By ZOÃ HAGGARD – [email protected]
Bell Buckle has been busy last week. With the annual Craft Fair, the Big Dog Backyard Ultra Race, and the 150th anniversary of the Webb School, visitors from all over the world have literally walked through the timeless porches of downtown and across the railroad tracks that once paved the way for prosperity. by Bell Buckle.
Beneath the new artistic charm of Bell Buckle lies a 150 year old town with a history of growth and decline.
Bell Buckle Mayor and Fire Chief Ronnie Lokey has been involved with the town since 1980. He will readily call himself a “Bell Buck-lian” since moving to the then half-mile town of Rutherford. that he was only three years old.
âIf you’ve been here long enough, the roots are here – you are sort of part of the city,â he said.
Lokey was once a teenage paper boy for the city. This is how he learned the ins and outs of the city and, more importantly, its people.
âWhen I was young, a lot of these stores were busy when I was running around when I was youngâ¦ a lot of mom-and-pop type situations, had two or three old grocery stores,â Mayor Lokey recalls. âI remember where Billy Phillip’s general store is, Mr. Padie ran that store – dry goods, work clothes, things like that – and he was really a fiery older man. He moved.
People are what kept Lokey coming back to Bell Buckle all the years. When Bell Buckle started, the town was mostly made up of young families, farmers and traders. Today, many residents of Bell Buckle are retirees, according to Lokey, as well as transplant recipients from Tennessee, California.
The Webb School, which was founded in 1886 by the Webb brothers, also brought many young people to the city. It has grown since then and helped make Bell Buckle what it is today: a haven for artisans.
âAbout 15 or 20 years ago, the face of Bell Buckle started to changeâ¦ then they experienced the renaissance of the arts and crafts community,â said Mayor Lokey.
Attracted by the slow, easy-going lifestyle, people come to escape the “mad rush,” Lokey said. And they want it to be that way. It may seem counterintuitive that a small town like Bell Buckle could somehow attract tens of thousands of visitors while still retaining a population of around 500 while keeping it ‘aged’, like Mayor Lokey described it. But, one way or another, they do.
Maybe it’s in their roots …
One of the most asked questions is how Bell Buckle got its name.
Well, like many time capsule cities, the story becomes a legend. But the story goes that the city’s first settlers stumbled upon a tree that had a bell and buckle attached or carved into that tree.
Where was that tree, Mayor Lokey was not sure. And whether it was a warning from the Indians, a mark of land surveyors, or a sign from God is still debated among the townspeople.
Yet what is known about Bell Buckle is that it was a thriving stagecoach route and ultimately a railway town that housed around 1,000 people at a time.
It is considered to be officially founded by AD Fugitt in the mid-19th century when the railroad came and migrated the town to its present location.
âThey say you can still see the ruts where the stagecoach ran. But I didn’t see them, âthe mayor said with a laugh. âThey had passenger service on the rail and they brought people in, and former mayor Gene Strobel’s house was a hotel then. And they would stay at the hotel, and they would sell their goods and get on the train and go to the next town.
The Great Depression changed the course of the city as many urban areas looked for work. But remnants of that pre-Depression era can be seen in downtown storefronts and even in a mysterious red brick spring house believed to be the oldest building in town, located behind the Hinkle Hill Bed and Breakfast.
A few fires and the US Post’s move from what is now the Bell Buckle CafÃ© to the other side of the tracks have all changed the face of one of Tennessee’s best little towns.
But one thing is certain: the people are what make the city.
âIt has changed over the past 20 years or so. And I knew everyone in town. I knew who lived in each house, âsaid Mayor Lokey.
While serving in the fire department, he said, âWhen we got a call I knew who it was, before I pulled out the fire truck. And it’s a downside to knowing who you’re going to see because sometimes it hurts.
A tear came to his eye when he remembered this, and anyone who knew him could see the compassion he had, and has, for the people of Bell Buckle.
Present and future
The small town, like many others, has plans to annex land to increase its size, an acre-sized property that will serve as a potential construction site.
And because of its size, Bell Buckle relies on grants for large projects. For example, the city just received a grant to develop the alley behind the main facade of the city center, to cross it and beautify it, so that the front and back of the stores are developed, the mayor said. Lokey.
The historical commission is also looking to investigate and catalog all of the town’s old houses for preservation, according to Mayor Lokey.
The new Jenny Hunt Park and the new Webb School Water Tower are other improvements that have been made. Water and sewage are also big items in the budget, Lokey said.
âJust things to keep the city clean, to make it attractive for people to get off the freeway and drive six to seven miles to see what Bell Buckle is,â he said.