1893 property tax ledger book takes circuitous route home

GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Forgotten chapters of Greene County history are gathering dust in attics and basements.

The T. Elmer Cox Genealogical & Historical Library is eager to recover and preserve record books and other documents so that the information is available for future generations.

Christopher Gose, assistant director of the Greeneville/Greene County Public Library and Cox Library, hopes a recent example of a citizen coming forward with “a significant donation” inspires others to do the same.

An 1893 Greene County Tax Record book was recently donated to the Cox Library, which is a repository for all things relating to the county’s history.

Gose and the donor discussed the winding journey taken by the tax record book.

Gose was working one day at the Cox Library at 229 N. Main St., when John Haynes stopped by.

Haynes, who operates the Davy Crockett Trading Co. antique shop on East Andrew Johnson Highway in Limestone with his son Nicholas, brought the tax record book with him. The book contains the names, addresses, property acreage and tax amounts assessed to those listed, categorized by Greene County’s 25 polling districts in 1893.

The information offers valuable insights into the Greene County of 129 years ago.

“It’s a fascinating book. It shows who owns the property but it also shows who owns the adjoining properties,” Gose said.

Haynes said he and his son Nicholas went to an estate sale in March in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The tax record book was among items for sale.

“We knew it needed to come home, so we purchased it,” he said last week.

The Hayneses paid $250 for the well-preserved volume.

“We’re not wealthy or anything. We felt it was to give back to the history of the county. The love of history is why me and my son had an interest in getting into antiques,” John Haynes said. “We felt it would be useful to people doing their family history.”

The tax records book came with a bonus. Tucked inside was a flyer advertising an antique show in December 1975 in Kingsport sponsored by the East Tennessee Antique Dealers Association. That gave Haynes a clue as to where the purchaser acquired it.

How the book turned up at a Kingsport antique show nearly 47 years ago is a matter of speculation.

“I’ve got a theory about that,” Haynes said. “The Greene County Courthouse was remodeled and renovated in the 1970s. I believe it was thrown out or given away. I really think that they did not realize the importance of (historical) information at that point.”

Haynes and his son “knew it was important and needed to be brought home.”

Gose was pleasantly surprised when he saw what Hayneses brought to the library.

“When I took the book in, it was great to see the excitement when he saw the book. That was pretty cool,” Haynes said. “He just seemed thrilled.”

Gose opened and carefully turned the pages of the tax records book one day last week.

“It helps with genealogy, who owned the land and who it was passed on to,” Gose said. “This would have been stored at the courthouse.”

The reach of the book quickly becomes evident. June Pinkston, who has worked at the Cox Library for nearly 20 years, opened it to a section detailing property owners in the 21st District, a section of north Greene County. Her finger moved down the page and stopped at a line with a hand-written name and other notations on columns to the right.

“Jacob Fleming Morrison. He is my great-grandfather,” Pinkston said.

“The 21st District is where he lived. Cross Anchor. The property is where North Greene High School sits today,” Pinkston said.

Pinkston lives on land once farmed by Morrison, who owned parcels of 60 acres and 12 acres. The 60-acre parcel was valued at $260 in 1893, “not quite $5 an acre,” Pinkston said.

Taxes assessed to each landowner include a poll tax, state tax, county tax, school tax, road tax and “poor tax.”

Morrison’s property tax bill for 1893 totaled $1.38.

“Money was awfully scarce at the time,” Pinkston said.

Neighbors who owned adjoining land include another family named Morrison, along with the Kendry and Hawkins families.

“This is the most detailed list I have ever seen. I was just excited to see it,” Pinkston said.

Gose is grateful that Haynes chose to donate the book to the library. He said its contents far outweigh monetary value.

“It is invaluable to us,” Gose said. “It should be back in Greene County That is how he put it to us.”

Although the courthouse was renovated in the 1970s, “From our perspective in city and county government, it’s highly unlikely it was thrown out,” Gose said.

Gose referred to a Tennessee law known as the “Replevin Law,” which prohibits the removal of all records created by state, county or municipal government from agency custody.

On occasion in the past, Gose said that people looking for family records such as wills or marriage licenses would be allowed access to stored documents. Relevant pages would be torn out of a book, or a whole volume would be removed from the courthouse.

The full story of the journey taken by the 1893 tax record book will likely never be known, but Gose hopes the generosity of the Haynes family may inspire Greene County residents to look at what they have stored in out-of-the-way places and consider making similar donations to the library.

There is no criminal or civil liability.

“We are giving the option to return it to its rightful owner. I am sure there are others out there that people have,” Gose said.

Greene County still has a wealth of historic records and documents dating back more than 200 years that are securely stored. Gose has worked with Circuit Court Clerk Chris Shepard for several years to help protect them.

“Our job will ultimately be to clean every page, digitalize them and preserve them,” Gose said. “It’s our mission at the Cox to preserve these things for Greene County.”

He said artifacts like the 1893 tax records book help make a long bygone era come alive.

“This is Greeneville. This is tangible history,” Gose said. “It’s all about preservation and making sure these records are preserved for generations to come.”

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