Tuesday, July 31, 2018

So Close So Near



In the summer of my sabbatical where I am doing everything I can to find personal growth, some type of happiness and in turn a sense of health and well being I realized everyone should find said time in which to do the same.  Irony that of course it is only something one of privilege can accomplish and The New York Times had an article about what they called a Creative Hiatus about those who were doing such from their busy well established lives.  But there are many ways those without said resources can find ways to take a break from what is the routine of a daily orchestrated life.

One of the many things I do is find a place that interest me, has a special and sign up for emails.  And viola that led to infrared saunas, reflexology, salt caves and other healthy optional choices that I have been doing.  From massage to walking in a park away from others is another.   That fancy 3x5 card you carry you can leave it at home.   Try reading a book or a newspaper cover to cover while listening to some classical music for one hour.   As I have been doing this all summer with the conclusion being my trip to Iceland in two weeks, I am fortunate I have the resources and time to do as such.  I get that I am of privilege in that sense but it in the pie of life is not the biggest slice.  But part of this was to finally get ahead of what had been putting in my holding pattern for years.  I had to finally put that behind me in some way that was firmly in the past.  But the past is often in the present and for some setting the record straight is just that way to move forward.

And that is where this story brings me to yesterday.  I stopped a week ago at the Omni to pick up a coffee for the walk home and on the counter was a card with a invite to the Dan Call Farm in Lynchburg Tennessee to learn about Uncle Nearest and the history behind this new brand of  Tennessee Whiskey.  Okay I love a field trip so I emailed them and walked up the street to the Corsair Distillery and jumped a bus to learn about what I thought was a day drinking adventure.  It was that and a lot "moore". This is a pun as Lynchburg is in Moore County which is a dry county in Tennessee meaning that you cannot buy liquor nor consume it in public as in restaurants or bars.  In reality it is damp county but again in that true Southern Conundrum contradictory way it is the home of Jack Daniels and where that became legacy and history that is all about liquor.

When I first moved here in 2016 the New York Times had just printed an article about the slave who was the original master and distiller of what became Jack Daniels No 17.  And I was not the only one who read the article and in that time since the legacy and story behind this has dramatically changed and I met one woman who was clearly determined to ensure that it stayed that way.

A slave taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. She's made telling his story her life's work.      Jessica Bliss, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee Published  Feb. 23, 2018 |

All Fawn Weaver could imagine was the sound of a gun being cocked over and over again.

On their second night in Tennessee's whiskey capital, Weaver and her husband, Keith, stood at the edge of a 10-foot hole that looked petrifyingly like a freshly dug grave.

It was after sunset. The field around them was tree lined and dark.

The man who led them there was a self-declared redneck.

"We were sure we were going to be shot or buried alive," Weaver recalls.

A profile of author Fawn Weaver, the history-changing woman behind Uncle Nearest Whiskey whose diligence and research almost single-handedly altered Jack Daniel's story of its beginnings. Shelley Mays/The Tennessean

But as Weaver soon discovered, nothing in this small Southern town was exactly as it seemed.

More: How Jack Daniel's Whiskey fits into Black History Month

More: Distillery, music venue slated for Tennessee walking horse farm

She had come to Lynchburg to research the roots of a former slave named Nathan "Nearest" Green, the man who some believed had taught the famous Jack Daniel to make whiskey more than 150 years ago.

Weaver's husband never wanted to set foot in the place, objecting as a black man to visiting any town with the word "lynch" in its name. He preferred Paris for his wife's 40th birthday.

But Weaver, an intrepid entrepreneur, investor and New York Times best-selling author from Los Angeles, had a mission — and a research trip to Lynchburg, the home of world-renowned Jack Daniel Distillery, was her celebratory request.

More: Ex-slave who trained Jack Daniel gets new recognition

So the couple flew across the country, ready to explore the back roads and back issues in a potentially backward town.

What they uncovered was an unexpected friendship between a black slave on loan to a wealthy preacher and a white teenager who worked at that preacher's grocery store — a relationship that launched a multibillion-dollar whiskey company and contradicted what many assume about race relations in the South.

