We are highlighting Fort Campbell, Kentucky, this month in the Good Towns series. Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place. As we celebrate Veteran’s Day, we hope you enjoy the story of a region that brings pride to the nation.
The U.S. Army installation of Fort Campbell straddles the border between Tennessee and Kentucky, about an hour northwest of Nashville. It is home to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), known as the Screaming Eagles, the Army’s only Air Assault Division and one of the most highly decorated units in the Army. It also houses two prestigious Special Operations Command Units – the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne).
Here, patriotism grows like a well-tended vine rooted in decades of military history and artifacts. And it flourishes in nearby communities where residents proudly call the dedicated service men and women from Fort Campbell their neighbors and friends.
Honoring the Past
More than $10 million and eight decades of history sit shrink-wrapped in the far end of the Dryer Field House, an old, metal-sided gymnasium at Fort Campbell. The unrecognizable clumps of packaged memorabilia set along unassuming ISO containers appear more like clutter, pushed under collapsed basketball goals and darkened scoreboards. But to retired Lt. Col. John O’Brien, they are like gifts waiting to be opened and displayed in a new state-of-the art museum.
“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s very close to fruition,” John says of the Wings of Liberty Military Museum, which, once built, will serve as the official home for all the artifacts. The $55 million museum has been in the works for more than a decade and is supported by the Fort Campbell Historical Foundation.
Many of the items on display in the Dryer Field House are from the Don F. Pratt Museum, which was established in 1956 to showcase the history of the 101st Airborne Division. The building is currently being renovated and is expected to reopen in March as the Wings of Liberty Military Museum. However, construction of the full Wings of Liberty Military Museum campus is not expected for another couple years. Once the campus is completed sometime around 2020, the museum now under construction will become a support center for storage and research.
It’s hard for O’Brien to contain his enthusiasm. As a history professor at neighboring Austin Peay State University and an officer once stationed at Fort Campbell, he has a deep appreciation for the stories that will be told by each exhibit in the new world-class museum.
Once built, the seven army values – loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage – will set the theme within the facility. Key elements will include major campaigns from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the Global War on terrorism. Monumental tableaux will describe basic combat systems, how they are synchronized to execute a battle plan, and how mission success ultimately depends on the specialized skills of each soldier. Collections of real artifacts will be used to bring history to life, as will high-quality collections of aircraft that chronicle intense combat and technological innovation.
Audio programs will convey the immediacy of events and through compelling and authentic eyewitness accounts. Much of the history will be told from the soldier’s point of view. The museum will also share the significant histories of the military units of Fort Campbell, the nation’s premier power projection platform, capable of deploying mission-ready contingency forces by air, rail, highway and inland waterway.
The museum will showcase the wealth of history of Fort Campbell, which supports the fifth-largest military population in the Army. Many of the 30,000 active duty soldiers stationed here live on post with their families, but about 60 percent choose to live in neighboring towns, which includes the welcoming city of Clarksville, Tennessee.
The Last Train
The charm of Clarksville lies within its ability to balance bigger city amenities like shopping malls, restaurants, live theater and family-friendly festivals with small town features, such as its historic downtown district and the restored, circa-1901 train shed. In the distance, a whistle blows as a locomotive barrels down the tracks past the L&N Train Station where, in the parking lot, a handful of local vendors have set up for the Montgomery County Farmers Market.
The market is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays throughout the summer and fall, and on this day it has drawn scant crowds. The regulars come for Jo’ann Trotter’s baked goods, especially the heavenly cinnamon rolls, a recipe she says God gave her in a dream. “I woke up and went into the kitchen and just started making it.”
There’s also Sherry and Dean Griffy’s produce stand which sells gigantic zucchini and a neon yellow melon with flesh so sweet it’s come to be known as “crack melon,” Sherry says. The other market in town – the Clarksville Downtown Market – is set up each Saturday along the historic buildings in the Public Square. It may be more populated, but the county market swells with its own pride.
