Photos: ‘Stories of the Road’ exhibit opens to honor Murfreesboro road

The displays are lined as if along a winding road, allowing viewers to travel their way through Murfreesboro's history. on Feb. 4, 2019, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Angele Latham/ Sidelines)

History was unveiled Monday at The Heritage Center of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County as the newest exhibit, “Stories of the Road,” opened to an appreciative community.

The exhibit focuses on College Street, once known as the “Dixie Highway” in Murfreesboro and shows the long history of the road as “one of connection – between the nation, the county, the city and history,” according to an exhibit panel.

Carefully displayed items showed the long history of Murfreesboro migration along the “Dixie Highway” – from maps, to newspapers, to beer ads and domino pieces, the artifacts gave a vibrant picture of the life that has always bustled through the town.

Lane Tillner, The Heritage Center coordinator and MTSU Ph.D student in public history, was one of the main creators of this exhibit. With an astute stare and sensible conversation, Tillner served as her own kind of journalist: She knew the story she wanted to tell and told it well, albeit with artifacts instead of type, and exhibit panels instead of newspapers. It was a story, Tillner believed, that deserved to be told.

“This exhibit is really to show how Murfreesboro changes over time, with a focus on this road out here, which is now College Street,” Tillner said, gesturing to the exhibition. “(It is) a significant story for how this road changed, and it really shows both forced and voluntary migration through this little area of Middle Tennessee. If you hadn’t put all these stories together, you’re not sure that they would’ve all been as connected as they actually are.”

Beginning with the road’s history in the 1830s as part of the Trail of Tears, to military transport in the Civil War, and finally to being paved and becoming a main thoroughfare during the early 1900’s, the “Dixie Highway” can be credited as one of the main factors of Murfreesboro’s early economic strength.

“It just tells a different piece of history. Each kind of tells a different story, and somebody might know one part of the story, like the (troop movement), but they didn’t know about the Trail of Tears, or the Dixie Highway,” Tillner said. “So it’s kind of bringing all of those little elements together to tell this big story of Murfreesboro in a national narrative.”

Among those attending to hear this national narrative was none other than Steve Cates, 78, of Murfreesboro. A regular contributor to the Heritage Center and an avid visitor, Cates was particularly looking forward to this exhibition. And with his sophisticated dress and quiet, regal manners, Cates seemed as if he had just as many stories to tell as the displays themselves.

“I’m proud of what the young people here are doing, and I just thought it’d be something interesting to see,” Cates said, smiling softly. “Because, you see, this Dixie Highway has been a great part of my life.”

The Cates family, as he explained, have been the proud owners of the same local farm for eight generations. As such an enduring pillar of Murfreesboro, and after being a teacher for 42 years, Cates has seen the demographics of young Tennesseans change dramatically over time. A change he directly attributes to the Dixie Highway – and a change he also appreciates for the learning opportunities it provides.

“There’s something about every community that is unique,” Cates said. “And while you’re living there, you need to learn your uniqueness. I like that someone can come here, they can take a tour of the square,and they can get some information, even if they’re just here for a day or a week. So I’m so happy with what’s happening … I’m very, very proud of the Department of Historic Preservation. Most people here do not realize what a jewel it is, and how rare it is to have this in our community, and how much it has meant to the community.”

The Heritage Center is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Admission is free.

To contact News Editor Angele Latham, email

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