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Green Frog: window into our past

Bai Nai Mai is a common greeting that John Freeman and his wife, Nancy, heard daily during the 10 years they spent as missionaries in Thailand in the 1970s. It means, “Where have you been, and where are you going?”

It also sums up how Freeman, today an emergency room doctor in Bells, Tenn., feels about Green Frog, Tenn., a turn-of-the-century rural village he is restoring. At the corner of Hwy. 412 and Hwy. 88, just outside of Bells, the village includes an old church, train station, assorted log cabins, industrial center, old store (under construction) and much more.

The village recently celebrated a milestone with the opening of its Cotton Museum of the South. The museum houses an antique cotton gin with four wooden Continental 80-13 gin stands. The patent date on the gin stands is July 15, 1873.

The gin and the rest of the village of Green Frog speaks of vibrant communities of the past, whose hardy folks knew nothing of computers, gas heat and televisions. They hand-hewed the logs to build their cabins and patiently tinkered with the finicky steam engines that ran their industrial centers.

However, Green Frog is more than a window to the past for Freeman, who has worked on the project for 13 years. “In general, people who are rooted in their culture, who know where their family and ancestors came from, are more apt to know where they're going. Knowing where we come from will help sharpen our vision of the future.”

In fact, Freeman points out that “Bai Nai Mai” is more of a philosophical expression than a question for the Thai people — reminding all that the future and the past are two sides of the same coin.

It's a message that Freeman is trying to spread any way he can.

For example, prisoners from a local jail have given their time — so to speak — working on some of the old gin equipment and helping attach the building's tin siding. “It's been a privilege working with these young men. Every one of them seemed like a good person who just made a wrong turn.

“One of their problems is that they have no concept of where they came from,” Freeman said. “And they have no idea of where they want to go. But working here has sort of helped them.”

In addition, the Tennessee departments of agriculture, tourist development, economic and community development and the University of Tennessee Center for Profitable Agriculture have made Green Frog part of a joint, agri-tourism initiative.

“We want to help develop Green Frog into a public facility for all the kids that don't have the opportunity to see this type of thing,” said Joe Young, Tennessee assistant agriculture commissioner.

The cultural and social part of Green Frog includes a church which was moved to Green Frog from the Crossroads community on Johnson Grove Road. Its congregation dates back to the 1830s. Memorabilia inside the structure include a history of the church congregation and biographies of all its preachers. The chapel is also rented out for weddings.

Next door is an antique log cabin. An inside room is decorated with a “butter and cream” collection of old churns, etc. Next to that is an old corn crib.

An outdoor reception area has been created, including a gazebo, and an area for conferences, and an outdoor amphitheater is under construction.

Freeman and his volunteers are getting ready to move a one-room school house to an area east of the church. The school is over 100 years old.

When complete, the industrial center of Green Frog will include the cotton gin and a turn of century country store. The latter will include old inventory from a store which stood on the property of Irvin Eatman, Mantua, Ala. Eatman also donated the gin to Green Frog.

A building to house a steam-powered sawmill has been built. A blacksmith shop with equipment, grist mill, sorghum mill, printing shop with hot lead typesetting equipment, and a railroad station round out the industrial center.

Another 1880 log cabin came to Green Frog from Sardis, Tenn., although restoration is not complete. Many of the buildings are surrounded by young trees planted by the Bells Garden Club.

“The rural Southern village had a lot of beauty in it,” Freeman said.

Freeman would like the village to be used interactively, “which would be much more dynamic than trying to just save an artifact. Young people can come out and work on the steam engines and be stimulated to learn. Maybe it can be the beginning of an antique engine club.

“School children could come and do some research and write about historical things. The print shop will be complete enough where school children can come out and take the type and put it together and print a page.”

As to the future, “we do have dreams and visions. My wife calls them delusions of grandeur,” Freeman said.

Freeman plans to display the antique furniture out of 100-year-old Barnes Dry Goods store, a business that thrived in Bells. A business sector will include complete units such as a dental office from Bells, a shoe repair shop and leather works, and a barber shop.

It's enough work for Freeman “to finish out my retirement and leave some for someone else to finish. We hope to have a complete rural Tennessee village. My vision is that it will be an interactive, dynamic place where people can learn of the history of the time and sharpen their vision for the future.”

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