J.T. Watts' country store springs to life 4 days a year
The Nameless store is not without a name.
Across seven decades, folks around these parts of Jackson County have known it as J.T. Watts General Merchandise.
The store closed in 1978, but since 2005 the front door swings open four days a year, and neighbors as well as strangers are welcomed inside for a poor country boy's feast of Moon Pies, baloney and cheese on crackers and Coca-Cola in six-ounce glass bottles.
Welcome to Tennessee's gently hopped-up version of Brigadoon, that mythical village in the Scottish Highlands that remains unchanged and invisible to outsiders but for one enchanted day every 100 years.
Davis Watts proves to be the genial wizard behind the magical four days a year in Nameless, a village that rests on a ridge along Highway 290. His late parents, Virginia, aka Miss Jennie, and J.T. (Thurman) Watts owned and operated the store from 1953 until 1978. It sat dormant for the next 26 years.
"I restored it back in 2004 and have been having these reunions since about 2005," said Davis, senior vice president of First Tennessee Bank in Cookeville. "The store was the center of the community. I did it to honor my mother and dad and my late sister, Hilda.
"She always regretted that we sold some of the memorabilia when they closed it in '78. Then we retrieved it and bought it all back. One thing she regretted was that she sold a Lance rack with six Lance jars. They sold for $65 in '78, and it took about $500 to get them back."
Davis nurtures the store as a museum. He gives away the baloney and cheese, going through about 30 pounds of each, along with scores of Cokes and Moon Pies. He asks that guests consider dropping a few bucks into a barrel inside the store. The donations will go to the Nameless Volunteer Fire Department and community center.
The event, which he dubs Heritage Day, will roll around next on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. It is held in conjunction with the Nameless School reunion that takes place in the community center across the road.
The three Saturdays Watts' store is open coincide with the Memorial Day Saturday festival in nearby Granville and with the major Granville celebrations held in October and December.
Naturally, the big question first-time visitors ask upon arrival is how did the place get its name?
"Nameless got its name from when the community was in disagreement in what to name it. So when they filled out the application and sent it to Washington without a name, then Washington stamped it Nameless and sent it back," said Davis, offering his version of the story.
The tiny community, which once claimed a population of 250, had a post office from 1866 to 1909. The one-teacher, two-classroom school that Davis attended through eighth grade closed in 1965.
"There was a big room and a little room. We stayed in the big room in the summer because it had no windows and in the little room in winter time. Twenty-one students was the most I went to school with," recalled Davis, who graduated from high school in Gainesboro before going to Tennessee Tech.
The two words most often heard spilling from the lips of Nameless natives this Heritage Day are "I remember."
"I was born here in a log cabin in a holler of a place called Jackie Branch," said Ben Brown, 85.
"Quick as I turned 18, I went to Detroit. I left on my 18th birthday 'cause I knew I could get a job. I just came back six months ago. I wanted to come back home."
Sitting on a bench on the porch of the country store, he points across the road and reminisces, saying, "The school used to be over there. I played basketball there in '47. We won the county tournament."
Brown now lives half a mile and away from the store of his boyhood. He recollected, "You could come over here and get a Moon Pie and a Coke for 10 cents. Course you had to have 10 cents."
Nameless native Sue McNabb Vanatta, who has spent most of the rest of her life in Lebanon, reminisced, "I spent so much time in this store. This is where we did our grocery shopping. My daughters' fondest memories of their grandfather is getting in back of his little pickup and driving here and getting little Cokes and a box of ice cream that you'd eat with a wooden spoon.
"I told Davis [Watts] that Larry Singleton at Cracker Barrel would have a fit to see what's in here," she said, referring to the fellow in charge of procuring the antiques seen in Cracker Barrel restaurants across the nation.
Indeed, a walk into J.T. Watts General Merchandise is like taking a step back into the 1950s. With its original wood floor intact, the structure boasts a pot-bellied stove, rocking chairs and a checkerboard begging for action. The shelves brim with such canned food items as pork and beans and Vienna Sausage. Crock jugs, clocks, thermometers and colorful advertising signs catch the eye with every glance.
"My mother and dad sold everything: All type of hardware, seed, fertilizer. Sold it all," said Davis.
"There was a grease rack on the side. My granddaddy had a blacksmith shop there, and Daddy run the gristmill every other Saturday, and the other Saturday he would change oil for folks."
When he was a boy, the groceries were delivered on Thursdays and Fridays. On those days, Davis and his sister restocked the shelves.
He described the store's atmosphere, saying, "All the men came there in the wintertime when snow was on ground or when people couldn't farm. It was a gathering place where people would come ever morning at 8 or 9 and leave in the evening at 4 or 5 to do feeding. My dad would never let 'em play no kind of cards. They'd play checkers and that was it."
Kathy Burgess Burroughs, who lives a mile and a half up the road, remembers it exactly that way.
"Mr. Watts wouldn't let them play Rook, just checkers," she said. "When I was a girl we used to come down and get a drink for a nickel and candy bar for a nickel. Mr. Watts, he and his wife were great, great people. They took care of kids from the school. If kids didn't have money to get a drink, they made sure they'd get one.
