LYNCHBURG, Tenn. – This community of 6,336 is “small town USA” in the most graphic of terms, such as only one traffic light. It has been a sleepy little place dating back to the life and times of its most famous resident, the diminutive Jack Daniel, who got the most fortuitous break a businessman could experience when he was virtually given a distillery by a preacher man.
In the beginning, one Dan Call took to the pulpit on Sunday but during the week he labored at his still near Cave Spring Hollow, which supplies the limestone water that has made Jack Daniel’s what it is. The Rev. Call’s congregation took offense that he led a double life —preaching the gospel on Sunday and producing demon rum during the rest of the week in Moore County which, to this day, remains dry.
The preacher had a choice to make. He couldn’t have his cake and eat it, too. So, he gave up the distillery for the pulpit. This decision would enrich his successor, whose name is famously recognized in more than 150 countries around the world.
Just as Queen Victoria could not start her day without a “wee dram” of Bushmill’s, Frank Sinatra seldom went on stage without a sip or two of Tennessee’s most famous sour mash. One of the distillery’s most popular brands today is its “Sinatra.” If you look for it at your local package store, you may get a “sold out” response — it has become that popular.
Lynchburg is just off the beaten path of I-24, the interstate highway that runs from Chattanooga to Nashville. The drive takes you through nondescript scrub trees into horse country near Shelbyville, where Tennessee walking horses have been the rage with a certain segment of the horse set for years.
It is best not to be in a hurry when you come to Lynchburg, making sure you organize lunch at Miss Mary Bobo’s. This lady was a celebrated teetotaler who lived to be 101. Although passionately committed to abstinence she, nonetheless, made a nice living serving those in the alcohol trade who ate with her and slept in her boarding house rooms.
The restaurant is so down home that a hostess, Debbie Baxter, pulled up a chair as we enjoyed our fried chicken and told us about the history of the establishment and Lynchburg and also disclosed distillery facts and lore.
In years past, you might have run into Lynne Tolley, ol’ Jack’s grand-niece, who remains a Jack Daniel’s ambassador and is a graduate of the University of Georgia. This was confirmed by Athens resident Mike Cheek, former president of the Brown-Forman Corp., the parent company of Jack Daniel’s since 1956.
When Miss Bobo passed on, the distillery purchased the property and now feeds visitors down home cooking. The meal segues into a tour of the distillery, which is accompanied by a sampling of the various Jack Daniel’s products when the tour ends.
After the tasting, you can purchase your favorite label in the gift shop, the only place in Lynchburg where you have that option. You may find, depending on when you show up, that the distillery, too, may be out of the “Sinatra.”
The tour allows you to connect with interesting facts about one of America’s most famous products. Worldwide, Jack Daniel’s annually sells in excess of 14 million cases of its Cave Spring Hollow tonic each year.
Jack Daniel’s is pretty much about the water — from the aforementioned limestone waters — which gives the finished product its distinctive flavor. It is almost as internationally known as Coca-Cola, which is often mixed with a shot of Jack by countless aficionados.
There has been much upside with the legend of Jack Daniel, but he experienced a shortened life span owing to a fit of temper. Legend has it that he came to work early one morning and had difficulty remembering the combination to the safe that secured records and cash. When he couldn’t open the safe, he kicked it with such vociferousness that he broke his toe — which led to gangrene, which led to amputations, but not enough to save his life.
The moral of the story is that when anger stimulates overpowering rage, be sure and kick something not made of steel.
The second most famous “Lynchburger” was Johnny Majors, the Tennessee All-America tailback and later head coach who is buried in the city cemetery beside his parents. The city has named the main thoroughfare “Johnny Majors Boulevard.”
The genial football coach was a very good friend. It was important to pay my respects. As I knelt before his marker, I remembered the good times we shared over the years and was moved to wipe away a tear.
At the distillery, I raised a quiet toast to a man who, interestingly, never embraced the famous product of his hometown. Johnny “Drum” Majors preferred vodka.