With all my posts about Frozen Head, I’ve avoided posting about some of the more grim stuff nearby. The area has held two prisons, one current and on my route, the other abandoned and a little off it. It’s the old one that’s been on my mind.
This year marks the assassination of a man hated in his own lifetime but beloved now. He deserves the love he has now and more. I am speaking about Martin Luther King Jr., a man who left his mark on our nation’s history and, for that matter, it’s landscape.
That’s not just to mention the signs that marked “whites” and “colored” coming down, just one of the many goals that man had. Markers and monuments show the places he walked, because people want to walk there and imagine him there too.
Even places far from where he walked bear his name. You can see many of them here.
But there are other kinds of people who make history. Case in point James Earl Ray, MLK’s murderer.
I’ve passed and even stopped, in 2012, at the castle-like structure of the prison where he spent his life after murdering Martin Luther King: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, now abandoned. I love hiking at Frozen Head State Park, so it tends to be near my route. It gets a mention in my book, but I never dwelt on James Earl Ray. I never discussed him with anyone during my travels there except for Goyo, a Mexican exchange student who happened to join us one day when we passed it.
“Do you know about Martin Luther King?” I asked him.
He nodded. And that was that. I never dwelt on him or the good doctor in the pages of my memoir Wildly Strolling Along involving father-son bonding on the Cumberland Trail.
James Earl Ray reportedly shot King in 1968. He always claimed he was just part of a broader conspiracy to kill the Civil Rights leader and King’s family also believed that.
That still doesn’t make him a hero though, just one of many villains working together. No one save a few alt-righters would probably really want to commemorate him. And, thankfully, no one does.
It’s true, killers hold a perverse fascination for the public, and they did even back in the 60s and 70s. And I’d be lying if I claimed they didn’t for me as well, looking at someone with whom I share a common bond of humanity, but who went in a different direction.
Ray’s history though doesn’t give the kind of good man gone wrong chills so many murderers do though. He was a crook, plain and simple, involved in armed robbery before his most infamous crime. His obsession with white-ruled nations in Africa seems predictably racist.
The most notable thing he did in all his time after being arrested was escape, drawing in FBI agents and inspiring a whole, strenuous race based on mocking how little distance he covered, the Barkley Marathon.
But it’s a fleeting fascination. No one wants to point out with historical markers his escape route.
I know because I visit the area fairly often and I’m glad there’s no sign for that miserable fellow that I’ve noticed anywhere. He doesn’t deserve any. I want to look at Frozen Head State Park’s charming waterfalls, its flowers, its views of the surrounding mountains and escape from the prejudice and strife of the outside world. People who go to Frozen Head. to walk, run, camp, ride horses and play on playgrounds or fish do not need a reminder of that man and his nearby escape from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
The main remnant of the prison inside the park is the Prison Mine Trail, the site of a mutiny by the prisoners who operated it according to Augusta Grove Bell’s Circling Windrock Mountain, long before Ray’s time.
Ray is by far not the only person who every ended up there. I could go on and on about the stories of cruelty and crazy escapes. It makes me rather sad that the only tours there right now are Paranormal Tours and not tours involving real history, which would probably be far more interesting. Which brings me to the people running the place now. So what’s the place’s big draw, now? Whiskey.
In 2009 the old prison was decommissioned. In that same year the Tennessee General Assembly amended the statute that limited the distillation of drinkable spirits to just three counties. After the amendment, distillery businesses were established in 41 additional counties. A new bill was signed by the governor that allows for distilling in any county, including those of dry status. Distilling in a dry county such as Morgan County is now possible and will begin at the old Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in the near future.
Brushy is the perfect place for a little Tennessee whiskey to do its time.
Of course. What to do with an old prison site tied to racially troubling history? The same way to solve every other problem here in Tennessee! Whiskey! If it had been Dr. King who had spent time there and not his murderer, the place would not be trying to become the next Gatlinburg. It could try to be serious instead.
But there’s a part of me that prefers Ray’s memory be trampled by people drunk on local booze on the edge of charming natural beauty. That seems somehow fitting. So here’s to James Earl Ray: May we remember to forget you.