Joseph Mansfield


Yesterday I had occasion to drive over to middle Tennessee and back.  On the return trip I digressed from the nearest way, took my time, and wandered through the wilds of Grundy County, one of the most rural in Tennessee.

The county seat, Altamont, is only a tiny village, with maybe three businesses, a post office, the jail and the courthouse.

Today’s jail is a small modern building.  A few years ago the old jail was demolished.  It was a three or four storey affair quite like a dungeon above ground.  Its top storey was a large steel box topped by a steel dome, open from the inside, quite a spectacular thing.  Although the lowest part of the dome was twelve or so feet off the floor, the entire underside of the dome was covered with writings left behind by forgotten guests.

Although Altamont lies three or four miles from the mountain’s escarpment, the courthouse faces the edge and gives the impression that it is perched on the brow, lording over the lowland below.  The building is simple, even a little crude, and not in too good repair.

Seen through my own mountain eyes that courthouse has always possessed a raw, savage majesty; it has spoken in sacramental formula, howling like winter storm, the raw, savage majesty of the alpine folk who live up there, volatile, vital, chivalric barbarians for whom hospitality to the stranger is sacred, though they will kill to avenge blood or to vindicate their own honor or their woman’s; its sacred fabric tabernacling the gavel-struck altar and the purgatorial dock where a man enters the presence of the authority of the Almighty vested in a magistrate vested in bib overalls.

Except that the courthouse has burnt down.

A clod has washed into the sea.  Europe is the less.  An icon faintly mediating Catholic civilization has ceased to mediate at all.  A part of our brothers and sisters in that mountain has died.  A part of me has died, and a part of you.

On the western breeze a funeral bell tolls a single stroke.  Its dissonance steals over the gravestones of my ancestors and falls silent.

July 1992


Herman Baggenstoss, of Tracy City, was a newspaper publisher (and a tree farmer and a baker and I don’t know what else).  At one time he had published the Dunlap Tribune.  He was also a close friend of my grandfather until the latter’s death in 1983. 


In my early childhood the Tribune was linotyped and printed right there in Dunlap.  I frequently went to the office where I could watch the linotypist and his machine for hours without losing interest.  This was probably during Mr Baggenstoss’s ownership of the paper.  But if I ever knew him back then I don’t remember it.


“Grundy County Courthouse” was originally written for inclusion in a letter to a pen pal in Brooklyn. 


Shortly after I wrote the article I needed a favor in Grundy County and determined to call on Mr Baggenstoss.  I took along a copy of “Courthouse” and gave it to him.  Although he was no longer an active journalist, he still had a financial interest in the Grundy County Herald and he caused the item to be printed therein.


Mr Baggenstoss was one of the most gracious men I ever met.  He told me a few things about his life and times, his role in community leadership, in business, in agriculture.  He achieved excellence in several fields.  He was a kind man, and a noble man.  I had occasion to visit with him a few more times over the next couple of years, until his death.  Knowing him even the short time I did was a privilege for which I am most grateful.


As for the article, the Herald editor tampered with my spelling and punctuation.  Among other things she changed “burnt” to “burned”, thus destroying the rhythm of that line.  My inclination was to go see her, or at least write her, and rant a little about the changes.  But I did not.  I was afraid my complaint might get back to Mr Baggenstoss and hurt his feelings.   And it’s just as well.  An editor who would make the changes she did would not understand my objections anyway.


About three weeks after my item was printed in the Herald, a letter to the editor was printed wherein the writer objected to my use of the word “savage”.  She said something like We are not savage up here, we are a gentle folk.


In that same issue of the paper there was a local news item about an altercation which evolved into a fight which eventuated in victory for one man, whereupon he bound and tortured the other man and cut his tongue out.