CHARLESTON, Tenn. - On Friday, the Hiwassee River Heritage Center - the product of the Charleston-Calhoun-Hiwassee Historical Society's two-year journey to create a site dedicated to preserving the region's history and culture - held its grand opening.
Inside the center, visitors packed in to review panels that interpret the impact of natural resources, the Cherokee Nation, the Civil War and industrialization on the area. Outside, nearly a hundred people gathered in the afternoon sun to celebrate the center's creation and future.
"This is a story of heroes, because it began with the Cherokees who were gathered here under the watchful eye of the federal government to force them to leave their homeland and go west," said Dr. Carroll Van West. He is executive director of Middle Tennessee State University's Center for Historic Preservation, which partnered with the historical society to launch the center.
The story of Fort Cass, which was in the Charleston area and was a headquarters for Cherokee removal operations in the late 1830s, is "one of the most nationally significant stories we have in Tennessee," West said.
The Hiwassee River Heritage Center is an educational tool for residents and visitors, said Melissa Woody, vice president of the convention and visitors bureau of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce. It will function as a welcome center and a gateway to other regional historic sites.
The need for an interpretive site covering Fort Cass and its role in the Trail of Tears was a driving force behind the formation of the Charleston-Calhoun-Hiwassee Historical Society five years ago, Woody said.
Two years ago, the society held a public meeting to gauge interest in having a heritage center. Six months later the society had raised $132,000 to buy a former bank office on Hiwassee Street and immediately began transformation work.
"When we received so much funding in such a short time, that's when we knew we were onto something," said Darlene Goins, the society's treasurer.
Joe Bryan, society president, said the heritage center's opening is only the first phase. Expansion plans are in the works so it can accommodate school tours. The grand vision calls for the center to be connected to the Hiwassee River by a greenway that takes visitors on a tour of the historical places and times of the city.
Woody said she also would like for the center to provide a way for visitors to record documents and photographs into a searchable database.
"We've got a wonderful story," said Faye Callaway, who served as president of the historical society for five years. "Come help us tell it."
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at email@example.com.