Old railroads twist like veins through Tennessee, coiling their way from the eastern Appalachian mountains, stretching their way down as the landscape shortens into rolling, verdant hills, then finally spooling out onto the flat plains on the state’s western border. In 1852, Tennessee built a line between its current capital, Nashville, and the southeastern city of Chattanooga which lies nestled in the Smoky Mountains on the Georgian border. A depot was built between the two in 1853, and then finally, in 1856, Bell Buckle was officially born.
As with many towns of that time, it sputtered to life and bloomed quickly, its population expanding to around one thousand souls by the late nineteenth century. However, even as its sister railroad-towns shriveled into shells of their former bustling selves as their lifeblood slowed and dried, the tiny town of Bell Buckle continues to beat on, a living time-capsule which manages to coexist alongside the modern world.
Bell Buckle has a population compromised of about 500 persons – when school is in session and the boarding students from the local school are there, that is. The physical town itself is as small as it’s population. A row of nineteenth-century storefronts stands to the northeast of the railroad tracks, comprising the majority of the town. A few other stores and cafes – none dating from any later than the twentieth century – are scattered all within a five minute walk of each other. Across the railroad tracks to the southwest is a gas station, a convenience store, a laundromat, and a police station – all packed into the same small building.
Quirky Victorian houses give Bell Buckle a good dose of its character. There exist few rules about color or decoration. A towering, lavender Victorian home with dark purple shutters exists on the same street as a violently teal home. Front lawns are filled with twisting metal sculptures of aquatic animals, or else have bursting gardens, or some have nothing at all but a painted fence with honeysuckle that coils its way up during the summer months.
So, what is there to do besides look at some old buildings?
Unsurprising for such an old town, there are several antique shops one can easily spend hours piddling around in, as we like to say in the South. As most of these shops don’t open until at least ten, you can take your time getting to Bell Buckle in the morning and spending an entire day there, digging through the past.
Bell Buckle also boasts one of the top predatory schools in the Southeast: The Webb School. Moved from Culleoka in the 1880’s, the campus is located less than a ten minute walk from downtown. The school now serves the purpose the railroad once did all those years ago: it brings new folks into town. However, it also gives them reason to stay.
And, of course, in the South there’s always some eating to be done.
For lunch, head over to Southern Charm. In addition to serving as a shop offering everything from clothing to rugs, it boasts a quaint tea shop in the back, which serves up a variety of soups, sandwiches, and a host of different, southern-style desserts.
After lunch, head over to Blue Bird Antiques. In addition to selling their name, they also offer an old-fashioned ice cream parlor where you can get classic fried green tomatoes, a Moon Pie and RC Cola (celebrated by a festival in Bell Buckle every year!), or a scoop or two of ice cream in a fresh, homemade waffle cone. It closes at five every day, so make sure you don’t get there too late!
After spending an afternoon picking through the treasures at the antique shops and exploring the school’s bucolic campus, you’ll probably have worked up a bit of an appetite. There’s only one place to go, and that is the Bell Buckle Cafe. The daily specials – usually different varieties of the classic meat-and-three, come highly recommended. On Friday and Saturday nights the Cafe, as it’s known to locals, offers live bluegrass on the stage in the backroom.
As mentioned earlier, Bell Buckle is between both Chattanooga and Nashville (at fifty miles away, slightly closer to the latter) but if you choose to stay the night in this sleepy town, you have a few choices of bed and breakfast places located in charming Victorian homes, such as the Seasons, the Hideaway, or the Walker Inn.
As we hurtle forward in time to an increasingly modernized, online world, it’s worth taking a look back to see where we’ve come from. Or, better yet, popping back in time for a visit and a scoop of ice cream.
So, why the hell is a town called Bell Buckle?
A couple of different theories exist. Some say a cowbell and a buckle were carved into a tree by either Native Americans or surveyors. The former would have wanted to warn settlers away from the area. The latter’s purpose would have been to say the land is good pasture. Another theory says that a bell and a buckle were tied around a tree together. In any case, a nearby creek was christened “Bell Buckle,” and the town adopted its name.