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Featured Article - September/October 2018

 “Tour Frozen Head State Park’s Historic Stonecipher-Kelly House on October 13"

  By Joe Nowotarski    

An exterior view of the Stonecipher-Kelly House, constructed in1814 and located in Morgan County. Photo by Charlie Samuels

In the middle of a picturesque, grassy field at the foot of the Upper Cumberland Mountains near Wartburg sits the oldest standing house in Morgan County. Constructed in 1814, the Stonecipher-Kelly House is an historical treasure hiding in plain sight.To the passerby, it may just resemble a dilapidated farmhouse, fallen to vacancy and disrepair, but with a little research you’ll find it’s a house that not only tells a story of the families who called it home, but a story of the greater history of the Cumberlands.

Though not fully open to the public, Frozen Head State Park offers tours of the house and surrounding property on a near-monthly basis as well as during the annual Stonecipher-Kelly Historic Homecoming Day set for October 13, 2018. This event allows the public to share stories and historic artifacts, tour the house and grounds. This day offers an opportunity for folks interested in the house and local history to come out, share, tour and learn.

The first homecoming was held in 2017 and featured tours of the house and property, living history demonstrations and sharing and archiving of historical artifacts. Visitors can see what restoration progress has taken
place and find out what restoration plans are upcoming. Those attending are asked to share their opinions on the renovation project and answer questions like, “What time period should the house depict?” Overall, the event offers a chance to visit with neighbors, share stories and reflect back on the lives of our ancestors.


The year is 1807. You are a young man living in the fledgling United States of America. You are apprenticing under a local furniture maker in a small town in the state of North Carolina. Life is good, simple, and full of promise.

One day your father approaches you with a plan. Your dad has always been full of passion. Since he came back from fighting in the War of American Independence against the British Crown, he has been ranting about new opportunities for the family.

Your father’s plan: to move the family west, into a new home, the brand new state of Tennessee. Into land that was only acquired from the Cherokee two years ago. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says in his native German accent, ‘It will be a difficult journey, yes, but think of the payoff! We will be the first settlers in the area. We will take our pick of the most fertile farmland, the prettiest of countryside, and who knows? We may even strike gold!’

You are worried. Yes, you’ve heard of the idea of manifest destiny, but you’ve also heard other stories; stories of Indian attacks on white settlers, stories of freezing winters, of settlers starving to death; stories of the real life of pioneers.

You are worried, but you agree with your father. Promise lies 300 miles west – in Tennessee.

This was what life was like for Ezra Stonecipher, the builder of the Stonecipher-Kelly House. Under the pressure of American expansion, Cherokees signed the Third Treaty of Tellico in 1805, relinquishing Tennessee’s Upper Cumberlands to the young United States of America. White settlers like the Stoneciphers began flocking to this newly available land, staking claims and cashing in on government land grants. Opportunistic and enterprising, Joseph Stonecipher, Ezra’s father and first generation German-American, claimed his reward for serving in the Revolutionary War: land grants in modern day Morgan County.

In 1807, Joseph packed his belongings and journeyed with his wife, Salome Ross, and family from their home in Wilkes County, North Carolina, 300 miles west, into the Tennessee wilderness. Once there, they began carving out a life in the rugged mountains.

Joseph’s son, Ezra, cleared land near the mouth of Beech Fork Holler, alongside Beech Fork Creek and here, in 1814, he constructed the house. As a gunsmith and furniture-maker, Ezra was one of many craftsmen in his family. The subtle beauty and durability of the house, not to mention that it has been standing for over 200 years, are a testament to his mastery of his skill. The house’s construction indicates that it was built in stages, starting as a one room cabin and eventually growing into the large saddle-bag style house that stands today.

Ezra owned the house for over 25 years, before it was sold to another pioneering Morgan County family, the Kellys. James Martin Kelly purchased the house from Ezra and proceeded to build a successful merchant operation. Geographically, the house sat on the historic Emory Road, a busy trading and migration route for American settlers. The road linked Upper Cumberland communities to the growing cities of Nashville and Knoxville. The remnants of Emory Road can still be seen in front of the house. Kelly founded a general store and Post Office adjacent to the house. Coupled with farming operations, this merchant venture made the residing Kellys not only wealthy, but also pillars of the local community. Passing dignitaries always made a point to pay a visit.

The house and surrounding lands thrived. Outbuildings were raised across the property, the house nearly tripled in size, and the Kelly family grew. As the country fell into Civil War, lines were drawn and allegiances tested. Morgan County, along with most of East Tennessee, was pro Union, and though the Kellys were one of the few slave-owning families in the county, they sided with popular sentiment. Daniel, James’ son, went on to serve in the Union Army as a member of the 1st Battery, Tennessee Light Artillery.

Guerrilla forces and bushwhackers took advantage of the chaos; thievery, murder and lawlessness became everyday occurrences. James, the merchant patriarch of the family, was murdered by a pair of bushwhackers on his way home from a business appointment. Other stories tell of a concealed room in the second story of the house, where the family hid valuables behind a faux-wall in an effort to thwart raiders from both sides of the conflict.

After the Civil War, peace - and slow development - resumed in Morgan County. Upon returning home from the Union Army, Daniel Kelly planted the Southern Magnolia tree that still shades the house. The house was passed down from Daniel and Mary to new generations of Kellys and even Stoneciphers, as Samuel Kelly married Julia Anne Stonecipher, the granddaughter of Ezra's brother, Daniel.

As the country continued its rapid development, the house enjoyed a life at a gentler speed. Generations of children and grandchildren grew up in the house, splashing in Kelly Creek or climbing the heights of Kelly Mountain, both adjacent to the house. Grandparents did what they do best, they told stories, some true and some legend. Fascinating tales travelled through the family and are still often told by the many Morgan County residents, who can trace lineage to the house.

The Kellys were mostly self-sufficient. Their farm produced many goods for the local market. They raised vegetables, sugar cane and tobacco. The farm raised hogs, cattle, and sheep, producing wool and flax for clothing. They sold much of the cloth in bulk, but also created wonderful clothing - including two dresses worn by the First Lady of Tennessee at the Governor’s Ball. During the last 70 years, milk, butter and eggs provided the main income of the Kellys still living in the house. Compared to the large plantations of West Tennessee, this operation was small, but in the context of the rugged Cumberland Mountains this was more than a fair-sized farm.

After three generations of Kellys, the house was occupied by four sisters and their brother. These Kelly sisters left the house doors open, encouraging children to come inside, to hear stories and grasp artifacts. Ultimately they planted the seed of local historical awareness and community stewardship, which persists to this day.

With the passing of Lilly Kelly, the last Kelly to live in the house, the house was sold at auction. Over the last 30 years, the house has become a victim of neglect. Foundations are all that remains of many of the outbuildings, including the general store and Post Office. Creeping vines and deteriorating foundations have taken their toll. Intrusive, though reversible, modern alterations are visible throughout the house as well. The house has spent years on the lists of threatened historical places including the “East Tennessee Endangered Eight” list presented annually by the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance of Knoxville and the Tennessee Preservation Trust’s “Ten in Tennessee Endangered Property List Program.”

The future is not as bleak for the house as the recent past was; today, the house is owned by the state of Tennessee and is part of Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area. With the help of the park service and support of local organizations, efforts are currently underway, not only to save the house from dilapidation, but to restore it in hopes of it one day becoming a living history site.

Read more on Frozen Head State Park’s website
Read more about endangered properties on the Knox Heritage website and the Tennessee Preservation Trust website

Joe Nowotarski is a park ranger at Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg.

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