It was only by chance that they were there at all.
Jack Daniel's 'hidden ingredient'

It began with a trip to Singapore and an article in the International New York Times.

Overseas on a business trip in June two years ago, Weaver unfolded the Times and was met with a surprising headline.

Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave

The story revealed a complicated and long-concealed tale.

For more than a century, Daniel's distilling prowess had been credited to a man named Dan Call, the local preacher and grocer understood to have employed a young Daniel on his farm and taught the boy everything he knew about whiskey.

But last year, the company came forward with a possible new twist — Daniel didn’t learn to distill from Call, it said, but from a man named Nathan "Nearest" Green, one of Call’s slaves.

A man who would become Daniel's teacher and mentor and friend.

Weaver read the details and gasped. The slaves of the segregated South were generally treated as property, not people — objects transferred like deeds upon a white owner’s death.

Green's unlikely story, built on oral history and a tenuous trail of archives, disputed that.

"This story will never be accepted unless it is indisputable," Weaver thought, wanting to know more.

She Googled Green's name. Her search returned nothing but a newly created Wikipedia page referencing the book "Jack Daniel's Legacy." She ordered it.

The next day, while traveling to Malaysia, Weaver received tragic news. Her 26-year-old niece had been killed by a distracted driver while she rode her motorcycle.

As quickly as it arrived, Green's story became an afterthought.

She rushed home.
Top secret whiskey tasting

"I'm not a griever; it's not how I am wired," Weaver admits. "If I have to grieve, I will be a mess. So I replace it with work."

For two weeks, she focused on celebrating her niece’s life. In the aftermath, Jack Daniel's biography became her coping distraction.

And she read it voraciously, tagging every page where Green and his sons were mentioned. There was more than 50.

For a book published in 1967, that was significant.

The '60s marked the contentious apex of the civil rights era. Sits-ins. Selma. Assassinations.

Lynchburg, Daniel's home, was just 50 miles to the east of Pulaski, where six Tennessee veterans of the Confederate Army established the Ku Klux Klan.

And yet, here was a biography that candidly detailed a relationship between “Little Jack” and “Uncle Nearest” — at a most unlikely time.

"To have another family, a black family, mentioned that many times is insane," Weaver says now. "That's how I knew the story was a little more special."

And so the journey began. The Weavers booked a cross-country flight to Tennessee and rented a place to stay near the Lynchburg town square.

They kept the reason for their trip a secret, telling their family only that they were going on a "whiskey tasting" in the South.
'He didn’t have to tell us we were equal; we just were'

When Weaver first entered the unfamiliar community to research Green and forever alter the story of Jack Daniel Distillery, she did it with no fear. No worries about racism, no feeling of danger.

A vibrant and relentless businesswoman with bright hazel eyes and a loud, joyful laugh, Weaver has always focused on finding the positive.

"I’m not a fearful person like that," she says, navigating her sporty white BMW down the tree-lined two-lane roads of Lynchburg. "The way I look at it is if someone is racist it's their issue, not mine."

She came to that from her father, a man who had been kicked out of Southern University for participating in a sit-in decades ago. Frank Wilson took a one-way ticket from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles and went on to become a legendary Motown Records producer and a minister.

He didn't preach segregation to his children.

"We all grew up never seeing black and white differently," Weaver says. "He didn’t have to tell us we were equal; we just were."

That attitude guided Weaver the day she set foot in the Moore County Public Library, searching for traces of Green and his family. As she scanned the rows of books, her first thought was the town had been "whitewashed."

"The only place you saw black people in that entire library was in the deed books —because they were property," Weaver says.

At the nearby Moore County archives, she found what she was looking for.

The small space just off the town square held documents dated back to December 1871. Loose records filled archival folders, and boxes of tax and court records lined the shelves. Weaver scoured it all searching for birth certificates, genealogies, anything with a paper trail.

