmithing, schools, hospitals and even a grocery counter and a bedroom are perfectly displayed with furniture and stories. Even the kitchen has a few eggs frying in a skillet. The back wall in the lower level of the museum is skillfully designed with aged wood fencing from a nearby farm and decorated metal roofing. An imitation of a mine entrance has a rail cart filled with coal. Petrified wood and mine explosion tools are set up nearby and Coca Cola bottles and coolers from the old plant are displayed throughout.

Buck’s three brothers contributed to the immaculate design of the museum.

With the purchase of the shops next to the hardware store, repairs were necessary. As the Buck brothers were repairing walls and floors and rewiring the electricity, they discovered many of the items on display in the museum. Popcorn buckets and Dixie cups from the Gay Theater as well as an old cash register from the Creekmore and Sons Grocery are available for viewing.

Patrons of the hardware store will retrace their steps to where Creekmore, a justice of the peace, would marry them at the old grocery, according to Buck.

“Hundred’s of people were married in the Creekmore store,” said Buck in his excitement about the old town that was heavily traveled before Interstate 75 was constructed.

A wall of photos shows uniformed men crawling from the L and N Train that derailed 11 miles from Jellico in the Clear Fork River Gorge. The tragedy took 34 lives and many Jellico locals can recall their fathers volunteering to help the soldiers aboard.

More photos demonstrate the massive tragedy of a mine explosion in 1906. Entire buildings and houses lay in shambles following the explosion that was considered a national tragedy at the time.

At this wall of photographs, a local man looks intently at the worn faces in a picture and notices that one of the men is his grandfather. Seeing a picture of an ancestor for the first time makes the museum experience personal for many people. This kind of connection was clearly seen as that man studied all the details in the small frame hanging on the brick wall.

“Everybody knows somebody from Jellico,” said Buck with a proud smile.

A small birdcage stands out among the black antiques of mining memorabilia. Buck explained that before the electrical methane testers were used, the miners would take a canary into the mine with them. And when the canary fell over in the cage the miners knew it was time to get out, said Buck.

These kinds of stories with each section of the museum are what make it special. While modern museums have earphones and recorded messages, the Jellico museum has personal connection to each individual that attends. Some picture or some display will grab a person’s attention.

For Gail Garrett, museum curator, an old suitcase full of children’s boots still grabs her attention every time. The suitcase sits upstairs surrounded by old baby carriages. On a stoop under the window, it is easy to picture a young boy pulling on his boots in the early morning.

The museum officially opened about a year ago and continues to grow daily. Everything inside is on loan or donated from people in the community. Meaning the museum carries a little bit of everyone’s legacy.