Cool small town — Jonesborough, Tennessee

  • Tom Dell
  • July 24, 2016
  • This week we head to the northeast corner of Tennessee and visit the cool small town of Jonesborough.

    Founded in 1779, this is Tennessee’s oldest town.  At that time, its location was still very much a frontier.  After all, Daniel Boone had opened up the area beyond the Appalachians for settlement just four years earlier.

    Age is one thing.  What makes Jonesborough cool is how its historic core has been restored and preserved.  The entire downtown has been named a National Historic District.  It’s extensive enough to offer lots to see but compact enough to be ideal for strolling.

    Most of the buildings on Jonesborough’s Main St. date from the early 1800s

    Jonesborough is part of an area that’s always been rural.  It’s a major tobacco-growing area these days. While it isn’t exactly remote, it’s a long drive from major metropolitan centers.  The nearest city is Johnson City (pop. 65,000), about a dozen miles away.  From a road trip perspective, it’s a good side trip for people traveling on Interstates, 26, 40 or 81, but it’s not a place you’d select as a major destination.  A half-day or overnight visit is ample to see what Jonesborough has to offer.

    State of Franklin

    Tennessee wasn’t one of the 13 original states when the United States was born, although the far northeast corner was claimed by neighboring North Carolina.  Jonesborough was a trading center for neighboring farms.  In 1784 an attempt was made to organize the State of Franklin, with Jonesborough as its capital.  The U.S. Congress never recognized Franklin, and it wasn’t until 1796 that Tennessee joined the union as its 16th state.  Jonesborough became the seat of Washington County, which it still is.

    Washington County Courthouse

    Northeast Tennessee has a distinct character that’s not typical of the state.  After all, Jonesborough is closer to Washington, D.C., than Memphis.  During the early 1800s, the region became a center of the abolitionist movement.  The locals were mainly small farmers who didn’t own slaves.

    Colorful characters abounded.  Native son Andrew Jackson practiced law here.  Davy Crockett was born and raised in Limestone, just down the road.

    About your visit

    Begin your Jonesborough sojourn at the town’s visitor center, located at 117 Boone St.  The main drag hereabouts is Jackson Blvd. (US 321).  Signs direct visitors onto Boone St., which leads into town.  At the visitor center, you’ll find a generous helping of Southern hospitality, along with a gift shop and information to help you enjoy your visit.  Be sure to pick up the free self-guiding walking tour guide, and ask about docent-led guided tours.  The visitor center is open 9-5 weekdays and 10-5 weekends.  The online source for all things Jonesborough is

    A horse-drawn carriage tour is a great way to visit Main St.

    Boone St. will lead you to Main St.  Turn right, and you’ll be in the heart of downtown Jonesborough.  Signs will direct you to parking, public restrooms and historic sites.  The stately brick courthouse, which dates from 1846, is the town’s centerpiece.  Just a block away is the Chester Inn, Jonesborough’s oldest building; it dates from 1797.  It’s now a museum offering tours of the building.  I was unable to find its hours on the internet, so check at the visitor center.  Next door is the International Storytelling Center.  The town’s biggest influx of visitors occurs every October, when this building hosts the National Storytelling Festival.

    The International Storytelling Center hosts Jonesborough’s biggest event; at left is the Chester Inn

    You can take a leisurely tour along Main St. in a horse-drawn carriage, but most people walk.  You’ll find lots of shops, including several selling antiques.

    To get to Jonesborough:

    • From I-81, take Exit 50 and follow SR 81 12 miles to down Jonesborough.
    • From I-26, take Exit 36 and go 14 miles on SR 81.
    • From I-40 eastbound in Tennessee, take I-81 to Exit 50.
    • From I-40 westbound (from Asheville, N.C., take I-26 over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Exit 37.

    Want to stay overnight?  You’ll find a few historic inns and B&Bs here.  You’ll also find a full range of accommodations and services in Johnson City.  For a town that attracts so many visitors, Jonesborough has a relatively unimpressive restaurant selection.  Johnson City is your best bet.

    Thanks for visiting Road Trips with Tom!

    Next week we’ll explore an old mining town in Nevada.

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