"It was a fascinating story to be able to find little tidbits," says Christine Pyrdom, the county archivist. "People can walk through the door and have only a name — and that name forms into a complete person, eventually. It's very fulfilling to see somebody be so excited."
What Weaver began to discover was that Lynchburg, at the time of Jack Daniel and Nearest Green, was perhaps a more progressive place than most — surrounded by the South’s racial tension, but in some ways, less susceptible to it.
'We were like family'

Without question, there were troubled stories in its past. In 1903, one newspaper reported a story about "a mob that wanted to lynch a negro" and assailed the Lynchburg jail. The sheriff fired on the mob, killed one man and captured three others.

The mob, however, reached its victim and shot him to death in jail.

But that type of event did not define the town. In the decades before desegregation, whites and blacks worked, lived and played together, according to Green's descendants and Weaver's research.

"Lynchburg is a unique town, no doubt," says Debbie Staples, Green’s great-great-granddaughter. "Were there things that happened? We’re talking about the South. Did I face racial discrimination or racial tension? No."

And, Staples adds, "I don't think my grandmother did either."

Staples grew up in Lynchburg in the '60s, raised by her grandmother, her Mammie. She would often sit on the front porch at Mammie's modest white home on the corner of Elm Street. From there, one could see out to the hollers and up to where the Jack Daniel’s warehouses stood. It was a place where the town gathered to gossip.

Mammie would recline in her rocking chair, looking out at the small valleys between the hills, and tell stories.

"My granddaddy made the whiskey for Jack Daniel," Mammie would say.

"Oh, yeah?" her grandchildren would respond skeptically. "OK."

But maybe this place, this town, did have something different about it.

There were only two businesses in town — the pharmacy and a place called the Coffee Cup — that followed Jim Crow laws, forcing black patrons to enter through the back. The Green descendants would often go downtown to get a snack at the cafe or an ice cream without any trouble, Staples’ brother Jeff Vance recalls.

They didn't go into some restaurants or the swimming pool. "It wasn't like they said we couldn't come," Staples says. "We just knew."

But down the road from Mammie's house, at the home of a white family where Staples' Auntie worked, all the grandchildren — white and black — sat and ate dinner at the same table together.

"We were like family," Staples says.

And that, it seemed, was like what Nearest Green was to Jack Daniel, too.
Bigger than Lynchburg, bigger than Jack Daniel's

Nearly two years after her first research trip to Lynchburg, Weaver stands in a room at Dan Call's farm — the place where Daniel and Green first began making whiskey together — and marvels at its contents.

Photographs of Green’s descendants, well-dressed men with bow ties and ladies in brimmed hats and lace, cover the walls.

Dozens of handwritten letters between Daniel's descendants lay on the tables, their contents detailing the comings and goings of "Uncle Jack."

In one corner of the wood-paneled room hangs the complete family tree of Nathan "Nearest" Green.

And on the mantel above the fireplace stand bottles of Tennessee's newest brand of whiskey, Uncle Nearest — a company created by the Weavers to honor the original master distiller.

The story wasn’t new to Green's descendants. It wasn’t new to Jack Daniel’s either.

In the 1990s, the company uncovered a photo of its own — one taken in the late 19th century, where a black man, Green’s son George, sits next to Daniel.

"Historians will tell you that is unusual for a photograph not just in the American South but for the United States at that time period at the turn of the century," says Nelson Eddy, who works as in-house historian for Jack Daniel's.

"You looked at it and said, 'Wow, I wonder what the story is there.' "

Through its own research, the company began to embrace Green’s role as a master distiller. It planned to unveil the discovery in 2016 as part of its 150th anniversary celebration, but the racial strain before the presidential election changed that.

"I thought we would be accused of making a big deal about it for commercial gain," Mark I. McCallum, president of Jack Daniel’s Brands at Brown-Forman, said in an interview with the New York Times.

And so the story remained bottled up. And it might have stayed that way had Weaver not arrived on her 40th birthday.

Since then, Weaver has interviewed more than 100 people and collected more than 10,000 original documents from across six states — all to support the Lynchburg lore that Green was the one who first manned the whiskey still. A legend somehow forgotten over time.

Perhaps surprisingly, the community and Jack Daniel's have embraced it. The distillery has recognized Green as its first master distiller and incorporated mentions of Green in all its tours, consulting Weaver's research.

And though there is no known photo of Green, one of his son now hangs on the master distiller wall of fame.

