As the heat swells here in Tennessee, I don’t think we’re alone in constantly looking for places to go and get out of the house while staying cool this summer. In this search for outdoor oases away from throngs of people that have the same idea, Hickman County shot to the top of our radar thanks to its positioning along the Natchez Trace, as well as its deep-rooted musical heritage and historic communities. Even better? Centerville is an easy day trip from Nashville, just an hour due west of the Tennessee capital.
Quintessentially Southern and brimming with frontier charm, Hickman County is one of Tennessee’s best-kept secrets. Carved with rivers, creek, farms, hardwood forest stands and Mennonite influences, the area is almost dead-center in the heart of our state and still holds onto the agricultural small-town vibe that makes up the core of so many of our favorite stomping grounds in this region of the country. The pace of life is different here, the people friendlier and prouder than larger cities, and it’s easy to relax and dream of setting up a country estate with nothing but the whispering trees and migrating birds as companions.
Minnie Pearl’s Hickman County legacy
Walk the hallowed halls of the Grand Ole Opry, and one of the first names you’ll learn about on the backstage tour is none other than Sarah Cannon herself, more widely known as Minnie Pearl. Born in 1912 in Centerville, Sarah grew up in Hickman County, went off to college in Nashville at Belmont University and became one of the most revered comics of her time, starring in Hee Haw for more than 20 years and inspiring female comedians for generations to come with her quick wit and boundary-pushing jokes.
She first performed her “Cousin Minnie Pearl” routine at the age of 27 and made her Opry debut the following year. Minnie’s stamp is everywhere in town with streets and other tourist attractions bearing the Grinder’s Switch moniker for which she called her hometown in her standup routine.
What to do in Centerville
With just 25,000 residents populating the entire county, Hickman County is a massive sprawl of countryside that spans 613 square miles, much of which is pastoral land. Centerville serves as its heart and county seat.
Shop the courthouse square
Several gift shops, cafes and antiques stores form the town square, which is centered around the brick and concrete county courthouse. The downtown was essentially burned to the ground during the fierce battles for control of the Civil War, so much of the architecture springs from the Reconstruction era. Railroad-style buildings with the ever-fascinating crenellations of the original owners’ design decisions give way to a mix of places worth a visit.
Take a selfie with Minnie
Sculptor Ricky Pittman built an eight-foot-tall piece that he donated to the town to memorialize the country music icon in her trademark straw hat using just chicken wire. This bust, now a local landmark sitting in front of the courthouse, is a fitting tribute for a celebrated musician whose emblem was a $1.98 hat with the tag still on. Taking a selfie with Minnie has become a rite of passage for all traveling through Centerville.
Eat at Breece’s Cafe
Breece’s Cafe is a true Centerville staple, spanning 81 years and four generations and known for its classic Southern fare like fried chicken, homemade pies and made-from-scratch desserts. Less than 18 months ago, this old building was given some serious upgrades by Russell Bates, the current owner, though it still maintains all the historic charm with plenty of exposed brick and photo documentation of its eight-decade history.
Though there was plenty of empty seating and everyone spread out from one each other when we last passed through, we’re still not fully comfortable eating inside restaurants, so for those in the same boat, you’ll be glad to know that Breece’s does takeout; you can take your burgers and sandwiches across the street to the courthouse lawn or down to City Park.
See a Grinder’s Switch Hour show
It may be surprising to learn that a town of just 5,000 residents has a free 90-minute concert every single Saturday morning, but that’s the beauty of Centerville and its musical legacy. In its 17th year, the Grinder’s Switch Hour is the country’s third longest running live country music variety show, and it’s broadcast from the heart of the county, in the chamber of commerce.
Currently, during the pandemic, the shows are running live as usual, from 10 to 11:30am every Saturday morning, only without an audience. You can tune in from home via the Grinder’s Switch Hour or the WNKX KiX 96 FM Facebook pages. I really look forward to live, in-person music again when it’s safe to do so.
The Hickman County Chamber of Commerce also has a museum of memorabilia from musicians with local ties, including Minnie, Del Reeves, Blake Shelton, Beth Slater-Whitson, Paul Warren, Howdy Forrester, Dicky Wells and Mike Smithson, plus a deep history of the area that’s free for visitors to explore and an incredible collection of items found buried in the dirt by a local treasure hunter.
Splash around in Jackson Falls
For those who love the outdoors, Hickman County is the secluded retreat you seek. The Natchez Trace Parkway slices right through the southeastern corner of the county, carving out a little wooded Utopia of trails on the fringes of its classic Tennessee topography.
As we entered the county west-bound from Columbia, we hopped off of Highway 50 where it intersects the Duck River and detoured to Jackson Falls, just five minutes south of Hickman’s main thoroughfare.
