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VOL. 35 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 22, 2011

Franklin aims to build nation’s top Civil War museum

By Tim Ghianni

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Author, Civil War student and Franklin preservationist Robert Hicks has seen many visions come true thanks to the teamwork and tenacity of all aspects of the community that has joined the royalty of American historic tourism sites.

Hicks is convinced the crown jewel – the world’s foremost Civil War museum – will rise from the ground by the time the Battle of Franklin celebrates its 150th birthday on Nov. 30, 2014.

The former music industry insider who wrote the best-selling The Widow of the South – set at Carnton Plantation during that battle – is not shy when talking about the museum or the future.

But it’s really just the latest step in an ongoing, communitywide effort that has turned the once almost quaintly ignored battle into a major industry.

In 1974, when Hicks moved to Franklin, it was literally a community with an aged downtown square and not much else to offer.

Those who visit what has become of the Battle of Franklin industry in the last few years likely don’t even recall that, in the early 1970s, about the only historic tourism near the battle site was a chintzy little diorama among the ‘Carter’s Court shops’ that also included a tea room.

That has changed dramatically in recent years with the Carnton Plantation and Carter House – both historic sites – coming under one umbrella, followed by the Lotz House.

The combined forces that make up Franklin’s Charge, the Battle of Franklin Trust and others have also been behind reclamation efforts that acquired a golf course bound for housing development and used that wide-open space – that once soaked up the blood of North and South – as a large building block in efforts to reclaim the battlefield.

Other plots have been added, and the state has been enlisted in the effort. Just this week, Gov. Bill Haslam delivered $500,000 of state money to be used to complete the reconstruction of the historic loop road through the eastern flank of the battlefield that once connected Carnton to Lewisburg Pike.

“We are the poster-child for battlefield reclamation,” says Hicks, not just of the groups he is involved with but all of the Franklin organizations who have joined hands to turn this town into a premiere heritage tourism site, something that will be well-noticed during this sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War.

“Heritage tourism is now something that affects everyone in Franklin, whether they understand it or not,” Hicks adds. “Heritage tourists are the best tourists. They come here. They like to spend money.

“They are the highest-educated tourist demographic in America,” he says, noting participants average some post-graduate educations.

“They prefer bed and breakfasts and local hotels and don’t like to eat in chain restaurants, choosing locally owned restaurants.

“And they like to stay at least two days at a site,” he says.

“In the end, all this adds up to, they spend money and then they go away. You don’t have to educate their children.” The latter is a reference to the boomtown growth spurt in Williamson County, which caused all sorts of infrastructure and institutional construction.

Hicks doesn’t take credit for all that has happened. He likes to point to the efforts of his partners in this vision, including attorney Julian Bibb III, Mary Pearce of The Heritage Foundation, Marianne Schroar and Ernie Bacon in this battle for preservation and reclamation.

Add to that Ken Moore, the mayor and the folks in local tourism, like Mark Shore along with all the individual enthusiasts who have gotten fully behind the effort.

Hicks says if Nashville ever wants to truly compete for Civil War heritage tourists, then there is one starting point.

“They are never going to do what they need to do in Nashville until they come together,” he says, again emphasizing how so many agencies and organizations have invested time and energy into the fight to reclaim the Battle of Franklin.

“It’s really tough because so much of the Civil War ownership belongs to fringe political groups. We need to get way past all that.”

“It’s never going to happen in Nashville until someone decides it’s time to take off the political gloves and envision that it’s really important.”

And he says the racial divide must be erased, and the African-American community must be embraced and in return embrace the effort.

“You have to be able to stand before a black church and tell them why the Civil War matters to them. I’m not asking them as a white person. I’m sitting at their table and asking them to share some of what they have,” he says.

It means the people who own the land, the various political agencies, the preservationists, the descendants of all sides of the war have to break bread and work together to make sure the Civil War is recognized and remembered for its importance in shaping this nation.

And once that united front begins its assault, the dollars will come.

Hicks wouldn’t mind seeing Nashville fully enter the fray.

But he’s got other things to worry about. First of all, he continues to represent the Battle of Franklin in both his acclaimed novel and on every board and in every speaking or research engagement.

And he also is throwing his energy into developing the aforementioned museum.

There are plenty of Civil War “museums” – dusty attic collections of uniforms, armaments and gear.

But what he is envisioning, what his community is planning, is ‘The Civil War Museum” – a combination of artifacts and interactive exhibits that will capture the imagination of all visitors. He compares the vision to the World War II Museum in New Orleans, which captures hearts and souls not just by relics but by storytelling and experiences.

“I‘m talking about a museum that tells the story of the Battle of Franklin in context with the Western Theater of the Civil War, putting the Western Theater within context of the whole of the American Civil War and then, and this is most important; placing the American Civil War in context with the life of every girl and boy who walks in the door.

“My goal is to build a museum that is so interactive that when kids leave it, they understand that they are partly who they area because of the American Civil War, that we, as a nation, are who we are collectively, because of those ‘four arduous years.’

“I believe we can bring literally hundreds of thousands of people to Middle Tennessee and change the face of heritage tourism here forever”

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