Limestone, T-shirts & Snails: The Snail Wins. The history of Sherwood, Tennessee

Sherwood, Tennessee is located near the northern end of the Crow Creek Valley, which is a relatively narrow valley surrounded on three sides (north, east & west) by the Cumberland Plateau with the southern end of the valley opening toward Alabama. Crow Creek, which flows from Lost Cove Cave/Buggy Top Cave, drains the valley and flows through the western part of Sherwood, emptying into the Tennessee River at Guntersville Lake near Stevenson, Alabama. Sherwood lies at an elevation of 669 feet and State Route 56 is the only major highway that passes through it. To the north, the road ascends more than 1,000 feet to Sewanee atop the Cumberland Plateau and to the south, the road continues into Alabama as State Route 117. Railroad tracks run alongside the highway for much of its stretch in the valley.

Evidence from nearby Sinking Cove and Russell Cave indicate that Native Americans inhabited this region around ten thousand years ago. Charcoal from ancient campfires in these areas has been carbon dated to around 6,500 B.C. The Tennessee State Legislature created Franklin County in 1807 and there are reports that George Gray settled on Crow Creek in 1809.

The history of Sherwood, like that of many cities and towns, has been shaped by geography. The railroad from Nashville to Chattanooga might have taken a different route had it not been for a low place in the Cumberland Plateau, a place just perfect for the historic Cumberland Mountain Tunnel which is about seven miles north of Sherwood. The tunnel was completed in 1852 and was strategically important to both sides during the Civil War. The Confederates eventually abandoned the tunnel as they retreated from Tullahoma toward Chattanooga in July 1863.

At first the small community of Sherwood was called Kitchen’s Station or Catchings Station. It was named for station master Meridith Catchings and it began appearing on railroad maps just after the Civil War. It was later changed to Sherwood in 1878 when it was named for Charles D. Sherwood, who was a lieutenant governor of Minnesota during the Civil War. The Tennessee State Legislature approved Charles’s charter for the Tennessee Immigration and Land Company on April 15, 1878. That same day, he purchased the 1,410 acres of land for his northern colony from John F. Anderson and on June 19, 1878 a local paper announced that the name of Kitchen’s Station would be changed to Sherwood. Charles was more interested in the local spring and natural beauty of the area and paid little attention to the mineral that formed the valley walls. Unfortunately, Charles Sherwood was not able to realize his dream of building a resort community featuring mineral springs and in 1892 he sold most of his real estate in Sherwood to Byron Gager, who was an industrialist from Ohio.

Gager established his lime manufacturing company in the town because he was looking for the type of high quality limestone that he found in the area. The Gager Lime and Manufacturing Company was charted in 1892 and operated until 1949. During its heyday, Sherwood had 1,700 residents as of the 1930 census but the population declined to around 900 in the 1950’s after the mine closed. The castle like ruins of the lime production facilities and silos still remain in the area.

In the mid 50’s families were working grimly to try and save their town. There had been no payroll since the limestone plant had shut down and economic paralysis was set in. Men drifted away seeking work elsewhere and the population was dwindling. Led by a young Episcopal minister named Father Joseph S. Huske, the women of Sherwood began looking for a way to breathe new life into the town that their Scotch & Irish ancestors settled just over 100 years earlier. They had planned to start a shirt factory and to symbolize the town’s determination to survive a candle was lit in the Church of Epiphany Mission with the promise that it would burn brightly until Sherwood’s future was assured. They created the Epiphany Corporation, an organization to assist in securing the factory and to finance the venture, the corporation offered for sale $50,000 in bonds bearing 3.5% interest. 95 local women began training as seamstresses to staff the plant and Father Huske contributed the cloth and his mission acquired the machinery. The shirts they made sold readily and the income was used to continue their training program. Initially the women were making $40 a week and they had hoped to grow to employ 180 women which would mean an annual payroll of $374,000. Unfortunately, the factory did not succeed and once again Sherwood would face economic hardships.

Left: Image of the Painted Snake Coiled Forest Snail by Alan Cressler

Right: Image of the Sherwood Forest provided by Tennessee Division of Natural Areas

It wasn’t until 50 years later that a new opportunity for jobs in Sherwood would arise again. In 2005, Ted Thieman purchased the old mining property for $3.75 million, which included approximately 3,200 acres at the abandoned Gager Mine. However, it was soon faced with a battle, the Painted Snake Coiled Forest Snail, which is a threatened species first discovered in 1906 and found only in the town of Sherwood. It was first discovered in Buck Creek Cove, just south of Sherwood and it was listed as threatened by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1978 rather than endangered because of logging threats that had not been demonstrated to be imminent. The mollusk looks like a coiled snake and lives in crevices and under ledges of limestone. It is estimated there are thousands of these snails but this is the only place in the world where they exist. While locals were eager to see the mining operation open up again because of potential jobs, the first of its kind in over 50 years, others were fighting to stop them because of the snail. Locals who needed the economic boost were frustrated to say the least. Some long time locals stated, “The Snails do not provide food for us but the mine will”. Franklin County Mayor Monte Adams said, “Emotions of Sherwood residents on both sides made the environment vs. jobs zoning decision heart wrenching”. Franklin County commissioners did initially approve a zoning change to accommodate Mr. Thieman’s plans for a mining operation up the mountainside from the vine covered ruins of the Gager Company however, it was still necessary for him to obtain federal permits and provide a protection plan for the snail with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. His new mining operation had been slowed to a snails pace (pun intended)! Eventually, the Sherwood Mine obtained their necessary permits and mining operations once resumed in the town of Sherwood. The limestone that was being removed from Sherwood was now being sold to coal fired power plants.

Ten years after opening, Ted Thieman worked out a deal with the Conservation Fund and the Land Trust for Tennessee, in partnership with the State of Tennessee to protect 4,061 acres in Sherwood, Tennessee. Funding was made available from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) through both the US Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund. More than eight miles of streams in the Crow Creek Valley and vital habitat for more than one-third of all the federally threatened Painted Snake Coiled Forest Snails known to exist have been conserved. The surface of the property will be managed by the State for public access and recreation, drinking water quality for Sherwood, wildlife habitat protection and sustainable forest management. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry will manage a portion of the land as part of the Franklin State Forest, expanding future hunting access and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) will manage the rest as part of the Carter State Natural Area and South Cumberland State Park. The Sherwood Mining Company will retain the rights to mine the limestone underneath the property for the next 50 years. This will allow the company to continue operations and maintain the local jobs. In all the purchase was for 3,893 acres and the Sherwood Mining Company donated 168 acres to mitigate for impacts to the Painted Snake Coiled Forest Snail habitat. This innovative conservation effort was made possible with funding from the LWCF, a bipartisan federal program that uses percentages of proceeds from offshore oil and gas royalties, not taxpayer dollars.

Tennessee’s US Senator Lamar Alexander stated, “Preservation of Sherwood Forest in Franklin County will help provide future generations with opportunities for hunting, hiking and recreation in a beautiful area of our state”.

In addition to the snail, the property will also protect the federally endangered Morefield’s Leather Flower as well as seven additional rare species of plants and animals. This area has been identified as a “hot spot” for ecological resiliency and the land is also likely to support wildlife far into the future. This project also connects over 25,000 acres of forest and wildlife; 13,000 acres at the University of the South, 7,700 acres in the Franklin State Forest, 375 acres at the Mr. and Mrs. Harry Lee Carter Class II Natural Scientific State Natural Area (Buggy Top) and now the 4,061 acres in the Sherwood Forest.