Several years back I used to drive to the hinterlands of Morgan County, TN to care for patients at a nursing home there. The county seat, Wartburg, is a very small town and one of the first things I noticed driving through it were some inmates working at a garage. Rather than wearing the typical orange jumpsuits common in Knoxville, these prisoners were clad in STRIPES, black and white caps, pants and tops, just like in cartoons and old movies. I was taken aback by this but soon found out that prison is one of the main employers in Morgan County. Many of my co-workers at the nursing home had spouses and family employed at the regional medium security prison. I had heard years earlier of Brushy Mountain Prison, famous for housing James Earl Ray, which was in nearby Petros, TN; I passed the road to Petros every time I drove to work. The ancient prison had been closed in favor of the modern new facility and sat empty.
Fast forward a few years and some enterprising developers decided to turn the old prison into a museum, moonshine distillery and cafe. This sounded absolutely crazy to me at the time, but it has been surprisingly successful.
After many months of saying “we should go check it out”, we finally decided on a day, October 30th, 2018. I wondered if the local dead moonshiners weren’t turning over in their graves at the thought of moonshine being made at a prison…
It was kind of a cool day with a beautiful clear blue sky when we took off. We drove through Oak Ridge, then Oliver Springs before turning up a sizeable hill onto the Cumberland Plateau. Not much had changed since I was there last, the land largely empty but dotted here and there with modest houses and trailers, the occasional gas station, mom and pop restaurant, abandoned old buildings. Autumn was late this year so the leaves were just beginning to turn color.
When we turned onto the road to Petros, we came to a small village of houses. Halloween decorations were up, small bikes and trikes were scattered in yards; this was where the prison workers lived with their families. Driving around another bend, we came to the prison. A large ridge of mountain was it’s backdrop, and when we parked and got out of the car, we could feel a cool wind blowing down from the summit.
We went inside the reception area to get tickets and found the moonshine bar, cafe and gift shop. A line was already starting for lunch, so we went ahead and got in it. The food was decent; burgers and barbecue freshly prepared, and they even served beer. We skipped the moonshine bar altogether since it was the middle of the day and I don’t even like moonshine. They had all of the very popular flavors like cinnamon, apple pie, butterscotch, cherry, etc., all made there onsite, but it just is not my cup of tea.
We made our way over to the prison itself and went in for a self guided tour. The entryway was dark , cold, narrow and tunnel-like, immediately oppressive. I had only been inside jails twice before for work related issues, never because I was in trouble, and this was creepy. We followed arrows on the floor to a dark , windowless room where a film was being shown on the history of the prison. It was interesting but also horrific, some of the crimes committed by the inmates were described and were stomach turning. Brushy Mountain had been built from the start to be maximum security, for the “worst of the worst” back in the later 1800’s. Inmates built the original wooden structure, and then the brick and the structures made of locally mined stone that still stand. The inmates also mined coal on the property, a dangerous and dirty occupation for anyone but multiplied in spades for them since the authorities likely paid little attention to their safety.
Some adjoining rooms were devoted to prison culture. There were exhibits of shivs, handmade weapons, even parts of handmade guns that had been confiscated. Prisoners used to make knives out of the metal supports under their mattresses using guitar strings to carve them out. A lot of drugs were also smuggled into the prison and distributed through the pipes and sewer lines. Of course all these things had to be hidden from the guards, so there was also an exhibit of the ingenious ways implements and drugs were cloaked. Inmate art was displayed on the walls of the room, some of it showing remarkable talent.
Former guards and prison workers are employed to help show the visitors around. Kevin, being Kevin and inclined to talk to anyone, started up a conversation with one of the old guards. This led to us being invited to join a small tour group through the prison by the guard. I really wish I could remember the man’s name because he had a wealth of knowledge and was an excellent storyteller.
A native of Petros, he had started working at the prison right out of high school. He knew many of the inmates well and was also witness to a lot of very bloody violence. When some of the inmates backed up the plumbing in one of the buildings, he still had to deliver food and look after them when they proceeded to live in their own waste and excrement. He said it was indescribably bad. The inmates finally ended the standoff by agreeing to clean up the mess after several weeks.
Another aspect to Brushy Mountain is that it is haunted. We heard a brief clinking of chains and some voices on the floor below us while there, and there have been so many reports of paranormal incidents that it is now possible to book a night time paranormal tour of the place. I do not plan to go.
We had an fascinating trip to Brushy but I am unlikely to go back. If you are in the vicinity of Knoxville and have some time, I think it is worth the trip. The look back at history and a dismal and unfortunate culture should make us all grateful for our blessings.