Visiting Bell Buckle, Tenn.

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on July 2, 2000
bell buckle
bluerim via Flickr

Synchronized wading is in, the railroad’s out, and Mayor Linda Nannie runs the tea room.

Bell Buckle, Tenn., is a cross between Lake Wobegon and Saturday Night Live, says Anne White-Scruggs, who played the iceberg in Bell Buckles synchronized wading rendition of the movie, Titanic, last year. She was one of 200 props; it was a big show. But it was only one part of the town’s annual tongue-in-cheek tribute to RC Cola and Moon Pies®.

A promotional brochure describes Bell Buckle as having more characters per square foot than the law allows, and that quirky sense of humor is what helps hold together this rural community of artists, farmers, and main street retail entrepreneurs.

Bell Buckle began in 1852 as a railroad town, but trains don’t stop there anymore. What stops now are visitors, thousands of them antique and craft hunters. In particular, most of them drawn here by a charming downtown row of eclectic shops and eateries that spawned Bell Buckle’s rebirth in the last 20 years.

The tiny downtown is a picture of American enterprise, each business with a story to tell. Miss Daff O. Dilly’s Tea Room, a favorite local eatery, is owned by the mayor, Linda Nannie. Ida Frances Payne opened her Blue Ribbon Antiques store at the age of 72. She’s only 86 now, with no plans to retire. Pat Bingham, the postmaster’s wife, keeps the art of quilting alive at Bingham’s Fabrics.

But it was Anne White-Scruggs who first recognized the potential of Bell Buckle’s neglected strip of storefronts when she moved to Bell Buckle in 1976 to teach art at the venerable Webb School, a 114-year-old private preparatory academy. A year later, she opened Bell Buckle Crafts in the century-old Bank of Bell Buckle building and began turning out whimsical pottery.

“Yell if you need me!” White-Scruggs calls out from the back of her shop when a customer pushes open the weathered front door. Shoplifting is a non-issue in town. In fact, she leaves the shop open when she heads two doors down to Bell Buckle Café for lunch, a note on her door telling customers where to find her to pay for merchandise.

It’s Ward and June Cleaver revisited, says White-Scruggs. This is a melting pot for creative people of all colors, kinds, and attitudes.

Maggi Vaughn is counted among the colorful. The menagerie of flowers on her straw hat is one reason. Another is her bright red T-shirt that reads, Tokyo, Paris, New York, Bell Buckle.

Vaughn is Tennessee’s poet laureate. A native of nearby Murfreesboro, she’d heard of Bell Buckle time and again, but one look in 1982 was all it took. It called to me all my life, but when I finally saw it, I knew. She moved immediately and contends that William Faulkner would have killed for the community’s ambiance had he seen it.

From her Bell Buckle Press storefront, she sells her original books of poetry, short stories, and musings with titles such as “Life’s Down to Old Womens’ Shoes.”

“Thank the Lord I’m wearing old womens’ shoes instead of those pointed-toe high heels that I wore in my youth,” she says, peering out through thick, black-rimmed glasses. Vaughn’s stylishly diverse home boasts a backyard Poet’s Garden, where plants share environs with manual typewriters and stones bearing her favorite literary quotations including some of her own. The distinctive writer is a sought-after speaker on Southern lore and all things country.

“Oh, Maggi, to them, you’re folk art!” quips Billy Phillips, 28, who was born three days before his parents opened Phillip’s General Store in town.

“So it must have been intended for me,” says Phillips, who bought the building when he was just 18. Today, his store is one of three middle Tennessee ventures specializing in folk art and antiques.

“I started with three trash bags of merchandise and $54. I worked night and day until I could have it just the way I wanted it,” says Phillips of the store.

“I have stayed in the area because I enjoy it so much,” he says. “Theres no place I’d rather be. You dont have to live in the city to know you’d rather stay in the country.”

Anne White-Scruggs sees it a little differently.

“Bell Buckle is easy to get to,” she says, “but it’s awfully hard to leave.”