For nearly 20 years, readers of The Hartsville Vidette have been treated to a weekly stroll through the rich history of Trousdale County.
John Oliver’s weekly column, “Looking Back,” ran earlier this year for the 1,000th time in The Vidette. The historical column has become one of the most popular items found in The Vidette each week and is a labor of love for Oliver, who also serves as county historian and president of the Trousdale County Historical Society.
“I don’t think I’ve ever missed a week as I’ll usually write ahead of time before vacation,” Oliver said of his streak. “I believe 1,000 ran back in April, so I’m easily over it now.”
Oliver, who retired from a teaching career at Trousdale County High School, began writing his column at the request of the Historical Society in the early 2000s.
“The Society had been wanting to do something to encourage people to get involved. At the same time, previous editors of The Vidette had asked me to write a weekly column — gossip, that kind of stuff… I said, ‘We have so many nice old pictures and can run something off that.’ ”
“Reading John’s column is one of my highlights each week,” said Chris Gregory, who has been the Vidette’s editor since 2014. “Not having grown up in Hartsville, it’s fascinating to learn something every week about the history of the place I’ve come to call home. Plus I’ve always been a history buff myself, which makes it all the more enjoyable!”
Oliver was also inspired to begin writing on Trousdale County history by a series of ads by the old Bank of Hartsville that ran decades ago in The Vidette. Each ad featured a historical photo.
“I started off with just a picture and a couple of paragraphs,” he said. “People wanted to know more and since I like to write anyway, I began writing a long article.”
Oliver said he actually has to edit himself when it comes to his weekly columns, as “I could go on writing and writing.”
Writing a historical column has also helped promote the Historical Society to the people of Hartsville, especially those whose families stretch back generations locally.
“People bring in pictures based on what they see; they’ll tell me more,” Oliver said. “The best thing is, it makes me do research that I might not have done anyway.”
Hearing from Vidette readers also helps Oliver come up with topics for his columns. Typically he will dedicate a month’s worth of columns to a particular topic, such as high school football, the founding of Hartsville by its namesake, James Hart, or even December’s topic of local grocery stores.
“I’ve found all kinds of stuff that would have been lost and gone,” Oliver said.
One example he gave was of an old school located where the current Vue at Church Street apartments (formerly Academy Apartments) are. In compiling data on the school, Oliver heard from former teachers and found five different versions of the history — including a woman superintendent of schools in the late 1800s.
“I’d never heard of her; she was gone and had no family here. So we would have lost that! I had to take everything between those five, find what was common and then do the research in Sumner County and old newspapers. I’m still finding out old stuff!”
Oliver said he tries not to revisit old topics but said the influx of new faces into Hartsville and new readers of The Vidette make it easier to justify doing so.
“I’ll tell people I wrote about that once before, it might have been 10 years ago,” he said with a smile.
Coming up with topics each month is easy, as he said the County Archives and Historical Society provide plenty of material.
“I have a list of things I haven’t written about yet,” he said. “I have all kinds of people and businesses that have gone on and there’s no one here to tell me about it.”
In his research, he has come across a firsthand account of the 1862 Battle of Hartsville that ran in the Nashville Banner and also accounts of work along the Cumberland River in the early 1800s.
“I’m constantly getting stuff; it helps that the Historical Society now has a place to store it,” Oliver said. “If we’d had this 50 years ago, there’s no telling what more we would have.”
Oliver said some of his favorite topics over the years have included the Cumberland River, soldiers’ accounts of wars including the American Revolution and War of 1812, farming and old businesses in Hartsville.
“One of my favorite topics was the series on Louis Philippe, the future king of France who spent time in the 1790s traveling in America,” Gregory said.
In addition to his Vidette columns, Oliver has written a novel and also helped put together two books on Trousdale County history. One contains a compilation of his historical columns and the other hundreds of photos of the county and its people. Both books are currently being sold by the Historical Society.
Oliver says he constantly hears from people who have read his articles and recognize a family member in a photo. He typically takes one day a week to write his column and compile his research.
“I hope people enjoy the articles. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of stuff to write about!” he said. “I try to cover a little bit of everything.”
Reach Chris Gregory at 615-450-5756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.