GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL)- It’s hard to go through Greeneville and not notice the national history tied to Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States. That history can be explored at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, which is run by the National Park Service.
The site has four main components: the Johnson’s Early Home, the Homestead, the Visitors Center and the Memorial Site, all within downtown.
Some other sites are not part of the Historic Site but are relevant to Andrew Johnson, including a replica of Johnson’s birthplace, where he was born to humble beginnings in 1808 in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a statue of Johnson that overlooks the Visitor’s Center, Memorial Building and Early Home.
Fans of history can start by going to the Visitor’s Center on N. College Street where a film will preface the visit. Adjoining it is the Memorial Building, where the Presidential Museum and Johnson’s original tailor shop can be found.
“His mother, in an attempt to give him a trade in life, apprenticed him to a tailor, and Johnson stayed there for a while, but he ran away from his apprenticeship, traveled throughout the South, and went back to Raleigh for his mother and stepfather,” said Kendra Hinkle, the Museum Specialist for the site. “They came across the mountains and settled in Greeneville.”
The Memorial Building at the site was built around it in the 1920s to preserve it. Historians told News Channel 11 the shop was not only where the magic happened for clothes but also Johnson’s political career.
“Within this building, Andrew Johnson not only cut cloth and put together spectacular clothing, but he also honed his debating skills and his skills in learning about the things that were going on beyond Tennessee,” said Sean Gillette, the site’s Chief of Interpretation and Education. “He purchased this at public auction for $51 back in 1830. Had it moved to its current site on logs– it was quite the spectacle in town and even merited a little article in the local newspaper at the time.”
Hinkle said the shop became the town hangout, especially for then-Tusculum College students.
“They discovered he had a knack for debate and they encouraged him to join the debating society at Tusculum College,” Hinkle said. “He did, and next thing you know, he’s an alderman of the town. They held some of the meetings in the tailor shop and then the next step was mayor, and from there he went on to the state level politics which led to the national level which led to the presidency.”
Just a block away from the Visitor’s Center and Memorial Building is the Early Home, where Johnson and his wife Eliza lived from the 1830s until 1851.
The family then moved to what’s known as The Homestead on South Main Street. They lived there before and after his presidency.
Three generations of the Johnson family owned that home before placing it with the National Park Service; Johnson’s great-granddaughter even worked at the site until the 1970s.
“That allows connections for people that you just don’t have otherwise because when you have the artifacts, even though the person is gone, you can still make that direct connection to that person by having their belongings,” Hinkle said. “You can see what they liked, what their tastes were just by everything that’s here in the house.”
The Homestead is where visitors will find things like Johnson’s copy of “The American Speaker,” a book he called the “first piece of property he ever owned.” He acquired it when he was an apprenticed tailor in Raleigh, and people would read to the tailors while they worked.
“Johnson was so inspired by this book that he asked the man if he could have it, and the man told him he could if he would learn to read it,” Hinkle said. “During the war, the legend goes this book was stolen by soldiers, but they later had an attack of conscience and returned it to Johnson.”
The Homestead is also where visitors can see political gifts given to Johnson like a gaming table with more than 500 pieces of inlaid Irish wood, a candy box that was filled with 40 pounds of chocolate candy and sent to the White House and photographs of what are now national parks.
“There are Carleton Emmons Watkins photographs of Yosemite,” Hinkle said. “These photos were the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln to give that area to the state of California, which is a precursor of preservation for the National Park Service that we have today.”
National Park enthusiasts, history buffs and those intrigued by the complexity of his Presidency help bring about 100,000 people to the site each year.
“They draw people who are researching presidential historians,” Hinkle said. “They want to see all the presidential homes or graves, we get people who are Civil War buffs and people who are trying to see all the national parks. There’s a passport stamp that people can get in a book for every national park they go visit.”
Gillette said there are two primary questions most people are looking to answer when they visit the park: “Was he the worst president?” and “Why was he impeached?”
“We counter that with a question of our own: ‘How did a slave-owning, Southern Democrat become the vice president to an anti-slavery Republican President?'” said Gillette. “Those three questions form a trinity that embarks a visitor usually on every facet of this park.”
Gillette said he wants people to know that Johnson was just like them, having good points and bad points and that he took over the most powerful office at a tumultuous time in the nation’s history.
“The man was complicated, but so were the times,” he said. “The country was still at war with itself. At a time when the war ended, how do we have to put the nation together and also at a time when we have now freed over four million formerly enslaved people? What do we do with them in a tough period of our country that’s known as Reconstruction.”
Johnson came back to Greeneville and had unsuccessful runs for U.S. Senate and Congress. He was eventually elected as a U.S. Senator not long before he died in 1875.
He and his family are buried on the crest of Monument Hill at the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, which is about a mile away from the Homestead.
That also served as a burial ground for veterans until 2019.
You can visit the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. most days. Tickets are required to tour The Homestead, but they are free.