“We’re the oldest farmers market in Clarksville. And, we’re one of the best in the state,” Sherry says, referring to a consumer poll by the American Farmland Trust that ranks farmers markets across the country. But to vote, people need to be aware of the competition. And you can’t get out of the parking lot without the Griffies or Anthony Stabile asking you for your vote.
Anthony is the manager of the L&N Train Station. Built in 1881, the station once was one of the busiest locations in Clarksville, with soldiers and civilians departing daily. In 1996, the train station was renovated to its 1901 condition. It now houses the Montgomery County Historical Society, along with a museum filled with station artifacts including a vintage candlestick telephone and antique Underwood typewriter.
The most intriguing collectible, however, is the album cover to The Monkees’ 1966 hit single Last Train to Clarksville. If the song doesn’t quickly come to mind, Anthony is happy to crank it up on his smartphone. He says people are lured to the museum from all over the world, like the Australian motorcycle gang or the group of Jamaicans who took to dancing on the refurbished floors of the train shed when Anthony played the popular tune.
The song, written during the Vietnam War, tells a story of a soldier phoning the woman he loves, urging her to meet him at the train station in Clarksville before he must leave to go to war. And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home, the chorus goes.
Most published accounts question whether the tune was written with Clarksville’s L&N in mind or if the writers adopted the notion after realizing there was a train station in Clarksville, Tennessee, that was conveniently located near Fort Campbell, home to the well-known 101st Airborne Division, which was serving in Vietnam at the time.
But in Anthony’s mind, there’s never been a doubt. “It’s always been about Clarksville.”
Construction began on Camp Campbell along the Tennessee-Kentucky border during World War II. The 102,000-acre reservation was designed to accommodate one armored division and support troops for nearly 45,000 enlisted personnel and officers. It was originally designated as Tennessee property because most of the farmland purchased for the reservation was located in Tennessee. It was later changed to a Kentucky address because the camp was serviced by a Kentucky post office. By 1950, the reservation evolved from a wartime training camp to a permanent installation, and was renamed Fort Campbell.
Since then, much of Clarksville’s outlining farmland has taken a decisive turn toward industry, adding a sizable boost to the city’s economy and helping earn its rank as one of the fastest growing cities in the country, according to U.S. Census data. Some of the more recent developments to the city’s industrial park include South Korea-based LG Electronics’ $250-million investment in a manufacturing plant, which is expected to bring 600 jobs to the area; Hankook Tire’s recent production at its $800-million tire plant, which added about 1,600 jobs; and Google’s purchase of 1,300 acres where it plans to build a $600-million data center and employ about 70 people.
Clarksville is also home to Austin Peay State University, a four-year college that has grown so rapidly since 2000 that it earned the distinction as the fastest growing state university in Tennessee. The institution is one of 13 in the state to receive the Veterans Reconnect Grant, a program funded by the Tennessee General Assembly to develop new programs designed to translate military training into academic credit as a way to promote the success of student veterans.
The city’s countryside is bordered by the Cumberland River, which flows from the Appalachian Mountains to the Ohio River and the mouth of the Tennessee River. The Cumberland is a major waterway in the South, and serves a pivotal role for Fort Campbell, providing another access for troops to deploy at a moment’s notice.
In recent years, the city has transformed the 15-acre section along the Cumberland River in downtown Clarksville with the development of McGregor Park RiverWalk, which includes a riverfront promenade, wharf, amphitheaters, overlook plaza, playground, picnic areas, and the River Flows Museum chronicling Clarksville’s river history.
McGregor Park is also where Union Flag Officer Andrew Foote met with local officials during the Civil War to negotiate the town’s surrender. The site is one of the points along the Tennessee Civil War Trail, part of a five state trails system that explores more than 1,500 sites that tell the stories behind the Civil War.
Not far upstream, on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Red and Cumberland rivers in Clarksville, is Fort Defiance, another point along the Civil War Trail. The fort was built by Confederate troops during the Civil War to defend the river approach to the city. But in February 1892, Fort Defiance was captured by Union forces, which occupied the fort for the remainder of the war. During that time, it became a refuge for runaway and freed slaves.
