Native daughter records Bledsoe County history

Native daughter records Bledsoe County history

February 20th, 2012 by Ben Benton in News

Bledsoe County historian Elizabeth Robnett looks through a file cabinet of family records in her library. She recently received the first-ever history award from the National Society United States Daughters of 1812.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

NINE MILE, Tenn. -- History lives and breathes here.

From the century-old Bledsoe County farmhouse where she was raised and still lives, Elizabeth Robnett nurtures the legacy bequeathed to her.

Sheets of yellow legal paper stick out of books and boxes everywhere, and collections of notes in Robnett's script are piled here and there. They list names, dates and locations, showing her study and some of her recent work toward a third county history book -- "This and That in Bledsoe County for 200 Years."

At 92, when she talks about history, you can see the gunfire flash in her eyes, hear the tread of marching boots in her voice and feel the love in her heart for her native Bledsoe.

"I wish there was some way to download her brain to a drive and store it," said Colleen Spears, a Bledsoe County native now living in Brentwood and a member of the Crockett's Forge Seat Chapter of the National Society United States Daughters of 1812.

Roots run deep here for Robnett, a one-time history teacher. Her family was among some of the first to settle in the region in the early 1800s after arriving on this continent's soil in Pennsylvania and Delaware around 1790. When the nation was divided by civil war, her kin took up arms -- some for the Union, some for the Confederacy -- and talk of Northern sympathies struck at the heart of her family.

"My great-grandfather was killed in his backyard," she said. His son was in the Union Army, and he had a reputation as a "Union sympathizer" who sought supplies for Union soldiers.

And Robnett -- "Miss" Robnett if you know what's good for you -- has made it her life's work to research and accurately document the county's history and its links back through time.

"She is history," Spears said. "She knows it. She taught it. She's done so much for Bledsoe County in the area of history and preserving the information that we have."

Almost any family with roots in the county can talk to Robnett and gather a stockpile of information from the Bledsoe County expert who can "whip out a file" that often documents generations of some of the region's earliest families. The families' paths through history pass through her home like time travelers in the documents, books, notes and family Bibles socked away in boxes and on shelves throughout the house.

Over the decades, Bledsoe County lost much of its historical record in a couple of courthouse fires, and some officials over the years lost or took home other documents, she said. Piecing together local history has been a jigsaw puzzle at times, she said.

"She's spent her whole life accumulating this information and what's been passed down from her family. She's irreplaceable," Spears said.

It was Spears who nominated Robnett for the first-ever history award issued to a Tennessean by the National Society United States Daughters of 1812. The organization's newly established award, awarded to Robnett about a month ago, marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

While walls in her upstairs research library show numerous awards and recognitions, Robnett said the award from the Daughters of 1812 group means a great deal to her because of the connections Bledsoe County and its families, including hers, have with the War of 1812.

Asked what it means to be the county's keeper of history, Robnett replied, "I'm about to smother in my junk upstairs."

Robnett lives in the 12-room farmhouse with her sister, Sue, on the family spread dubbed "Spring Hill Farm," where about 30 head of cattle roam the still-green winter pasture surrounding the house at the foot of Walden's Ridge. Though more than 100 years old, the home has modern furnishings and decor mixed in with startling bits of history.

The house was built by Frank Worthington in 1900, and Robnett's parents moved there in 1919 from their home in Pikeville, Tenn.

Wayne County, Tenn., native and local mail carrier James F. Robnett and schoolteacher Addie E. Swafford Robnett had six children, including the two Robnett sisters who live on the farm. Robnett's mother was the previous historian for the county and an important source of information who passed along what she had collected on paper and in her memory to her daughter.

Both Robnett's grandfathers fought in the Civil War as Union soldiers and had first cousins in the Confederate Army.

"They were all neighbors," she said. "They all came back to Bledsoe County and lived peacefully and as friends after the war."

That wasn't the case for many families split by the Civil War, she said. Bledsoe wasn't a hotbed of Civil War action, though there were killings over it, she said, including that of her own great-grandfather.

"Petitions," Robnett proclaims in her strong teacher's voice as she rifles through some papers. "That's where you'll find things."

Many of the men who settled the area used petitions to accomplish the most-needed community projects, she said. Petitions can be used by historians to help calculate how many people -- or adult men, at least -- were teaming up on a project or seeking land rights. A petition can give a general idea of what families were involved in local activities before the first "population schedule" listing names for Bledsoe was taken about 1830.

In those days, whites were "land hungry" and petitions garnered federal funding, attention and justification for land acquisition and community projects needed to settle the area, Robnett said. Governments wanted the land in the hands of people who would pay property taxes.

Military records such as pension applications by soldiers or their widows filed in Washington, D.C., also are good sources of information for family lineage and military service, she said, noting that military service creates a paper trail for researchers.

Bledsoe County Mayor Bobby Collier, a former schoolteacher himself, was one of Robnett's students in her American history class at Bledsoe County High School, where she taught for 30 of her 42 years in front of classes.

And she remains a resource for him to this day.

"As mayor, if there's a fact that I may need or I may wonder about on a building or an incident, I'll try to get hold of Miss Robnett and ask her about it," he said.

"A lot of times I'll get more information than I really need," he said, laughing. "She gives me all the background from every angle."

Robnett as a history teacher was focused on her students and always found a way to relate points of history to Bledsoe County, he said.

"You could ask about the Civil War, and then she'd tell you about something, maybe a specific battle or something, maybe in Tennessee, then the next thing you know she'd be talking about the Civil War in Bledsoe County," Collier said. "Then she'd be talking about something that happened down the road during the Civil War, and then she would bring it into that house right there, 'In 1863, the Union officers had a Christmas party ... '

"You can see the wheels start turning in her head, and she'll start thinking and she'll start breaking it down to make it so you can see 'Here's how it affects you,'" he said.

Robnett "loves her county, she loves its history, and she wants everybody to know it and love it, too," Collier said.

"If you have a question, be prepared to go on a long journey. It'll be an interesting journey, I can assure you of that."