Weaver never expected it to be this way. When she first came to Lynchburg, she fully believed that she would tell one version of Jack Daniel's history and the company would tell another. Instead, they have worked hand in hand.

"I think it's really important," Eddy says of Jack Daniel's inclusion of Green. "And I think it’s a wonderful story.

"It's bigger than Jack Daniel's and it's bigger than Lynchburg, Tennessee. At a time when there might be divides, it’s a story in a very difficult time of two people coming together and color not being as much a part of that relationship as we might have expected it."

Two legacies — not just one — now emerge.
Inspiring humanity

Weaver's love for Daniel, for Green and for the town where they made history has kept her in Tennessee much longer than she planned.

Lynchburg is now home.

She and her husband live in the tiny carriage home next to the historic Tolley House, where several generations of Jack Daniel's distillers once resided and which they now own.

Keith, who is an executive vice president at Sony Pictures Entertainment, travels back to L.A. for work. Fawn, who loves horses almost as much as history, throws on her jeans and farm boots and revels in country life.

They own, too, the 313-acre Dan Call Farm, with the trickling spring that once fed a grist mill and a pair of sweet herding dogs. And plank by plank, they are carefully restoring the old wooden farmhouse, where the old walls are marked with brand burns for D.H. Call whiskey and flaking wallpaper reveals newspaper from 1898 underneath.

Neighbors know them by name. They check in when strangers visit. They repair a fence post when it's broken.

"I am embarrassed, in a way, to share I had a bias against some towns in the South," Keith Weaver says. "What you may perceive in terms of a person or a place may not be true.

"The humanity that has been uncovered through this story and the relationship ultimately between Nearest and Jack can be inspiring."

Fawn Weaver feels that, too. As she drives through town, she points out the home of Green's descendants. She slows to look at the land purchased to create the Nearest Green Memorial Park, which will be nestled right next to Mammie Green's house.

And then she stops at the cemetery where Green is buried.

It's less than a football field away from Daniel's final resting place, a massive headstone where tourists from all around the world leave flowers and shot glasses. But, until recently, Green's gravesite was obscured, secluded in the segregated part of the cemetery.
In December, as part of the rededication of HighviewBuy Photo

In December, as part of the rededication of Highview Cemetery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, a new cemetery entrance was built and a towering stone memorial was erected for former slave Nathan "Nearest" Green. (Photo: Shelley Mays / The Tennessean)

In December, as part of the rededication of Highview Cemetery orchestrated by Weaver and the Nearest Green Foundation, a new cemetery entrance was built and a towering stone memorial was erected for Green.

"Now you can see Nearest from Jack," Weaver says with a smile.

Weaver isn’t finished spreading Green's story just yet. There is the whiskey, a pending book, maybe a movie, and next up, a soon-to-be-built distillery in Shelbyville.

The Nearest Green Distillery will stand on the 270-acre Sand Creek Farms, a historic Tennessee walking horse farm and event center. In time, they plan a 3,500-barrel rickhouse, a gift shop and a tasting room.

The 600-seat show arena on the site will be reimagined and double as a private concert venue.

When Weaver talks about the next stage, making her way through the barns and petting the elegant walking horses that will remain on the property, she glows.

Then, standing in the performance ring of the show barn, Weaver reflects on all that has happened in the last two years.

She recalls that fearful experience when she and her husband first arrived — the panic that she might be buried alive — and she laughs.

It was the middle of their second long day of research. The Weavers were getting dinner at a local barbecue restaurant and making conversation with the owner, Chuck Baker.

Muscular and bald, Baker had an intimidating build but a friendly presence. Knowing they were new to town, he invited the couple for drinks after he finished work.

Keith Weaver was cautious, but Fawn saw it as a research opportunity.

Being from L.A., they expected to meet Baker at a bar or another spot in town. Instead, they found themselves following Baker's truck down unfamiliar Tennessee back roads behind the distillery as the sun set.

Twenty minutes later they were pulling down a long dirt road driveway to Baker's house. After hanging out on his front porch with some beers, Baker said, "Hey, I want to show you something."

