From this spot you can see the walls of Old Stone Fort sticking up amidst the trees.
Old Stone Fort
It's old and its walls are made of stone underneath the layer of earth that covers them. But it isn't an actual fort and never has been. The Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park was a ceremonial gathering place for Native Americans a long time ago. When Tennessee's white settlers found it, they noticed the walls arranged in a triangular shape, wrongfully assumed it was a fort, and gave it the name "Old Stone Fort."
At first glance, Old Stone Fort is nothing more than a long wall surrounding a big field. But this stoned enclosure, in Manchester, is one of the most interesting places in Tennessee. The structure Native Americans built here has always been surrounded with mystery (people used to think it was haunted). In addition to the stone enclosure, the remains of a stagecoach road and several paper mills are here. And, on top of everything else, there is incredible scenery, with two rivers, cliffs, and several waterfalls. Let's get started!
On the way into Old Stone Fort, you'll pass this bridge that crosses the Big Duck River.
Old Stone Fort is located where two rivers -- the Big Duck and Little Duck -- nearly meet, but then they spread apart, descend for a while and merge. So the walls of Old Stone Fort are surrounded on all sides by either one of the rivers or by cliffs.
By the way, those of you in middle school are supposed to learn the six physical regions of Tennessee (click here
to see that section of the middle school geography text). Two of those six regions are the Highland Rim and the Central Basin. The cliffs that you see at Old Stone Fort are a small part of the boundary between the Central Basin in middle Tennessee and the Highland Rim surrounding it.
When you get to Old Stone Fort, the first thing you'll come to is the museum. Here you'll find an impressive display about Old Stone Fort, how it was built, what we believe happened here, and the era in which it was created. There are a couple of films you can see as well.
Here are some things to remember as you check out the museum: Until very recently, no one knew what Old Stone Fort was. Most of what we now know about Old Stone Fort is because of extensive archaeological digs that were conducted here in the 1960s. That wasn't that long ago. Before that time there were all sorts of theories about Old Stone Fort, including the idea that it was built by DeSoto.
A display inside the museum
Also remember that even though we know a little about what happened here, we don't know that much. Old Stone Fort was built during the Middle Woodland Period (about 1,500 to 2,000 years ago). This was a prehistoric era, which means people weren't writing down what was happening yet because they didn't have a written language. It was during this period that Native Americans in this part of the world began using and making pottery and forming farming communities. This is the same era in which Pinson Mounds
was built in what is now West Tennessee.
This diorama in the museum shows how the walls of Old Stone Fort were built.
Native Americans used this place continuously for about 500 years, which is remarkable (after all, the United States is only 230 years old). But eventually the place was abandoned. By the time white settlers arrived, no one who lived in this area was sure why the enclosure had been built or what it had been used for. So what we know about Old Stone Fort is because of what archeologists have found here, and what they haven't found here.
An artist's rendering of a ceremony at the Old Stone Fort
For example, no one has ever found much in the way of human remains at Old Stone Fort. So this wasn't a burial site, nor was it a place where humans were sacrificed or anything like that. We think it was mainly used for seasonal religious ceremonies and maybe sporting events.
Before you leave the museum, ask for a free trail guide booklet.
Now it's time for a hike. We're going to walk along a trail that follows the wall of Old Stone Fort. Bring a camera if you have one, because there are a lot of things to take pictures of along the way.
The entrance to Old Stone Fort
Right off the bat you can see the walls, which have obviously settled some during the past two thousand years (there are also places in this area where the walls were destroyed within the last 150 years). The spot you see here is the entranceway to the interior of the enclosure. We can only imagine all the things that happened here, the processions of people who came through here into what was considered to be the sacred area.
Also, when you get to the entranceway, turn around. The people who created Old Stone Fort designed it so that this entrance faced the exact spot on the horizon where the sun rose on the Summer Solstice (the longest day of the year, which usually falls on June 20). This tells us that the people who built Old Stone Fort knew something about astronomy.
Turn left where the trail forks. Follow your guidebook and keep your eyes peeled as you head down the trail. You can easily see the walls to your left, with the Little Duck River on the other side of it, and the field in the middle of Old Stone Fort to your right.
Along the way there are many things to point out. This photograph, for instance, shows a park ranger standing next to a crooked oak tree. To his left you will notice that there is no wall here. What we believe happened here is that the wall collapsed and fell into the ravine because of a flood. That same flood, we think, caused this tree to grow crooked.
As you go further down the trail you will notice occasional rocks that look like this one. These rocks are shale. We know that they came from the Little Duck River at the bottom of the cliff near here because that is the type of environment where they are found naturally. This rock reminds us of just how much work it was to build the walls of Old Stone Fort in the first place.
Eventually the trail and the wall of Old Stone Fort take a sharp turn to the right, away from the water. But get this: the Big Duck River used to flow right through the valley to the left. But sometimes rivers move, which is what the Big Duck River did here. So now the valley to the left, referred to as the "moat," is nothing more than an abandoned river bed.
Along the trail there are a couple of places where you will notice a break in the wall. One of them is what we believe to have been Old Stone Fort's "back entrance." Further along the trail, you'll notice this spot. This break in the wall wasn't created by the people who built the enclosure. It was built in the 1800s, where a stagecoach road came right through here. You see, before highways, before railroads, this gap in Old Stone Fort was the main road from Shelbyville to Manchester.
Now we are on the Big Duck River side of Old Stone Fort. And it was on this side of the enclosure, in the late 1800s, where the paper mills were located. Here you can see the stone foundation of one of the paper mills (which have long since been torn down).
And here is an old photograph (which you can see at the Old Stone Fort Museum) of what one of the paper mills looked like.
Much of the paper that was made here was sent to places like Nashville and Atlanta, where it was used in newspapers.
By the way, do you see the waterfall next to the old paper mill? The paper mill may be long gone but the waterfall is still there. Here it is. Rather pretty, isn't it?
But be careful as you walk through this area. Waterfalls and ravines are fun to look at, but they can be dangerous to explore.
Now you have returned to where the trail started. Now that you've learned more about Old Stone Fort, may want to go back into the museum, because you'll probably understand more than you did the first time around.
to be taken to the official web site of the Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park.