We are blessed in Lawrence County to have places from our past that are preserved for today’s enjoyment.
Two great examples are located in our Third District: the Big Red Store in the Appleton community; and the creek, low-water and swinging bridge, churches and historic cemetery at Mt. Zion. If you haven’t visited these Lawrence County gems, Third District Commissioner Denny Gillespie recommends that you do.
The Big Red Store was once one of the biggest general stores in the Southeast. Customers could buy everything they needed there: groceries, clothing, hardware, chickens, and wooden caskets. A tailor, milliner and undertaker plied their trades there; a soda fountain, post office, and drug store were housed under its roof. The local Masonic Lodge even held meetings on its third floor.
Now restored and open on the Fourth of July and one December weekend each year, visitors can see examples of the items that were sold there, and scrapbooks full of photos and other memorabilia from the store. Nearby, on the banks of Sugar Creek, is the site of the last skirmish of the Civil War in Tennessee.
Mt. Zion’s churches, cemetery and bridges are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The United Methodist Church is one of the county’s only remaining 19th century Protestant churches and its original log building is said to be the place where a company of Confederate soldiers was raised in 1861. The first swinging bridge spanned Sugar Creek in 1900; a newer version of it offers the same thrill for those who cross it today. Waders enjoy the shallow waters flowing over our first low-water bridge and the clear, deeper water of the creek itself.
The Third District of Lawrence County includes most of Rabbit Trail Road (Hwy. 98), and the unincorporated communities along it, from north to south: Center Point, Union Hill, Ramah, Five Points and Bonnertown. Commissioner Gillespie is a native of Five Points, and that is where he raised his family and continues to live today.
“My grandfather moved to Lawrence County from Cullman, Alabama. He was a carpenter and a farmer.” Gillespie’s dad worked at TVA. “My mom and I farmed,” he said, laughing. Like most neighbors, their primary crop was cotton.
He feels a kinship to the people in his district and as a matter of fact is kin to a great many, especially when you consider the fact that he is also half Ezell. Mr. Gillespie also attended Five Points Elementary and Loretto High, where he graduated in 1965. “Lawrence County has a lot of good people, but I am partial to those in my district. They’re my friends and neighbors.”
The third district is made up of farms ranging from a few to a few hundred acres. “My district is strictly rural,” he said. “I wanted to serve on the Commission because I felt landowners were not getting the representation they needed.
“Most landowners feel the property tax is an unfair tax and I definitely do. They are hit simply because the thought is that if you own property you can afford it, and that’s not necessarily true. There are a lot of elderly people who own the property they live on, but can barely afford their basic needs.
“I will never vote for a property tax increase. I would rather have a gas tax or a wheel tax that everybody pays.”
Gillespie left Five Points for the U.S. Navy a year after high school graduation. He trained there to become an electrician, a skill that would serve him throughout his working years. He served a total of two years in Japan and aboard a “snooper ship” off the Russian coast, the USS Banner, AGER 1. Its sister ship, the USS Pueblo, AGER 2, was captured by the North Koreans when it took the Banner’s place for a short time. You can read more about the incident and the Navy’s Auxiliary General Environmental Research (AGER) program at http://www.usspueblo.org/Background/AGER_Program.html
He joined the Navy’s effort in Vietnam after undergoing survival and weapons training. For two years (1968-69) he was part of the “Brown Water Navy,” serving on riverboats used to deliver supplies to forces within Vietnam. The following excerpt comes from http://www.navyhistory.org/2012/01/brown-water-navy-in-vietnam/ which offers more reading on the subject.
“The sailors who served in the Brown Water Navy endured unique forms of hardship and danger. Small craft such as PBR’s (River Patrol Boats) made their way deep into inland waterways, surrounded on both sides by impenetrable jungle. Gunfire could erupt from the dense forests along the shore at any time, often from cleverly concealed enemy positions just yards away. These lightly armored patrol boats were built for speed, and offered little protection to their crews. Vietnamese sampans and small craft were intercepted on a daily basis and search for contraband materials – always a tense and potentially dangerous situation.”
Gillespie was more than happy to return home and resume dating a high school classmate, Jetta McCrory, and begin an apprenticeship with TVA at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant. He and Jetta married in September 1970. She chose teaching as a career and was part of the Leoma Elementary faculty for many years. Gillespie drove 40 miles to work every day, advancing from electrician to foreman, then general foreman and finally supervisor. Before retiring from TVA in 2001, he was writing procedures for electricians in the maintenance department, with the specialized training and clearance required to work inside a nuclear power plant.
He next became a contractor, performing work for TVA and other nuclear power producers. He spent 2009 working in Baltimore (with frequent flights home) for Constellation Power. He enjoyed the experience of the big city, where he often walked to work between Baltimore’s two stadiums: one is home to the Orioles baseball team and the other to Ravens football.
Gillespie worked four more years at Browns Ferry before he retired again, this time for good. He is in the middle of his fourth term as a County Commissioner, and shares a gene for public service with his sister Debbie Riddle, Lawrence County Circuit Court Clerk.
He does some farming with his son Ben, who lives on the family farm with wife Carla and four children, Ryan, Oakley, Weston and Bella. They have cattle and soybeans. Ben and Carla also have a poultry business with Aviagen. Carla is heavily involved in homeschooling Weston and Bella.
Ryan is married to Brittney Stults, and he works for the Sheriff’s Department. Brittney attends Columbia State. Oakley is a senior at Loretto High and drives number 94 at Thunderhill Raceway where the entire family enjoys watching him race. Weston and Bella enjoy riding horses, tending to their many animals and also raccoon hunting.
Daughter, Cherie, and her husband, Dwayne Montgomery, live in the Nashville area with their daughter, Hattan. At eleven years of age, Hattan is a figure skater and dreams of representing the United States of America at the Olympics. She trains with figure skating warriors, Linda Fratianne, Frank Carroll, and Scott Hamilton, with the Figure Skating Club of Southern California at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California, and with the Scott Hamilton Figure Skating Club at the Ford Ice Center in Nashville. Hattan is also a ballet dancer, drummer, pianist, and entrepreneurial philanthropist. Hattan studies ballet with the Nashville Ballet and “Raises Bunnies for Monies” to fight cancer with her bunny business, Hattie’s Hoppers, donating 100% of her profits to the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation.