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TN Traveler: History museum in Franklin is cool place for summer visit

The Moore-Morris History and Culture Center building started as a jail. It was destined for demolition until saved for other uses. Tom Adkinson/Main Street Nashville

FRANKLIN – The Moore-Morris History and Culture Center of Williamson County doesn’t have a sexy, pull-you-in-off-the-street name, but it’s still a very cool place – and I’m not just referring to its very welcome air-conditioning on sweltering summer days. 

It’s cool because of its multi-century, multi-cultural array of stories, interactive displays, diverse artifacts and panoramic videos. You hear many of its stories from “living portraits” that are spookily realistic. These are wall-hung portraits that spring to life during a program in the introductory gallery show or when you stand in just the right place elsewhere in the three-level facility. 

It is easy to be transported back in time as you listen to a formerly enslaved man explain why he enlisted in the Union army, hear an unrepentant jailbird describe his illicit exploits or follow the story of a modern-day tourism pioneer who helped Franklin establish its status as a visitor destination.

The Moore-Morris History and Culture Center, which opened in February 2024, very appropriately occupies a building on the National Register of Historic Places. The red-brick structure originally was the town’s jail in 1905, but its roots go back another century. That’s because it sits on the site of White’s Tavern and Inn, a traveler’s waystation dating to 1803. Franklin itself was founded in 1799.

Your first stop inside the center is a representation of White’s Tavern. After you pull up a barstool or sit at a table, a staff member closes the tavern door, transforming the room into a time machine.

A flickering image of innkeeper Benjamin White appears behind the bar and begins talking about Williamson County’s deep roots. Among the patrons White and other innkeepers served were presidents Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, Congressman Felix Grundy and Thomas Hart Benton before he became a U.S. senator.

White yields the floor to other living portraits. Among them is a Cherokee elder who narrates the Cherokees’ story of creation. Another is Freedman Thomas, who explains how he was born with the name of Thomas Carothers in 1845, the property of a plantation owner named Carothers. When freedom came, he claimed the name of Freedman Thomas, enlisted in the Union army and fought in the Battle of Nashville.

After the tavern program, a door opens to galleries with more living portraits, sweeping videos that hint at how Middle Tennessee looked before Europeans arrived, interactive displays that show how Franklin developed and historic artifacts.

One corner is reserved for the story of Poynor chairs and their maker, Dick Poynor. Poynor was born enslaved in Virginia and was moved to Williamson County in 1816. He became a respected chairmaker and was emancipated before the Civil War. His chairs were treasured throughout the area and are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Tennessee State Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Dolly Parton sits in one on the cover of her “Little Sparrow” album.

The center’s second level concentrates on Franklin’s commercial and social past and includes a jail display with living portraits of three beyond-colorful inmates. You lift the receivers of old-timey telephones to listen to them tell their stories through jailhouse bars. 

On the next level, the “Dearest Pauline . . .” display tells a more modern story of human history. It features the World War II letters of Dr. Price Duff to his wife that chronicle his time in the army training to serve in Europe as the war ended and as post-war turmoil ensued. Duff’s descriptions of trying to help concentration camp survivors is heart-rending.

The Moore-Morris History and Culture Center is one of those places where you need to reflect on what you’ve seen. While you can’t get a refreshment at the White’s Tavern gallery, you can get a modern-day libation better than Benjamin White ever poured just around the corner at the Harpeth Hotel.

Enjoy Tom Adkinson’s Tennessee Traveler destination articles the second and fourth Friday every month. Adkinson, author of “100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die,” is a Marco Polo member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.

TRIP BASICS

The Moore-Morris History and Culture Center is at 108 Bridge Street in Franklin, 20 miles from downtown Nashville. Center information is at WilliamsonHistoryCenter.org, and Franklin visitor information is at VisitFranklin.com.

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