Tennessee – Clinton: Pearls of the Past

In some ways, Clinton, Tennessee, seems to be almost as shrouded in secrecy as her neighbor Oak Ridge.  The secure veil that surrounded the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb for so many years seems to continue to be a part of the culture. 

But for a while in 1956, Clinton made headlines in the national news when twelve African-American students enrolled in the high school following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. In August of that year these students attended classes and became for first to desegregate a public school in the Southeast.  The first days of segregation were quiet, but outsiders arrived and the protests escalated and culminated in the bombing of the school in October.  The school was quickly rebuilt and is now the Green McAdoo Cultural Center.  At the entrance is William F. Duffy’s sculpture, “The Clinton 12 – Walking into History.”  The work depicts those young people striding confidently into their futures. 

Rather than looking toward the future, most visitors to Clinton today come in search of the past.  Just twenty miles north of Knoxville, Clinton is an easy drive for those who enjoy antiques.  Antique shops string the along Main and Market Streets, making this a fun place to spend some time in search of something to add to your collection or to find a unique piece for your home.    

A favorite first stop for us is Clinton Antique Mall, a former hardware store with three levels to browse.  The shop hosts a variety of dealers so there is furniture as well as a lot of small items.  I especially enjoy looking at the displays set against the old cabinetry that lines the walls on the first floor.

Next door in the old Dauhgerty Furniture Store is the Cadence Antique Emporium with another three floors of antiques.  Their holdings are a lot more quirky and less polished than their neighbor.  They have a lot of inventory to browse, including large collection of records.  Clinton does not offer much in the way of dining so a stop at their café for a cup of coffee, a bowl of homemade soup or a sandwich might come in handy.

Across the street are Corner Antiques and the Staffordshire Spaniel.  Corner Antiques has a great variety and welcoming, knowledgeable owners.  We have found many interesting pieces here over the years.  Samantha, the shop cat, is quite a ham and when not napping on one of the displays will usually grant a moment or two for me to take her picture.  Next door, The Staffordshire Spaniel keeps fewer hours and may or may not be open.

The plain front on The Antique Market belies the wonderful collections inside.  I like to linger over the antique jewelry counter and then wind my way through the well appointed displays.  Most of the furniture pieces have descriptive tags and the shop owners are well versed in antiques and are ready to answer questions.  

Just beyond is Hoskins in the Flat, a former drug store that is now filled with a very Southern vibe and fragrance.  The two artistic sisters who own the shop create beautiful permanent floral pieces for the home or office.  No matter what the season, the shop is always an inspiring stop. The original showcases hold pottery, French linens, gifts and accessories for the home. 

Two storefronts wide and a basement to boot, Granny’s Attic is filled with just the kind of thing your grandmother probably had in her home or kitchen.  From antique chocolate candy boxes and valentines to globes and glassware, the shop is filled with antiques and collectibles.

Across the street Fine Things Antiques and Décor is stocked with lush and appealing furniture settings.  Attractive upholstered chairs are paired with occasional tables topped with lamps and attractive accessories, while dining room tables are set with stunning china and crystal.      

You never know what you will find in Historic Clinton Antiques.  On our last visit Don bought a professionally made harness leather bridle decorated with multiple small silver conchos that resemble the circular cutout star badge worn for generations by Texas Rangers. 

This is a visual sampling of some of the other shops to explore in Clinton. You might want to check days and hours before you go because many of the shops are only open on weekends while others are open seven days a week.   

One more shop that is worth a visit while you are in town is Samuel Franklin Floral Design in the old post office building.  Just looking at these photos makes me start thinking of how I want to trim the house next Christmas.

In May and October the Clinch River Antique Festival brings even more dealers who set up displays of their wares along the streets.  A roster of Appalachian musicians perform throughout the day and food vendors offer tasty snacks and meals. 

While we were in Clinton, this historic marker peaked my curiosity so we paid a visit to the McClung Museum on the University of Tennessee Knoxville Campus to learn more about fresh-water pearls.  As I learned “freshwater mussels live partly embedded at the bottom of permanent water.”  Prehistoric Indians ate the mussels and discarded their shells, leaving massive shell heaps near their camps.  Native Americans used them as a food source and also “fashioned the valves themselves into utensils, ornaments, and tools” such as spoons, dippers and scrapers.  Crushed mussel shells were also used in their pottery.  The pearls were drilled and strung and used as adornment on their clothing or sometimes imbedded into other objects. 

Freshwater pearls are Tennessee’s official state gem and Clinton was a major market for freshwater pearls.  Clinch River pearls were highly valued and sold around the world. Most natural pearls are not round but are winged or baroque.  The American Pearl Company of Tennessee is responsible for developing the technique for inserting a “mother-of-pearl bead into the soft tissue of the mussel to create cultured pearls and also blister pearls.  The company remains a major worldwide source of cultured pearls. 

From the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, the pearl button industry flourished in the United States.  The endless supply of shells with their beautiful luster and durability meant they were an excellent material to use for buttons even on garments that would undergo vigorous launderings.  The development of plastics after WWII and the declining mussel populations led to the end of what had been a multi-million dollar industry.

If you visit the antique shops in Clinton, you may want to see if you can find a card of pearl buttons or possibly a pearl necklace or pin to take home as a souvenir of your visit.  Whether or not you are successful, you will hopefully take home a memory of an enjoyable walk through East Tennessee history.

FOR MORE ADVENTURE: Right next to Clinton is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, known for the development of the Atom Bomb.  Our next installment takes us there to learn more about how that technology is being used today.

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