In 2008, the city secured a $2.2 million federal grant that was combined with local funds to build a 1,500-square-foot Interpretive Center surrounded by nearly a mile of walking trails where the outer earthworks, powder magazine, and gun platforms are still visible.
Another Clarksville-area site along the Civil War Trail includes the Public Square in the heart of downtown with government buildings, shops and military tributes. During the Civil War, the Public Square became a recruiting station for the United States Colored Troops.
Welcome Home Veterans
Patriotism runs deep in this small town, where Ernesto Rodriguez, a 34-year-old Fort Campbell veteran, calls home. Last year, he walked 2,200 miles from Clarksville to Santa Barbara, California, to make a point.
Twenty-two is the number of veterans who commit suicide every day in the U.S., according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. While the actual number is hotly debated, 22 has become symbolic for many long-distance expeditions by veterans to raise awareness and remove the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is why Rodriguez chose to walk 2,200 miles.
Rodriguez started his cross-country walk on Veteran’s Day 2016, with a 60-pound rumpsack and an American flag strapped to his back. Not only did he want to raise public awareness of PTSD, but to encourage soldiers battling the condition to reach out when they need help. “When someone is suffering,” he said, “sometimes something as simple as a phone call can help.”
Rodriguez speaks from experience. He served two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, including with the Airborne infantry unit that was one of the first to step foot in Iraq during the March 2003 invasion. “I’ve seen a lot in my time as a soldier, and I have lost just as much,” he said. Now, he spends much of his time speaking to the public and the media about his experience and the tragedy of PTSD, and served serving a grand marshal for Clarksville’s Welcome Home Veterans Parade in September.
This was the first year the Clarksville-Montgomery County Economic Development Council organized the five-day event, which included evening concerts, a parade and remembrance ceremony, a viewing of the PBS documentary film series The Vietnam War, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, a Field of Honor, and the 9/11 memorial, Eyes of Freedom. The event brought impressive crowds from across the region.
Spirit of Fort Campbell
Fort Campbell is just a 30-minute drive from Clarksville, but its influence can be seen across town, especially at Beachaven Vineyards and Winery. The 30-year-old winery hosted the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall for three weeks during the city’s Welcome Home Veterans Parade, and was the site for the 500-flag Field of Honor, which was viewable from Interstate 24, which runs through town.
The award-winning winery was founded in 1986 by Judge William O. Beach with the help of his daughter, Louisa Cooke, and her husband, Ed. Judge Beach was a longtime lover of wine and winemaking whose efforts to change Tennessee laws paved the way for the state’s wine industry. Judge Beach died in 1991, but Louisa and Ed have continued to build on Judge Beach’s vision, hosting free Jazz on the Lawn concerts that bring upwards of 3,000 people every other Saturday from May through October.
Beachaven also pays homage to Fort Campbell by offering several different military unit labels from the 101st Airborne Division, and with Military Mondays that entitle those with a military ID to get a discount.
Just down the street from Beachaven is Old Glory Distilling Company, a small batch artisan distillery opened by Matt Cunningham in October 2016. The distillery uses grains grown by local farmers to handcraft sprits using old-fashioned techniques, then ages them in oak barrels. Due to the aging process, the first batches of the distillery’s Tennessee Whiskey are still months from being ready. In the interim, Cunningham has developed a Tennessee Vodka that “in true Old Glory fashion,” has been sent through a copper pot still and carefully filtered through the same sugar maple charcoal used to make Old Glory’s Tennessee Whiskey. He also sells Smooth Shine TN Moonshine, which Cunningham said won’t peel the paint off an M1-Abrams tank. Instead, the moonshine is wheat based, which makes it a “smooth shine.”
