A Visit to Bradley and Polk Counties
Weaving through the rooms in his family’s massive furniture store in downtown Cleveland, third-generation owner Joe Stamper points out a few highlights: a mahogany art nouveau chest, a stunning “drape” mirror with carved hands grasping the wood frame from behind, eclectic lamps with bases shaped like wings, horns and a fan of twigs.
“We try to have distinctive furnishings,” says Stamper, a self-proclaimed “lampaholic” who does most of the buying for Stamper’s Furniture, a landmark for 92 years. “When people come in, we want to spark their imagination.”
A true gentleman with a gracious demeanor, Stamper exemplifies this small southeastern Tennessee town.
“We’ve got such friendly, warm people,” says Melissa Woody, vice president of tourism development for Cleveland and Bradley County. “And this community cares about what kind of a front door it presents.”
A 20-block walking (or driving) tour shows off a charmingly vibrant downtown lined with gift shops, trendy restaurants and historic homes.
At the south end, in a revitalized district where five streets once converged, The Museum at Five Points welcomes visitors with a blue-tiled entrance shaped like the Ocoee River, located in nearby Polk County. The museum provides a glimpse of the area’s history through cultural exhibits and programming. When it opens in November, a new gallery will pay tribute to the Southern gospel music of the Red-Back Church Hymnal, first published in Cleveland in 1951. And don’t forget to stop at the museum store, which carries pottery, art glass pendants and other classy creations from 50 regional artists.
Another don’t-miss downtown spot is Gardner’s Market, an Old World-style deli and specialty grocery that sells hard-to-find imports such as canned sponge pudding. Just past the collection of teapots is a quaint dining area, each table adorned with a different treasure – coffee beans, jigsaw puzzle pieces, old Hollywood posters – beneath its glass top.
Cleveland’s rapidly growing downtown culinary scene includes Catch Bar & Grill, known for its fresh coastal fare and Café Roma, a pasta eatery with “the best calamari in town.” Insiders’ tip: The locals can’t get enough of The Spot diner, open since 1937, and the Village Bake Shop, known for thumbprint cookies and other treats since 1961 (check out a sweet deal on the Farm Bureau Member Savings app).
When it comes to recreation, you can’t beat riding the rivers just down the road from Cleveland in Polk County. Home of the 1996 Summer Olympics whitewater competitions, the Ocoee is the nation’s most popular river for all levels of rafting, kayaking and canoeing, with numerous outfitters dotting the scenic route along U.S. Route 64. Outdoor enthusiasts can also watch kayak races, hike the trails or picnic on huge rocks near the Ocoee Whitewater Center in Copperhill.
“Rafting the Ocoee is just exhilarating,” says Woody, a thrill-seeker who’s braved it 18 times. “Growing up here, it just feels like my river, my place.”
Those who prefer a more chilled-out experience can float in an inner tube or Funyak down the gentler Hiwassee, also in Polk County, or try their hand at fly-fishing or water skiing on the river’s lower section. And for a convenient leg-stretching break within the Cleveland city limits, the paved greenway takes walkers, cyclists and skaters along the rim of shopping districts, peaceful woodlands and the gurgling streams of Mouse Creek.
The Cleveland area played a prominent role in the nation’s Cherokee heritage and continues to pay homage to the Native American culture. Red Clay State Park was the last eastern council grounds of the Cherokee Nation before the tragic journey on the Trail of Tears in 1838. Today, an eternal flame burns at an interpretive center that features a new tree carving representing the seven clans. The forested ridge, perfect for picnicking and hiking, contains a natural spring, or “blue hole,” used by the Cherokee during council meetings. “This was the last ‘Washington, D.C.’ for this sovereign nation,” Woody says. “It’s a very sacred and beautiful place.”
In Charleston, which sits on the banks of the Hiwassee River 10 miles from Cleveland, the Cherokee story has been slower to unfold. The final location of the federal Indian Agency that protected the tribe, the town later became the site of Fort Cass, the military headquarters for the entire Trail of Tears operation. This compelling piece of history, says Woody, was all but forgotten until 2013, when the Hiwassee River Heritage Center opened with a commemorative exhibit. Plans are underway to erect interpretive plaques in the adjacent park and connect the Center with a walkway alongside a stunningly beautiful cypress grove planted by TVA in the 1930s.
“This is our roots,” Woody says. “It doesn’t matter if you have Cherokee [ancestry] in you or not. It happened to all of us. We have a responsibility to share this history and not let it get lost.”
On a lighter note, on Sept. 12, Charleston will celebrate a different era at the annual Cowpea Festival and Cook-Off. The event features several varieties of the lowly legume, from black-eyes and crowders to purple-hulls and cream peas.
“Charleston was once a large grower and exporter of cowpeas, so much so that, when the railroad came through, it was called the pea train,” says Woody. “This is a harvest festival with a funny name that celebrates community, agriculture and the cowpea.”
Cleveland Apple Festival
Where: Bradley County Courthouse Square, 155 N. Ocoee Street
Tickets: Adults: $5; seniors and children age 4-12: $4; kids under 2: free; one-day family pass for two adults and up to four children: $20.
Highlights: Arts and crafts, live music, pony and hay rides, children’s activities, food booths (many with apple treats), apple dessert cooking contest, bicycle giveaway, Little Miss Apple Blossom competition for girls age 3-12.
Claim to fame: The family-friendly festival is the second-largest annual event in Cleveland, next to the Halloween Block Party.
Ripe and ready: Main sponsor Apple Valley Orchards, a local landmark, started with two trees in the early 1960s and now tends 15,000. Varieties available at the festival include Fuji, Arkansas Black and Pink Lady.
For a good cause: Net proceeds go to area non-profit ministries and charities such as Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity.
More info: clevelandapplefestival.org