By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
The first building to stand on the site now recognized as the General Morgan Inn was the DeWoody Tavern, a wooden structure built in the early 1790s by William Dunwoody. A friendly establishment, the tavern offered food, supplies and lodging to pioneers traveling westward from the mountains of North Carolina along the Great Wagon Trail that would eventually become U.S. Highway 321. Greeneville's Big Spring, with its abundance of fresh water, made the location an ideal stopping point along the trail. Over the years, the DeWoody Tavern's operators and its name would change several times. From the late 1820s to the 1860s, the establishment was known as "Bell Tavern". It was advertised as "a Public House at the sign of the Bell in Greeneville" and operated by William K. Vance.
Joshua Lane owned and operated the tavern during the Civil War when it was commonly known as the "Lane House." As the Lane House, the tavern hosted friend and foe of both the Union and Confederate armies, but on the morning of September 4, 1864, guests of the tavern witnessed one of Greenville's most notorious skirmishes. The day before, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan arrived in Greeneville late in the afternoon and arranged to stay in the home of his friend, Mrs. Catherine Williams. According to legend, Union troops were given a tip about Morgan's location, and eager to capture "The Thunderbolt of the Confederacy" (as he was nicknamed), troops moved into the town early on the morning of September 4. Though it was located in the middle of town, the Williams mansion was adorned with a number of trees, gardens, and a vineyard. With the help of Mrs. Williams and her family, Morgan attempted to escape. However, outnumbered and ambushed, he was shot and killed as he ran from the yard to the stables.
In 1886, the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad built a new train depot in Greeneville, which brought dramatic change to the entire community. In support of the new train depot, the railroad arranged schedules so that their passenger trains stopped in Greeneville during meal times.
Colonel John H. Doughty, a local entrepreneur, was ready for a new project and recognized the need for an excellent hotel to accommodate the many business travelers the railroad would bring to Greeneville. Doughty purchased and demolished the Lane House and began construction of a new brick structure that would become the Grand Central Hotel. The Grand Central was a beautiful four-story brick building adorned with marble trim and looked very much as it does today. Containing about 60 rooms originally, the structure was considered one of the finest hotels between Roanoke,Virginia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Elegantly furnished with wide halls and lavish furnishings, the exterior of the building originally had an upper balcony that extended across the front of the second-story level, and a flight of stairs that opened onto Main Street.
The street level of the Grand Central was devoted to retail stores. One of the most important functions of the hotel in those days was providing a place for traveling sales representatives and other businessmen to meet with customers. For that purpose, the Grand Central rented long-term rooms, called "sample rooms," in addition to providing overnight accommodations.
Other community leaders were also building hotels in response to the coming of the railroad. One of the most impressive was The Mason House, located adjacent to the Grand Central, a spot known for generations as "Mason's Corner." In fact, within a few short years, four railroad hotels, all interconnected at the second floor level with a bridge across an alleyway, had sprung up on the corner of Main and Depot Streets. These hotels each maintained "drays" that met each train at the depot and transported passengers to the hotel of their choice.
In 1910, Col. Doughty passed away, and the Grand Central Hotel was inherited by his four children. Mrs. E.J. Brumley, sister-in-law of one of Col. Doughty's sons, had been operating the hotel since 1907. In 1920, Mrs. Brumley purchased the hotel from the Doughty heirs and, along with her son, Judd, began full operation of the newly renamed Hotel Brumley. Under their direction, the hotel became the center of Greeneville's social and civic community, known regionally for its lively, friendly atmosphere, excellent food and collection of fine antiques.
In 1925, the well-known orator and three-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, stopped at the Hotel Brumley on his way to the Scopes trial in Dayton, and a magnificent luncheon was prepared in his honor. In 1928, the Brumleys began an extensive remodeling of the hotel, adding the Crystal Ballroom on the second floor, where formal events such as balls, dinners and wedding receptions were frequently held. The Hotel Brumley continued to prosper with a continual flow of railroad travelers and local burley tobacco market buyers who kept the hotel's rooms and dining areas filled to capacity over the next two decades.
The elegant Crystal Ballroom was closed in 1948, when Judd Brumley opened The General Morgan Room, a supper club-style private dining area adjacent to the main dining room on the first floor. It was an instant success, and quickly became the region's most popular location for formal affairs. One of the most notable and unique additions to The General Morgan Room were the hand-carved, blue glass bas-relief etched mirrors, which Brumley had commissioned from a regional artist in 1948. During the hotel's extensive renovation in 1996, the etched glass treasures were completely restored. They now are on display behind the Inn's beautiful mahogany bar in the lounge area.
Mrs. Brumley passed away in 1964, and shortly afterward in that same year, her son Judd died as well. The hotel continued to be owned and operated by various Brumley family members until 1981, when the hotel was sold to the Greene County Bank. By that time, much had changed at the hotel and, unfortunately, within the entire community of Greeneville. Passenger train service to Greeneville had stopped years earlier, and the retail department stores that anchored the downtown area for decades had moved to shopping centers outside of the historic downtown district. Although the Brumley Coffee Shop remained a popular spot to gather and eat, the hotel had long since stopped renting rooms and apartments and, in fact, had fallen into a state of disrepair. Without fanfare, the Hotel Brumley Coffee Shop, the last operating portion of the once magnificent four interconnected railroad hotels, closed its doors for the final time after serving Sunday dinner on May 24, 1981, to a sizable group of customers and friends who had come to say goodbye to a great era for the town of Greeneville.
In 1983, Main Street Greeneville was formed after the town of Greeneville was selected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the first five towns in Tennessee to be part of the "Main Street" program. The National "Main Street" program was designed to show communities that their historic downtowns were worth saving, while also providing a structure for revitalization efforts. Three years later, Greene County Bank recognizing that the task of restoration and revitalization of the Hotel Brumley was too great for them to undertake alone, donated the destination to Main Street Greenville in the hope that it would be redeveloped and once again serve as an important downtown landmark. However, the Main Street program was unsuccessful in getting the hotel restored and, in fact, found itself facing increasing liabilities as the structure was in critical need of attention.
The group created a new board under the name of Olde Town Development Corporation and set about acquiring other locations around the hotel so that a large enough area could be part of the same development to stand on its own aesthetically and economically. Olde Town Development submitted plans for a large portion of the block to be transformed into the Morgan Square, a complex of hotels, shops and offices. The centerpiece of the project would be the General Morgan Inn and an adjacent conference center.
After more than nine years of planning, fund-raising and construction, the historic General Morgan Inn and Conference Center opened its doors for the first time September 18, 1996, to a private weekend designed for project contributors. The overnight festivities, aptly named the "First Night," were held for sponsors and supporters of the project.
The four-story historic General Morgan Inn, located in the very heart of Greeneville's National Register Historic District, was one of the first non-profit community efforts of its kind in the nation's history.
On November 29, 2000, as part of a friendly foreclosure sale conducted on the steps of the Greene County Courthouse, the General Morgan Inn, along with its accompanying Morgan Square location, was sold to the Morgan Inn Corporation, a local corporation dedicated to maintaining Greeneville's downtown historic district. The Inn is a member of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.