Stonecipher-Kelly House: A Gateway to Morgan County’s Past

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    With the year 2017, comes the 200th anniversary of Morgan County, Tenn. It is a time for celebration and thankfulness for the gorgeous county that many call home. More importantly, it is a time for reflection in this geographically large, but sparsely populated, rural county. To look back on the genealogical roots of the county’s residents, back to a time when the first pioneering families had to brave rugged mountains, the constant threat of Native American attacks, and the unforgiving elements, all to find a better life for them and theirs. This is a story of those families and the legacy and home they left behind, the oldest standing house in the county, the Stonecipher-Kelly House.

    With the signing of the Third Treaty of Tellico in 1805, Native American ownership of much of the Upper Cumberlands was relinquished to the fledgling United States of America. With this change in ownership came a change in habitation. European immigrants, prompted by the US government and the notions of manifest destiny, were encouraged to settle these wild and remote regions.

    Of these pioneers, the Stonecipher family was one of the first in the area. After the Revolutionary War, US veteran and first generation German-American, Joseph Stonecipher was granted lands in the untamed Upper Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. With him, he brought his three daughters and five sons and began to carve a life for his family in the wilderness.

    Joseph’s son, Ezra settled at the mouth of Beech Fork Holler, alongside Beech Fork Creek, directly off of modern-day Hwy 62. Here, Ezra constructed his house in 1814, where it still proudly stands. The Stoneciphers were a family of craftsmen, and as a gunsmith and furniture-maker, Ezra was no exception. Having stood for more than 200 years, the durability and subtle beauty of the house attests to Ezra’s craftsmanship. The house’s construction suggests that it was built in stages, starting as a small one room cabin, which eventually grew and evolved into the large saddle-bag style house that stands today.

    Ezra owned the house for more than 30 years, before it was sold to another pioneering Morgan County family, the Kelly’s. James Martin Kelly purchased the house from Ezra and began to build a very successful merchant operation. Geographically, the house sat on a busy trading route, linking Nashville and Knoxville to Upper Cumberland communities. Kelly founded an incredibly lucrative general store and post office adjacent to the house. Coupled with farming operations, this merchant venture made the residing Kelly’s not only very wealthy, but also a pillar of the local community. Passing dignitaries and bigwigs always made a point to pay a visit.

    The house and surrounding lands flourished. Outbuildings were constructed, the house nearly tripled in size, and the Kelly family grew. As the country fell into civil war, lines were drawn in the sand and allegiances tested. Morgan County, along with most of East Tennessee, was pro-Union, and though the Kelly’s were one of the few slave-owning families in the county, they sided with popular sentiment. Daniel, James’ son, went on to serve in the Union army as a member of the 1st Battalion, Tennessee Light Artillery.

    Though no major battles took place in Morgan County, it was nonetheless ravaged by the war. Guerrilla forces and bushwhackers, took advantage of the chaos, and thievery, murder and lawlessness became commonplace. James Kelly himself was murdered by a pair of bushwhackers on his way home from a business engagement; most likely, murdered for his fortune. Other stories, tell of a hidden room in the second story of the house, where the family hid valuables behind a faux-wall in an effort to thwart looters from both sides of the conflict.

    After the Civil War, peace and slow growth returned to Morgan County.The house was passed down from Daniel and Mary to new generations of Kellys and even Stoneciphers, as Samuel Kelly married Julia Anne Stonecipher, the granddaughter of Ezra's brother, Daniel.

    As the country continued its rapid development, the SK-House enjoyed a life at a slower pace. Generations of children and grandchildren grew up in the house, splashing in Kelly Creek or climbing the heights of Kelly Mountain, both adjacent to the house. Grandparents did what they do best, they told stories, some true and some legend. Captivating tales travelled through the family and are still often told by the many Morgan County residents, who can trace lineage to the house.

    After three generations of Kelly’s, the house was occupied by four spinster sisters and their bachelor brother. These Kelly sisters left the house doors open, encouraging children to come inside, to hear stories and grasp artifacts. Ultimately they planted the seed of local historical awareness and community stewardship, which persists to this day.

    With the passing of Lilly Kelly, the last Kelly to live in the house, and Vida McCartt, the only Kelly sister to marry, ownership went to private auction. Over the last 30 years, the house has become a victim of neglect. Foundations are all that remains of many of the outbuildings, including the general store and post office. Creeping vines and shifting deteriorating foundations have taken their toll. Intrusive, though reversible, modern alterations are visible throughout the house as well. The house currently resides on the East Tennessee Endangered Eight and the Ten for Tennessee lists of threatened historical places.

    The future is not as bleak for the house as the recent past was; today, the house is owned by the State of Tennessee and is part of Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area. With the help of the park service and support of local organizations, efforts are currently underway, not only to save the house from dilapidation, but to restore it in hopes of one day becoming a living history site, or maybe even a Tennessee State Park all unto itself. What better time, then the 200th anniversary of Morgan County to preserve history. After all, this 1814 house has been standing, literally, before Morgan County was on the map.