Tucked away in the rolling hills of Eastern Tennessee is a timeless piece of American history. And when I say tucked away, I mean, tucked away! The two lane leading into Greeneville, Tennessee curved around beautiful countryside fields before it led me into the small town that was home to our 17th President, Andrew Johnson. Pulling into the Visitors Center, I realized there wasn’t much to the town outside of the downtown area and the historic sites. Immediately, I was drawn in.
Having no idea where to start, my mom and I stopped in at the Visitors Center. There, a kind lady showed us a map of all the historic sites and offered to play us the National Parks 10 minute movie about the life of President Andrew Johnson in the backroom. Normally, I pass on the videos, but since I didn’t know a lot about Andrew Johnson, we decided to take the time to watch it.
If you stop in Greeneville to learn more about Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President who stepped into office after Lincoln’s assassination, there are several sites you can visit while you’re in town. I’ve made a list below, and after that, you can keep reading for details from my visit…
List of Historical Sites…
Andrew Johnson Home – downtown, within a walkable distance from the Visitors Center, is the home of Andrew Johnson.
Andrew Johnson Early Home – across the street from the Visitors Center, is the early home of the Johnson’s, before they moved into the main home downtown.
Andrew Johnson’s Tailor Shop – this was my favorite! Inside the Visitors Center, the National Park Service has the actual tailor shop Johnson owned before going into politics. The National Park Service transported the shop from downtown Greeneville to the Visitors Center, where it is now protected from the weather inside the Visitor’s Center.
Andrew Johnson National Cemetery – off of Main Street outside of town a little, you can visit the cemetery where the President and his family are buried. If you’re not into visiting cemeteries, I recommend you drive up just take in the view of the mountains from the top of the hill. It’s beautiful!
Andrew Johnson Home
From the Visitor’s Center, my mom and I walked downtown to the Andrew Johnson Home. As you descend the hill, a white fence stood with an open gate, welcoming us into the property. A sign was posted that informed us that tours begin on the porch. First off, I was drawn into the landscape around the house. The yard was beautiful, had a garden and a wide, grisled tree in the back that looked as if it had been there longer than the Johnson’s themselves. We sat on the wooden rocking chairs until the Ranger was finished with the tour before us. Since we were the only ones there for the next tour, I was pleased to have the tour guide all to ourselves!
The park ranger, Burke, led us into the home as he began telling us about the Johnsons and their home. What I found most fascinating, was unlike many tours of historic homes, everything in the Johnson house was original. What that means is, these weren’t just period pieces, these were the Johnson’s actual possessions! Just inside the door, the ranger shared that the Johnson’s were not pretentious people, and so their house was not pretentious. Look up and down the street outside and you’ll find other houses the same size and with similar furnishings. The Johnson’s didn’t believe that they were above anyone, even after they returned from the White House.
Andrew Johnson’s Room
The first room we looked in was President Johnson’s room. It was custom in that time for husband and wife to have a separate room, but in this couples case, Eliza’s illness was the driving factor for separate rooms. However, it was odd for his room to be on the first floor, but it was convenient.
Across the hall from Johnson’s room was the drawing room. I admired the piano against the wall and learned that it was for Andrew and Eliza’s oldest daughter, Martha. Johnson purchased the piano, a Steinway, from Louisville, Kentucky in what the ranger called “true Johnson style.” He said that Johnson was a bit of a penny pincher, which meant he probably got a discount on the piano from the seller. Maybe it was last year’s model or had a scratch on the leg that made it undesirable to other buyers. Speaking of Martha, as the oldest daughter, she would act as hostess in the White House in place of her mother, because of her mother’s illness. Eliza, Johnson’s wife, would suffer from Consumption for over twenty years. Because of his wife’s illness, President Johnson leaned heavily on Martha. Their next child, Charles, did not follow his father into politics. Instead, he went into medicine and serviced in the war as a field doctor. He would die young from being thrown from a horse before he could marry and produce an heir.
Eliza Johnson’s Room
Upstairs, we stepped into Eliza’s room. Because of her illness, she would have spent 90% of her time in this room. The chair, which to modern eyes resembled a lazy-boy, was known in that time as an invalids chair. Only families with sick family members would have a chair like this. It could adjust and lean back just like any of our modern recliners. On the table sat a decorative box which was a gift for the First Lady from France. Back then, it was a big deal to have wax fruit and silk flowers in the house as decorations.
Daughter Mary’s Room
Across the hall was Mary, their third child’s, room. She was widowed from the war with three children and when she returned from Washington to ready the house for the family to come home, she picked this room for herself. Connected to this room was another smaller one where her children would have stayed. Once again, our guide reminded us that everything original in the room belonged to the family, down to the horsehair in the mattress!
We visited several more rooms in the house and learned how the house was renovated to meet the Johnson’s needs when they returned from Washington D.C. For example, the kitchen turned into the dining room, which is evidenced by the storage cabinets in the corners. The slave quarters underneath the first floor, was turned into the kitchen. While we’re on the topic, Johnson freed their slaves and offered to pay them for their work; and they all stayed.
Andrew Johnson Homestead
On our walk back to the Visitor’s Center, we stepped inside the homestead, which was the Johnson’s home in the 1930’s. Inside, there are several plaques filled with information about their life, family photos and political memorabilia. The home had three rooms and was a humble dwelling.
The Tailor Shop
Inside the Visitor’s Center, the National Park Service took Johnson’s tailor shop (yes, as in the whole building!) and moved it inside the Visitor’s Center to preserve it. This was one of my favorite things to see! Though the shop is roped off so you can’t go inside, you can look through the windows and see the space. Also, there are several tools on display, which Johnson would have used. There’s even a display with a jacket that he made, which was very cool. This part of the Visitor’s Center was so neat, I’ve never seen anything like it!
I admit, cemeteries can be kind of creepy, but, if you visit all the other historic sites, I encourage you to take a drive up to the cemetery. If nothing else, the view of the mountains is amazing up there! On the other hand, the cemetery is a solemn place and not only is where the Johnson’s are buried, but many other soldiers as well.
Conclusion: When I was looking for a historic place to visit during my stay in Bristol, Tennessee, I didn’t know much about President Andrew Johnson. All I knew was what the advertisement at the place I was staying told me. But, when I left Greeneville after touring his home, I was so glad I went. It’s tucked away in, pretty much, the middle of nowhere. But wow, the history there is so rich! In one short day, I fell in love with this family that served our country in a time of crises. I could share much more about them in this review, but it’s already getting quite lengthy. So, I’ll say this and close – put the Andrew Johnson Historic Site on your list of places to see! It’s a beautiful area with a lot of great information!
Greeneville is a very small town. Eat before you go, ‘cause I’m telling you, there’s not even a McDonald’s there!
There are public restrooms at the Visitor’s Center.
If you’re going to walk and be away from your vehicle for a few hours, park in the Visitor’s Center parking lot.