All the sprits’ labels harken back to the 1920s, but the distillery’s Jumper’s Stash White Rum officially tips its hat to Fort Campbell. “We’ve got a soft spot for the brave men and women of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), the Night Stalkers of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), and last but not least, the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne),” the website states. In honor of their fighting spirit, Cunningham crafted a rum distilled from sugar cane molasses, which, he says, “makes it great for mixing, sipping, pouring and toasting to missions accomplished.”
The distillery also has a venue space, which hosted “The Vietnam War” documentary during the Welcome Back Veterans Parade.
Some soldiers and their families stationed at Fort Campbell opt to live in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a town that boasts a cost of living below the national average and plenty of affordable housing. With a population of about 30,000, the city is a fifth the size of Clarksville.
Hopkinsville’s most recent claim to fame was that it was one of the best places in the country to see the recent total eclipse, a phenomenon that sent residents to their local Walmart and Kroger to clear out everything from toilet paper to Crisco to sweet tea for fear that eclipse tourism would overrun the city. The concern was warranted, as an estimated 200,000 people flooded to so-called “Eclipseville,” causing a momentary boost in economy and a dose of worldwide attention.
In full daylight, there is more to see in Hopkinsville. The city has a thriving Downtown Farmers Market open every Wednesday and Saturday from April to November. It is located in Founder’s Square in Historic Downtown Hopkinsville.
It is also home to the Fort Campbell Memorial Park, an interstate outparcel-turned-park honoring the 248 soldiers killed on Dec. 12, 1985, in Gander, Newfoundland, while returning home to Fort Campbell as part of a peace-keeping mission in the Sinai. The 16-acre park features a paved walking trail, benches, and a lighted “Peacekeeper” monument with the names of the fallen soldiers chiseled on a marker at the base.
History, Heritage and Values
The spirit that blooms throughout Clarksville and Hopkinsville is clearly rooted in Fort Campbell. Without the post, the neighboring towns would lose much of their color, which is why Fort Campbell should be a destination to any traveler to the area.
Those who want to explore Fort Campbell must first check in at the Visitor’s Center. When the Wings of Liberty Military Museum is built, however, visitors can access the museum through a private entrance.
Beyond the museum, one can visit the outdoor Memorial Park, which will become part of the Wings of Liberty Military Museum campus. Here, various military aircraft and equipment used by the division are on display. The centerpiece of the park is the “Brass Hat” – a fully restored C-47 aircraft similar to the one used to carry division commander Maj. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor into Normandy during World War II.
The Medal of Honor Rotunda inside McAuliffe Hall, which serves as the 101st Airborne Division headquarters, recognizes past Medal of Honor recipients. Also inside is the 101st Screaming Eagle Aerie, a wall that lists the names of all 101st Airborne Division soldiers who died during deployment.
With advance notice, groups can participate in the Engagement Skills Trainer, a 10-lane, computer-based weapons firing range, where they can fire authentic U.S. small arms weapons at simulated targets using the latest laser technology. Groups can also sign up to visit the Sabalauski Air Assault School, which includes an overview of the course requirements, a tour of the school’s obstacle course, and an opportunity to rappel from the school’s 34-foot air assault tower.
A once well-kept secret on post is Clarksville Base, a naval facility that was designed with the sole purpose to transport, store and assemble about a third of the U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile during the Cold War. The base was operated by the U.S. Navy from 1948 through 1969, and heavily guarded as a Cold War secret. Throughout the former base site within Fort Campbell are several remnants of Clarksville Base, including reinforced concrete storage bunkers secured with heavy blast doors guarding multiple cage doors and bank vault doors to protect the nuclear weapons once kept inside.
But the best way to take in the history, heritage, and values of Fort Campbell is to experience the Wings of Liberty Military Museum. Museum Director John O’Brien believes, once constructed, the facility will bring as many as 300,000 visitors annually, a notion that brings a smile to his face.
“We enjoy taking care of the families of our current serving soldiers and the families of the vets when they come here and share their stories,” he says, standing at one of the large tableaux that will be showcased in the new facility. “But I really like to share with our local community and American public at large these wonderfully compelling stories behind Fort Campbell.”