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Historical Society celebrates 50 years

Posted on Wednesday, March 13, 2024 at 8:00 am


Incoming Historical Society Board members for 2024-25 are, from left, incoming President Al Simmons, David Sherrill, Carol Roberts, and Don Gallagher. (Submitted photo)

Not many community society clubs are around today, nor are many of the ones still around growing in membership.

But the Bedford County Historical Society is defying those trends. This March, they will be celebrating their 50th anniversary. With over 300 members active in the society, both locally in Bedford and in 26 states across the country, the society is also remaining strong in their memberships, according to President Al Simmons.

Simmons became involved in the historical society around 1995, and, after being appointed to the board, was elected president in 2002.

“When I came in, membership was the single biggest concern. We had less than 40 members, and in the count last week, we had 342. We’re the largest single society group in the county,” he said. “Roughly half of our membership is in the county or surrounding counties, the other half is from outside the area.”

He attributes their regular publishing of the Historical Quarterly and the meetings – which feature a keynote speaker and potluck – as the two main components for steady membership over the years.

Historical Quarterlies

Simmons said there are indication of a society from a newspaper clipping from 1899, but the Bedford County Historical Society as it is known today began in 1974.

Ever since its inception, the society has printed a historical quarterly. “We’ve got over 180 historical quarterlies. We recently donated a set to the Shelbyville-Bedford County Library and to the archives, and now we’ve donated a set to each of the counties around us,” Simmons said.

Putting the quarterlies together is no easy task. But it is a rewarding one.

The society has a committee that puts it all together. Simmons helps pick out a topic and then the research begins.  Each committee members writes and researches by interviewing people and historians and, of course, by filtering through the archives and pages of old scrapbooks.

Now, they are working on the bicentennial of the Presbyterian Church. For this, Simmons is referencing “Written on many hearts: the history of the First Presbyterian Church, Shelbyville, Bedford County, Tennessee, 1815-1965” by Robert E. Cogswell.

“Fortunately, it’s one of the best history books in the county because he related everything the church did to everything going on in the community — development of business, the other churches, politics that was involved, and weather disasters,” he said.

The society also remains busy in the community. They have donated $50,000 over the years in $1,000-scholarships to the three high schools. They have also erected nine historical markers to memorialize certain places and events in the county.

Preserving today for tomorrow

As Bedford County continues into some of its biggest stages of development, those in the society say it’s important now to preserve history.

“If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going,” said Simmons. “We get so many queries from people coming in asking what about this church, what about this piece of land, or this house they bought.”

With so much going on amidst the national scene, Simmons said it’s natural people become curious about the small community around them.

“People are interested right now because they want to know where they’re at right now. Again, to take care of today to take care of tomorrow,” he said.

He remembers all the 20th century “old-timers” of the Bedford County Historical Society who held the stories to much of the local lore.

But like with every new generation rising, the old ones disappear with time. This is something that can be seen with the small communities that once populated the area. It was also one of Simmons’ favorite historical quarterly projects to work on: the history of Bedford County’s communities.

In 2010 — during the county’s bicentennial celebration — Simmons went into the history of the dozens of communities, from Singleton to Raus to County Line to Pleasant Grove. These communities were defined by their churches, schools, and country stores as well as their people.

It turned out to be the biggest quarterly they had ever published.

Community lines became blurred with the consolidation of schools and with the construction and paving of primary roads, according to Simmons. “Plus, the jobs were in the cities. Bedford County has been an agrarian community ever since day one. It’s still a predominant industry here but outside industries are catching on to where it’s bringing in the same amount of money ag does.”

But Simmons said they are seeing a return to the rural.

“History is reversing itself…People are moving back to the country now,” Simmons said, citing how the county schools — like Community, Cascade, and Liberty are growing.

“And there’s two or three communities that still have community clubs, Flat Creek being one of them.”

Simmons himself is a Bedford native and self-proclaimed “country boy,” having grown up and lived on a farm in the Himesville-Flat Creek community. It’s a farm his grandfather brought around 1920, one of the century farms that Simmons said is a fabric to the county’s history.

While at school, Simmons said he didn’t have much interest in history. But when his mother passed away in the 1960s, he became intrigued about his own family history.

He was the base civil engineer at AEDC, working 40 years with a contractor and then with the U.S. Air Force. His job has taken him across the country, but Bedford County is the place he calls home.

To kick off their 50th anniversary, the Bedford County Historical Society will hold its spring quarter meeting on March 18 in the Fellowship Hall of the First United Methodist Church on the Square in Shelbyville.

A potluck supper will begin at 6:30 p.m., followed by a short business meeting. Gerald Smith, retired University Professor at Sewanee, will present the evening’s program, “Tennessee Cemeteries – Monuments and Ruin.”

For their anniversary, the historical society is also running half-price membership’s prices for $20. Call 931-680-6313 for more information.