Grundy Historian William Ray Turner is one of our most interesting people. His museum houses a unique and extensive collection of mountain history and he welcomes people from around the world to view items ranging from the very first issues of the Herald to early coal mining instruments.
First, I want to let you know how wonderful it is to visit your museum. I wish I had hours to spend here. We are surrounded by the history of Grundy County, obviously your passion. Were you raised in Grundy County?
“Is there anywhere else? I was raised right here in Tracy City. My parents were Walter and Annie McCreary Turner. My father worked in the coalmines around here. I have his dinner bucket, his light, and his pick right here in the museum.”
Did you go to school in Tracy City?
“Yes. I went to the old Shook School. I graduated from there and went on to Grundy County High School. I stayed there for two years but left school to work in the mines. I went to work in what was called ‘dog holes,’ little mines just big enough for a dog.
“That type of work wasn’t any good for me and when a road construction crew – Brown Brothers – came in town to build roads I went to work for them. That was in 1949. I must have ask them 17 times for a job.”
Did you continue to work in construction?
“I did. I left road construction in 1952 and went to work in Sewanee. I started out on construction as a laborer at the Sewanee Military Academy, but I worked on a lot of other buildings, too. My name is on a plaque in All Saints Chapel. Whenever I go in there, I tell people I polish up my name and dirty up the other names!
“I eventually went to work on the Widow’s Creek and Raccoon Mountain facilities for TVA for 12 years. I was at Widow’s Creek when I retired.”
Tell us about your wife and family.
“I am married to Marie Yarworth Turner. I met her at the Dixie Theater when I offered her some cookies and she took them. We married on March 29, 1947 and have two boys, Larry and Travis. And, we have two granddaughters, Alice and Sara Beth.”
How did you become interested in the history of Grundy County?
“In 1940 Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a check for $100 to Highlander Folk School. A Chattanooga newspaper printed a copy of the check and that interested me. I cut it out and saved it. I was always interested in history, both local history and Tennessee history. I had a teacher who I figured could beat me in state history, but I knew I could win at local history.
“I started collecting items of interest to me when I was 14. I’m 88 now, so I’ve been doing it for 74 years.”
What are some of your most fascinating items in the museum?
“Well, some of my favorites are my dad’s coal mining things. I have Clyde Newsome’s billfold, shaving brush, and razor. He was the firebug that set so many of Tracy City’s buildings on fire in 1935.
“I think all of the Highlander information is interesting. Recently, a lady from Utah who is doing her dissertation on Highlander came down and spent time looking at my Highlander items.
“And, I’ve had people from all over. There was a Japanese man once who kept bowing and so I just kept bowing right back!”
Where do most of your items come from?
“I’ll tell you, I would not have anything without people giving it to me. I may be the historian, but people give me what I have in this museum.”
What are your favorite things about Grundy County?
“I love the people here. That is my favorite thing. Also, there is enough history here to make ‘Gone with the Wind’ like reading a comic book.”
William Ray Turner may say he is retired, but he is very active. In addition to maintaining his museum, he gives speeches on local history to groups including Rotary Clubs and the Monteagle Assembly Grounds. He is the author of “A Glance Back,” a monthly historical column in the Herald.