"I was born and raised here. I got married and stayed in Cookeville about a year. I was so homesick. We came back and bought a lot and built a house, and this is where I'm gonna die. This is a great place. This is home. I love it. I wouldn't live no place else."
Among younger visitors to Nameless this day was John Little of Knoxville, who came with his brother, Matthew, and cousins, Anna Johnson and Leah Johnson, of Cookeville. The four are the grandchildren of Sarah Stout Johnson, who grew up here.
Little said they came often to Heritage Day and enjoyed that it was "beautiful to drive through" and "a reminder of your roots and where you came from."
Other guests Saturday included Dr. Mark Green of Clarksville, a member of the Tennessee Senate and author of "A Night With Saddam," who said he was testing the waters to see if he might run for governor, and Cookeville Mayor Ricky Shelton, with his wife and daughters.
Shelton said, "We passed through here many times, but this is our first time to come to this day. This is a wonderful. It's a chance to look back in time and see the history of the area."
While Davis has assembled an amazing collection of nostalgic items, along with the store's original furnishings, one item is amiss -- Miss Jennie's death book.
"I do not display that. Maybe I should," said Davis. "Three times a day my mother listened to radio station WHUB here in Cookeville and wrote down the obituaries at 7, 12 and 3 o'clock in a three-ring notebook. I have at least 15 or 20 of them where she wrote down the names of those who died, which funeral home and when the funeral was."
Davis's father died in 1988 and his mother in 1993. They were laid to rest in Cookeville.
There is not a Nameless Cemetery, but there are five cemeteries in Nameless: Curry's Chapel Cemetery, Brown Family Cemetery, Sam Flatt Cemetery, Union Hill Flatt Cemetery and Vinson Cemetery.
Davis said he held the Heritage Day as "a time to reflect back on the past and as a tribute to my parents and my late sister."
The front door to J.T. Watts General Merchandise stays locked 361 days of the year in this spot on the side of the road, but this is more than a place named Nameless. It's a place a lucky few call home.
ON THE ROAD TO NAMELESS
Author William Least Heat-Moon wrote about J.T. Watts' country store in Nameless in his bestselling 1982 travel memoir, "Blue Highways: A Journey Into America."
During his journey in 1978, the writer covered 13,000 miles in three months and along the way stopped by Nameless to visit with J.T. (Thurman), his wife Virginia (Miss Jennie), her sister Marilyn and their daughter Hilda. Before Heat-Moon left they fed him a supper of sausage, apples, turnip greens, coleslaw, potatoes, stuffing and cornbread. Below is what he wrote about his trip to the rural community in Jackson County, Tenn., after he knocked on the door of the store.
The door opened partway. A tall, thin man said, "Closed up. For good," and started to shut the door.
"Don't want to buy anything. Just a question for Mr. Thurmond Watts."
The man peered through the slight opening. He looked me over. "What question would that be?"
"If this is Nameless, Tennessee, could he tell me how it got that name?"
The man turned back into the store and called out, "Miss Ginny! Somebody here wants to know how Nameless come to be Nameless."
Miss Ginny edged to the door and looked me and my truck over. Clearly, she didn't approve. She said, "You know as well as I do, Thurmond. Don't keep him on the stoop in the damp to tell him." Miss Ginny, I found out, was Mrs. Virginia Watts, Thurmond's wife.
I stepped in and they both began telling the story, adding a detail here, the other correcting a fact there, both smiling at the foolishness of it all. It seems the hilltop settlement went for years without a name. Then one day the Post Office Department told the people if they wanted mail up on the mountain they would have to give the place a name you could properly address a letter to. The community met; there were only a handful, but they commenced debating. Some wanted patriotic names, some names from nature, one man recommended in all seriousness his own name. They couldn't agree, and they ran out of names to argue about. Finally, a fellow tired of the talk; he didn't like the mail he received anyway. "Forget the durn Post Office," he said. "This here's a nameless place if I ever seen one, so leave it be." And that's just what they did.
Watts pointed out the window. "We used to have signs on the road, but the Halloween boys keep tearin' them down."
"You think Nameless is a funny name," Miss Ginny said. "I see it plain in your eyes. Well, you take yourself up north a piece to Difficult or Defeated or Shake Rag. Now them are silly names."
The old store, lighted only by three fifty-watt bulbs, smelled of coal oil and baking bread. In the middle of the rectangular room, where the oak floor sagged a little, stood an iron stove. To the right was a wooden table with an unfinished game of checkers and a stool made from an apple-tree stump. On shelves around the walls sat earthen jugs with corncob stoppers, a few canned goods, and some of the two thousand old clocks and clockworks Thurmond Watts owned. Only one was ticking; the others he just looked at. I asked how long he'd been in the store.
"Thirty-five years, but we closed the first day of the year. We're hopin' to sell it to a churchly couple. Upright people. No athians."
"Did you build this store?"
"I built this one, but it's the third general store on the ground. I fear it'll be the last. I take no pleasure in that. Once you could come in here for a gallon of paint, a pickle, a pair of shoes, and a can of corn."
"Or horehound candy," Miss Ginny said. "Or corsets and salves. We had cough syrups and all that for the body. In season, we'd buy and sell blackberries and walnuts and chestnuts, before the blight got them. And outside, Thurmond milled corn and sharpened plows. Even shoed a horse sometimes."