Jackson Falls is located at milepost 404.7 of the Trace, and though there’s a parking lot adjacent to the falls path, we opted to park at Baker Bluff and take the 0.75-mile trail to Jackson Falls instead to get our steps in. Once we reached the falls themselves, they’re accessed by a paved pathway that, while steep for a short distance, is approachable for most people.
If you want to avoid the crowds, visit Jackson Falls on a weekday morning as early as you can. We arrived around 9am and it was pretty sparse, but the volume was picking up as we headed out to the parking lot.
We’ve got plenty of tips for exploring the Natchez Trace Parkway if you want to continue making the pilgrimage south through Tennessee from here.
Visit Johnny Cash’s farm in Bon Aqua
Minnie wasn’t the only globally renown artist who called Hickman County home; Johnny Cash also had a farm here until his passing. It was his personal retreat, the place he loved more than no other, where he would come home to unwind while he wasn’t touring or recording.
But the tale of how his beloved farm in Bon Aqua came to be in his hands is quite a story. In 1972, Cash found out his accountant was embezzling from him and buying properties with the money. He seized all those assets and sold every one of them off but one: the Hideaway in Bon Aqua, just eight miles south of Interstate 40, but in what feels like a completely different universe.
Cash lived in nearby Hendersonville and owned many properties during his days, but Hideaway was where he went to truly retreat right up until his death in 2003. Curtis Lyell maintained ownership of Hideaway Farm until Brian and Sally Oxley purchased it in 2015; in 2016, they opened it up to the public.
But contrary to what you might expect, they weren’t actually Cash fans growing up—rather, neither of them had even heard of Johnny Cash despite being adults during the height of his popularity.
Children of missionaries, each was raised abroad: Brian in Japan and Sally in China. Their children also grew up overseas. It wasn’t until they moved to Florida where they intended to retire that they learned of Cash’s legacy less than a decade ago. This led them to buy the Mama Cash House in Hendersonville, which later turned into John Carter approaching them with word of the Bon Aqua farm being for sale.
Once the Oxleys bought Hideway, they began restoring it; they also filled the main house, built in the 1800s, full of Cash memorabilia that they came across or that found them. Additionally, the car shed out back includes the One-Piece-At-A-Time car, based on Johnny’s 1976 hit song, as well as the Johnny Paycheck Cadillac and other vehicles.
Soon after buying Hideaway, Brian became intrigued by a busted, old building at the intersection where you turn to approach the farm, so he did what any adventurer would do and crawled through the broken-out windows. It turns out that the old general store still had the stage intact where the Cash family used to give concerts for the Bon Aqua community. Ever heard Johnny’s song “Saturday Night in Hickman County?” It all went down here.
The Oxleys bought that building, too, and gave it a complete rehab, eventually opening Storytellers Museum and Hideaway Farm to the public. While the museum and farm are currently closed due to the pandemic, in normal times, visitors would purchase a ticket at the museum, watch a film about Johnny’s life and watch his nephew Mark Cash play a few songs live before venturing down the road to tour the farm.
Sally told me they’ve done weddings and other special events on the farm and that, depending on what the future holds post-virus, they’re considering different options for how to utilize the 107 acres like opening it up to drive-in movies and other safe get-togethers. It’s a remarkable piece of property and one that I hope the masses will be able to enjoy once more in the future.
Camping along the Piney River
If I’ve convinced you by now to take a day trip to Centerville, you may be interested to stay overnight. Luckily, there are plenty of places to do just that. We’re all about encouraging heightened awareness of all around you during these times, and there are several waterfront campgrounds around Centerville, meaning for those looking to do an overnight safely this summer via an RV or camping trip, Hickman County is a great option.
One of the coolest we discovered was Piney River Resort, nestled on private land along the Piney River, which has water so clear you’ll want to dunk your head in and drink from it.
Twenty-five minutes north of Centerville close to Nunnelly, Piney River Resort is right off of I-40 and less than an hour from Nashville and under three from Memphis. The campgrounds have limited availability since many of the regulars reserve spots for the entire season, year after year, and it’s worth checking into because the team has been building out new facilities for RV-only camping since the start of the year.
Want to enjoy the Piney River but don’t own a kayak? You can rent equipment just down the way at Pinewood Canoe & Camp.
For other Tennessee day trips and weekend ideas for safe summer travel, check out these posts:
- Tackling Nolensville’s 31A Trail
- A Work of Street Art: The Best Murals in Nashville
- Smoky Mountain Staycation: How to Visit East Tennessee Safely This Summer
- Masters & Makers: Eat, Drink and Explore Williamson County
- Music, Meals + Makers in the Mountains: A Weekend in Maryville
- The Memphis Metamorphosis: A New Generation of Soul
- Opt Outside: Fun Summer Things to Do in Franklin + Leiper’s Fork
- On the Whiskey-Fueled Tennessee Backroads
- How to Do Jack Daniel’s Distillery Right
- Exploring Franklin’s Civil War History