During the mid-to-late 1980s David Rowland, now forestry technician at Cedars of Lebanon State Forest, worked as a firefighter and was one of the last lookouts to scan the skies for smoke from the Hurricane Fire Tower. Back then, he says, he could run the steps from the bottom of the tower to the top without stopping.
KEN BECK / The Wilson PostSpecial to The Wilson Post
Like Smokey Bear says, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” But back in the day before there were cell phones, 9-1-1 calls and economic aerial detection, the only thing keeping a small brush fire from turning into a raging inferno were the lookouts stationed at the top of fire towers and the firefighters on call below.
Across the 20th century Tennessee maintained about 250 fire lookout tower sites, but many, if not most, of those towers no longer rise skyward. Wilson County’s twin towers remain erect but are no longer utilized for spotting fires.
The Hurricane Tower in the Cedars of Lebanon State Forest was built in 1936 by the Works Project Administration (W.P.A.) and stands 108 feet tall at an elevation of 794 feet atop the W.T. Williams hill.
The Jennings Knob Fire Tower near Shop Springs was constructed in 1966 by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry and stands 80 feet tall at an elevation of 1,221 feet.
Shirley Lannom, 87, who worked from 1968 to 1990 as a firefighter and forest ranger at Cedars of Lebanon State Park, remains familiar with both towers and even remembers an earlier “all-natural” tower in the park.
“In the mid-1930s the first fire tower was built in an old oak tree near the old swimming pool to watch and to protect the forest if fire broke out,” Lannom recollected. “They built a ladder so they could get up there. It was a high place, and that was the way they spotted the smoke and fires in the beginning. My daddy helped them pick out the tree.
“Later in 1936 a steel tower, which was 108 feet tall, was built in the forest area on Hurricane Road. Also a log cabin was built near the foot of the tower for the lookout to live near to watch for fires. Another tower at a higher location was built in 1966. It was built on Jennings Knob in the Shop Springs community. It was 84 feet tall (higher than the Hurricane Tower since it was at a higher location). Today these fire towers are no longer needed as they use aerial detection is to watch and locate fires.”
One of the county’s last lookouts was David Rowland, 46, who today is the forestry technician at Cedars of Lebanon State Forest.
“I was a lookout for a little while, from about 1986 to 1988, myself and Thomas Bond. We were not on full-time basis like in the ’60s and ’70s,” Rowland said.
“I was probably one of the last ones. During fire season (mid-October to mid-May) we had about five firefighters. I was considered a firefighter, and I was low man on the totem pole.”
Being the low man meant he was the unlucky one sent most often to stand and spy into the woods from the top of the tower.
“I’d usually go up after lunch time, mostly from noon to three or four o’clock.”
What was it like perched high above the ground for three to four hours at a time?
“On those windy days as long as the tower was swaying you’re OK. If it ever stopped rocking … Just try to imagine yourself on an extremely high fire day and wind gusting at 25 miles per hour and yourself sitting 108 feet in the air on a steel beam inside a little hut with a tin roof and glass windows all around you,” Rowland said.
The forester described the lookout’s role as simply observation “sitting in the tower and looking for smokes.
“You sat up in (the) 108-foot tower with a big compass, an azimuth, and windows on all four sides and observe, and if you saw smoke coming up, you would get the coordinates on it and holler out the window to the guys below in the crew cabin. They had a map and they would grid it out with the coordinates we gave them.
“When you shot your coordinates, then the other man at the other tower (either the Tiger Hill Tower in Rutherford County or Sullivan’s Ridge Tower in Davidson County) would call on the radio and give you his, and you had a string you pulled across and wherever you ‘X’-ed out, you had the fire. Then you would send the guys to the fire and you could get them real close. If it got bad enough, we would come down from the lookout and go to the fire line also.
“Along about 1989 they started using aerial detection and we got away from the fire towers; and now we rely solely on 9-1-1 calls to respond to the fires,” Rowland said.
The steel lookout towers were erected on the highest elevation within the project area and had a 7-foot by 7-foot cab at the top where the lookout was stationed during fire season. A telephone in the cab allowed the lookout to connect with fire wardens or fire crews.
Many of the towers in the South and the Midwest were made by the Aeromoter Company in Chicago which shipped the unassembled towers by rail to the town nearest the site. A letter from Aeromotor to the state’s Division of Forestry in 1947 quoted a price of $1,365 for the following: “One 80-foot stairway tower, type LS-40, complete with anchor rods for concrete foundations and unglazed wooden sash, but without wooden stair treads, landing platforms or lumber for cab floor.” The approximate weight of such a tower was 10,400 pounds.
The Hurricane Tower and cabin were completed in October 1936, and civil engineer Ed Jelley was most likely the man in charge of construction. Jelley worked out of LaFollette, Tenn., for several years building fire towers across East Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky before he moved to Lebanon. His son, Larry Jelley of Franklin, N.C., only has one photograph of his father beside a tower and believes there is a good chance it was the Hurricane Tower.
"I looked at the tower for the first time just a couple months ago," Jelley said. "I was on my way to Memphis, and we had our family reunion at Cedars of Lebanon State Park three years ago but did not get to go look at the fire tower at that time. So my wife and I stopped and looked at the tower. It looks very similar. The base of it appears very similar to what the picture shows."
Les Snyder served as the first Hurricane Tower lookout, and he and his family lived in the cabin below. Originally the tower had 35 miles of phone line connected to fire stations across the area.
