Jonesborough, a historic town seven miles west of ETSU, may have a population nearly 12 times smaller than neighboring Johnson City, but what it lacks in population, it makes up for in history.
The downtown district is full of quaint shops, beautiful old bed and breakfasts and scrumptious restaurants. The hub of the mile-long, downtown strip seems to be the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, which houses the international storytelling center.
The first official storytelling festival took place 44 years ago, and Gaye Griffith, a lifetime resident of Jonesborough and an alumni of ETSU, said it was not always the large affair that it is today.
“It came about because our CEO, who was our one and only CEO until two years ago, Jimmy Neil Smith, was a teacher here in Washington County,” Griffith said. “He was taking a group of students to a debate, and they were listening to the radio. An old cornball comedian named Jerry Clower was telling some old cornball stories and jokes and one of the young guys in the car said, ‘That sounds like my Uncle Earl who tells silly stories.’ When Jimmy Neil came home, he got to thinking about that and he said, ‘You know that’s something we need to preserve, protect, and encourage. So [Neil] said ‘I think we need to have a storytelling festival.’ He pulled a hay-wagon up behind Mauk’s [general store], and brought Ray Hicks down off of Beech Mountain and two or three other storytellers that he knew about regionally and about 60 people stopped by that weekend.”
Griffith said the festival now draws nearly 10,000 people and continues to be an important part of the International Storytelling Community.
The storytelling center was one of the first buildings that sparked the downtown renovation of Jonesborough in the late 1990s to early 2000s. The building houses several parlors that are available for personal events.
Although it isn’t storytelling “season” — which occurs May through October — there is a Yarn Exchange, a radio show that is recorded in the ISC in front of a live audience, that occurs every fourth Monday of the month, which brings independent storytellers together to present their own stories and songs.
The Jonesborough Storytellers Guild also performs in the center every Tuesday. Admission for both events is $5.
Self-guided and tour-guided excursions are available for visitors who want to learn more about the history and lore of the old, supposedly-haunted town. Scavenger hunts are also organized upon request.
The town also features various historical buildings, including a traditional one-room school house, old churches and the original log-house that was lived in by the town’s founder, Christopher Taylor.
“[Mr.] and Mrs. Taylor raised thirteen children in that cabin,” Griffith said. “When Andrew Jackson was developing his law practice, he’d come to Jonesborough by stage and get off in Jonesborough where, in those days, there were a lot of taverns and bars. He and Christopher Taylor would get out and get roaring drunk. Mrs. Taylor said, ‘You’ve got to do something about [Andrew], he can’t be coming in drunk in the middle of the night waking all these children up.’ So, as we hear it, they built a rope ladder, and they threw it out the second-story window so that Andy Jackson could climb in at night to the second floor. Now that would have been a sight to see since he was drunk!”
Chain restaurants are available just outside of the downtown area, but there are also some small locally-owned restaurants in the downtown strip that are sure to satisfy any palette.
Jonesborough is one of the most restored and developed downtown regions, and it has much to offer. Whether you’re seeking some unique clothing boutiques, a knick-knack emporium or a hand-scooped ice-cream cone from an old-fashioned general store, Jonesborough is sure to tickle your fancy with its vintage and historical feel.