He went out back, to a place beyond the house lights, and stopped in front of a freshly dug pit. That's when terror truly set in.

"For the first time in my life, I was certain I was going to die," Weaver says. "This was my final resting place."

But, as Weaver would uncover many more times in the next two years, the situation was not as it seemed.

Baker had dug the pit for a photo shoot of his pigs, which were featured in the Jack Daniel's Tennessee Squire calendar.

"A photographer had climbed into the pit and taken pictures of the pigs looking down over the side," Weaver says with a boisterous laugh.

Baker is now one of the couple's closest friends in Lynchburg.

As Weaver has learned, people can often surprise — in positive ways.

Jack Daniel's certainly has.

"We have the enormous responsibility of raising up one legend without harming the legacy of another," Weaver says. "Because I have no doubt if Nearest was here he would be raising a glass to Jack and Jack would be raising a glass to Nearest."

Yesterday I toured all of that and tried the whiskey.  Lunch was not a the BBQ joint but at another legacy place called Mary Bobo's.  The food was very Southern, very average but all of the stories that I heard that day were well above. 

The purpose of the trip was to encourage all food and beverage servers to push the Uncle Nearest Whiskey that again is limited in release but steeped well into history and tradition in a place that values both as they do Church.  And there was a great deal of preaching yesterday and given Ms. Wilson's own family tradition this was not surprising. Her husband is an amazingly gracious patient man who clearly embraces what has become not just a vision but a calling for these two.  I see that their own legacy is tied to Nearest in ways that in the South is usually confined to the genetic markers that Ms. Wilson spent endless hours unraveling to find the history behind Nearest.

What was left out of the story was the finances and money tied to buying all of this.  To see the farm and the acreage was amazing and could have been the entire lineup on HGTV rehab shows.  The money and time vested for what will ostensibly be the historical counterpoint to the Daniels home and business just up the road.  The distillery will be up in what was once clearly a magnificent horse walking farm and training center back in the day.  The best part of yesterday was not only were two of Nearest descendents there, a local couple joined us as well, lending their perspective and history to each revelation and tale.   Hell there was even a Pony!  Yes we saw the few remaining horses that are still being trained in this unique walking style known for this breed in the area. 

The largely young and service industry personnel that were on the trip were duly impressed. The were all like me newcomers to the area, all of them living here two years or so (irony on irony that we all arrived at peak climax for Nashville, including Fawn, 2016) and all working in hospitality.  I had a conversation with a man who was from Seattle visiting and said that all the young people moving here had to be changing the conversation about politics and the culture that dominates the region. I laughed and said, "That has to be educated and well compensated people in which to do that. When you are making minimum wage (which in Seattle is 11 dollars here  its the federal min of $7) and working your ass off to make it work no, no you are not.   Most are under educated themselves and have come from shitholes themselves so this is an improvement. Some will stay and absorb the culture to fit in and belong but most will go as that is what that industry does. Highly transient and very tribal in their own way, this is just another road stop on the highway of life."  He was surprised as I pointed to the kids in the shop and said all these kids are deeply engaged in religion and the one or two that are not are few and far in between.  He was amazed and not surprised as there is no industry or employer here that offers opportunity and growth.  No, this is the home of Dollar General and it is here that every dollar matters.

The two "older" men on the tour were from L.A. and they were in shock about the money, the grand plans and the area where all of this is transpiring.  They had no idea we were close to Nashville but here it was worlds away as many folks rarely if ever drive two hours or one to do anything other than work and that the largest employer is Nashville.  Yes the city is the driver of that train.   And I too wondered how these two were funding all of this.   And true that is not my business but as I watched all of this, from budding distillers, to land owners, to entertainment facilitators I could not believe how this was funded and who was actually funding it.   I suspect their legacy and story is now intertwined with Nearest and in turn their success is his and his recognition is theirs.  These two are now very Southern.  I have not seen that before and that is what defines the real Carpetbagger.  They are very much reminiscent of another Southern legacy.  I wish them the best and I may come back to visit when it finishes.  Or not. But I loved seeing the beginning of this story and the end is not near but it may be close but what is the ending?  I am not sure they even know.

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