Lannom remembers the carpenters building the cabin beneath the tower and that after Snyder, Dick Huddleston, the park’s first ranger, and his family lived in the cabin. By the 1960s, the cabin was no longer a residence but where the seasonal firefighters cooled their heels while waiting for news of a fire.
“There were about four firefighters on the job,” Lannom said. “It didn’t pay much. They were also farmers and they’d get their crops in and have cows they could milk. If it rained they could get off.”
Eddie Testamand’s late father, Hollis Testamand, was one of those firefighters.
“My dad was there for about seven years between 1960 to 1967. In the summertime he would transfer over to the state park and in fire season he worked at the fire tower with the crew over there,” Testamand said. “Several of those guys worked there in winter and would transfer back to the park in the summer.
“The members of fire crew when my dad was there was Earl Jones, who was supervisor; Clyde Jernigan ran the fire plow; the lookout was Elmer Timbs; Buford Jones was a member of the crew; and ranger Dick Huddleston would go help when he was needed. Later on James Martin Edwards drove the fire plow, and Luke Bush came in and worked.”
Testamand recalls that the firefighters would play the card game Rook in the cabin while waiting to be called to action. There would be occasional tourists who would show up and want to make the trek to the top of the tower.
“As you went up the steps got smaller, but it was beautiful once you got up there,” he said. “I remember the call numbers for their two-way radio: KCX407.”
Testamand also recollects at age 10 accompanying his father and the crew when they were called to a forest fire late one evening near White House.
“I remember this man told us this was Stringbean’s (“Grand Ole Opry” banjo player and comedian) farm. They would get the plow off and make a big ditch for a fire break. They would use a wooden handle with a flap on it and work the outer edges and try to keep it from jumping across the ditch. They had back sprayers they wore on their backs and could spray water on the fire. I remember my dad’s salary was $110 a month.”
Lannom went to work in the fall of 1968, taking over for Luther Bush as crew leader of the Jennings Knob Fire Tower where he was a lookout and firefighter until 1974.
“The lookout used to go up there and pack a two-way radio. We went up the tower numerous times each day (during fire season), especially if it was real dry and windy. Our job was to look out for smoke and report to the nearest crew, and we’d go fight the fire,” Lannom said. “I was a firefighter 24 hours a day and got many a call late in the night.”
He figures he must have climbed up and down the steps to the top of Jennings Knob tower a minimum of 600 times. He remembers one day when a young Lebanon policeman froze with fright about halfway up the tower, so he had to go up and calmly ease him down.
Among Lannom’s mementoes is the Jennings Knob Fire Tower Fall 1968 visitor register. It is not exactly packed with names, but on Oct. 12, 1968, his wife and their two young children signed in and made their climb to the cab.
Lannom has recorded a bit of his job history. In his memory book he has written: “I went to work for Cedar Forest for the State Conservation Department and fire control in 1968. I was at the Jennings Knob Fire Tower as a lookout. From this high point I could keep a close watch for fires in the forest and surrounding areas. I was able to locate fires through the help of crossing out fires on the map with the fire tower in the (Cedars of Lebanon) forest. I helped fight fires in the forests all over Wilson County, Sumner County, Rutherford County and Williamson County. I was on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I was called out of bed many nights because I was needed to help fight fires. One of the worst fires we had was in November 1987 near Statesville, several days and nights. It was believed to have been set by arsonists and believed to have burned over 600 acres.”
They had about four lookouts during the fire season Lannom reports of his Jennings Knob stint. Among the other lookouts were Speedy Howell, Paul Edge and Eskell Elliott.
“Some of these fellows would come work a while and quit,” he said.
The late Frank Hankins, a farmer who lived just below the Jennings Knob Tower, was one of the short timers.
“I don’t think he worked over 30 minutes,” said his sister, Nell Hankins Hudspeth, 98. “They furnished him a Jeep and everything, but he found out they wanted him to work on Sundays and he quit. He said, ‘I won’t work on a Sunday.’ They gave him about an hour’s pay. They mailed him the check.”
Nell ventured to the top of the tower just one time. “I said, ‘No more.’ My head got to swimming. We also had a goat that used to climb the tower steps to the top.”
Watertown businessman John Jewell, also director of the Wilson County Emergency Management Agency (WEMA), bought the land and tower atop Jennings Knob in 1992 at auction from the state. He has put a security fence around the tower base and trespassing is not allowed.
Today the high point is used as a communications tower and serves as one of the key sites in the county for radio communications used by WEMA and Wilson County Schools. A new system is also being activated with communications involving Wilson, Sumner, Rutherford, Davidson, Cheatham and Williamson counties that will be a cornerstone of a Homeland Security interoperable system.
In past years, the tower also featured a lighted cross during the Christmas season, courtesy of John Jewell’s brother, Bill, that could be seen clearly from Highway 70 between Lebanon and Watertown, but burnt-out bulbs have dimmed its glow in recent years.
Jennings Knob is one heck of a climb on foot, but it is not the tallest hill in Wilson County. A few miles west of Watertown stands Mt. Defiance with its twin peaks at 1,326 feet and 1,327 feet tall, and across the valley a peak without a name takes the top position at 1,363 feet high.
While Wilson County’s pair of fire towers have stood their high ground for 73 and 43 years, the lookouts deserted their lonely, lofty perches permanently more than 20 years ago. Today only the wind whines past the zenith of these steely symbols that pay tribute to the firefighters of the forest.
Cedars of Lebanon State Park Ranger Buddy Ingram provided details and a photo for this story. Contact writer Ken Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org.