By Steve Bergsman
Most people visit Nashville to experience the world of country music, but one of the most interesting aspects of the central Tennessee experience is all about entrepreneurship, which sounds really, really boring, but I'm going to prove to you it is anything but.
Although Nashville is home to some of the country's biggest publicly traded firms, two of the most interesting companies in the country can be found in the small, backwater towns of Lynchburg and Lynnville, about 70 miles south of Nashville.
First on my list is actually a very popular tourist destination, the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg. I've been to wineries all over the world, breweries everywhere, coffee farms and roasteries in Central America, tea plantations in Asia and even moonshine manufacturers in the Tennessee hill country, but I had never visited a whiskey distillery. And if you are going to visit just one distillery, there is no better place to go than to the home of Jack Daniel's, which in my opinion is the best American whiskey, bar none.
The company was founded in 1866 by Jasper Newton Daniel, better known as Jack. He chose the Lynchburg site for one reason — a limestone cave that was carved out by a flowing mineral-rich underground spring that percolated up through the cave. This water is still the source for making Jack Daniel's whiskey. Of course he added corn and other grains to make his product, but Jack's big technical innovation was to slow-drip the alcohol through charcoal for mellowing the taste.
Tours of the distillery include not only the famous limestone cave and views of the filtering vats, but if you are lucky enough to be visiting the grounds during the burn, you'll see high stacks of wood going up in flames (a 2,000-degree fire). No fears — this is a controlled burn where two wood stacks collapse into each other under a metal canopy. The remaining charcoal is then used in the whiskey-making process.
My guide through the distillery property — there are numerous structures to tour — was a fellow with the unlikely name of Jesse James, and as he often noted, without that charcoal filtering, Jack Daniels would just be a bourbon and not a whiskey.
Chris Fletcher, the assistant master distiller at Jack Daniel's, sat a group of us down at a beautifully set table with little more than nine delicate glasses, each with a small amount of a Jack Daniels product. It was like a wine-tasting but with whiskey instead. With each sip from a glass, Fletcher would explain the tastes we might be experiencing and then with the next sip the comparative taste differences between two types of Jack Daniel's, i.e., from Old No. 7 to the Single Barrel Collection to Gentleman Jack. We even tasted some of the newer products such as Tennessee Fire and Tennessee Honey.
After visiting the distillery, the most popular thing to do is to ride down the road into Lynchburg proper, a small country town built around a county courthouse. A number of interesting stores and eateries fill out the town, with the most visited spot being the Lynchburg Hardware and General Store, now home to all things Jack Daniel's, from memorabilia to T-shirts.
The less-popular thing to do is continuing traveling east until you get to the village - actually more of a hamlet - of Lynnville. I was told there are 59 properties in Lynnville on the National Historic Register, but to me it looked like a street with not much more than nine properties. Most of them are probably owned by Garry A. Littleton, who is known as Colonel Littleton, which is the name of his company, a manufacturer and marketer of upscale leather goods, fashion accessories and specialty products. Although the products are sold throughout the world, they are all manufactured in Lynnville.
I can't tell you which came first — the Colonel Littleton logo of the forward-looking gentleman with a handlebar mustache who wears a vest and a vaguely western chapeau, or the real-life Colonel Littleton, who has adopted the look of a turn-of-the-20th-century gentleman reminiscent of Mark Twain in his prime.
The real-life Littleton can tell a story almost as well as Twain and float an aphorism with the delicacy of a fly fisherman at a trout stream, but the big difference between the two is that Twain was a remarkably bad businessman and investor while the 21st-century Littleton is a savvy entrepreneur who has built a successful company while staying true to his roots in Lynnville.
Historic downtown Lynnville isn't really much more than where the local road crosses the railroad tracks, which are still active although rail traffic is rare. I began my Lynnville experience by having lunch at the Whitehorse Trading Co., a combination cafe, bakery and antique shop. Much of the lunch was homemade — from the bread to the desserts. It was a hot day and I was particularly glad to be sipping homemade blackberry-ade. The lunch alone was worth the ride.
Afterward I toured downtown Lynnville, which took all of five minutes before entering Littleton's "general office and works," which looked more like a store — or as Littleton says, a purveyor of upscale leather goods.
I met the real Littleton in the store, and he drove me first to the Colonel Littleton workshop, where all those hides are made into leather goods, and then to his farm, where he has restored two old buildings, a one-room schoolhouse and the Andrew Jackson Tavern, so named because Jackson really did spend time at the tavern before gathering troops and heading to New Orleans. The tavern is now Littleton's private office.
Littleton specializes in goods covered with real branded cowhides. He gave me a branded-leather swatch, essentially the letter B. In my mind it was a true work of art, but had I been interested in, for example, a saddlebag briefcase with branded leather, that would have cost $645. Littleton likes to say we all need to "strive to be stellar" — even in our acquisitions.
WHEN YOU GO
From Nashville, take Interstate 24 east, then U.S. Route 231 south toward Shelbyville (name changes to TN-82) and turn right onto Lynchburg Highway. To Lynnville from Lynchburg, take U.S. Route 64 west then I-65 north until the exit for Lynnville Highway or TN-129.
In Lynchburg, Jack Daniel's Distillery: www.jackdaniels.com
Lynchburg Hardware and General Store: www.lynchburgtenn.com
In Lynnville, Colonel Littleton Ltd. www.colonellittleton.com
Whitehorse Trading Co.: www.whitehorsetradingcompanytn.com/gallery
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.