BY KEN LITTLE
CHUCKEY -- They may never have set foot there, but touring the 18th century Earnest Fort House on Friday felt like coming home for many descendants of Henry and Mary Stephens Earnest.
The Earnest Family Reunion and Genealogy Conference began Friday in Greeneville, with more than 140 descendants from 22 states participating. Activities continue through the weekend.
The group boarded buses from the General Morgan Inn and visited the one-of-a-kind Earnest Fort House just off Chuckey Pike (Route 351), along with another family homestead known as the Elmwood Farm across the Nolichucky River.
The Elmwood Farm house was built in the 1820s and housed generations of Earnest family members.
Nicholas Earnest Clemmer, of Kingsport, remembers visiting his grandparents, Nicholas and Lida Earnest, many Sundays at the Elmwood Farm as a child.
Clemmer, 69, pointed to an outbuilding in back of the farm building that was used as an icehouse.
Before electricity was introduced to the area, he said ice blocks would be cut out of the Nolichucky River during the winter and used to keep food cool in the summertime.
"He had a garden right where we're standing," Clemmer said. "He'd pull a watermelon and put it in the icehouse before he went to church, so in the afternoon we would have watermelon that would be just the right temperature. It was perfect."
Descendant Jonathan Bayless, of Yosemite, Calif., was visiting the area for the first time.
As museum curator of Yosemite National Park, he has an active interest in history. Bayless was impressed with what he saw.
So was William Merrill Earnest Jr, a lawyer in Atlanta.
The Knoxville native attended University of Tennessee Law School and recalled trying a case in Johnson City earlier in his career.
One of four cross-streets at the site of the Washington County courthouse is Earnest Street.
"Every time I walked into the courthouse I felt like I was home," Earnest said.
Ricky Pittman, of Monroe, La., was visiting for the first time with his wife, Karen.
"It's a family that has been reunited from all over," Pittman said. "It's well organized. There's a lot of surprises. In an age when people forget about their ancestors, this is really important."
Pittman, an author, storyteller and musician, will provide entertainment Saturday night.
It wasn't unusual for couples in the 1700s and 1800s to have large families.
That helps explain the thousands of Earnest descendants today, said Wilhelmina Williams of Greeneville, a descendant who coordinated the reunion.
Henry and Mary Earnest had 11 children and 118 grandchildren, Williams said. Family numbers grew exponentially from there.
There's an undercurrent of sadness at this year's reunion because of the death last week in California of David Taylor, a retired pharmacy owner and scholar who served as family genealogist.
Taylor spent decades researching descendants of Henry and Mary Earnest, and had collected records on 60,000 people, Williams said.
The overall present-day number of Earnest descendants may exceed 85,000, she added.
A SWISS IMMIGRANT
Henry Earnest was a 10-year-old immigrant from Switzerland when he and his younger sister, Anna, landed at Philadelphia in August 1743.
They were mourning the loss of their parents, who died during the long cross-Atlantic voyage and were buried at sea.
Anna's fate remains something of a mystery.
But there are tens of thousands of descendants of Henry and his wife, who moved from Virginia to Chuckey, establishing one of the first frontier settlements across the Appalachian Mountains from the 13 Original Colonies, according to the family.
The extended Earnest family played a significant role in early agriculture and trade, as well as governmental, cultural and religious matters in this region, which was originally a part of North Carolina.
The Earnest Fort House dates from about 1784, said Robbie D. Jones, a historic preservation consultant from Nashville hired by the family to research the house and other family properties like the Elmwood Farm.
The family owns more than 520 acres surrounding the farm, Clemmer said.
"The Earnest farm goes back to the 1780s. This is one of the oldest continuously operated farms in Tennessee and it's got lots and lots of stories to tell," Jones said.
"There is really no other remaining 18th century house that is still that intact in Tennessee. It is probably one of the oldest houses in the state and the least altered," he said. "You step over there and you step back in time. You really get a feeling on 18th century Tennessee."
The reunion is the first of its kind since 2002, Williams said.
"This family dates back to the 1700s and you have sixth and seventh cousins getting together," she said. "It's rare that a group this large that dates that far back can come together and still have records."
Nancy Jane Earnest, of Johnson City, Clemmer's cousin, is excited to see so many descendants of the Earnest family in one place.
"It's spanned out over so many different generations to so many different places, it's hard to believe they're all cousins, but the DNA is there," she said.
Reunion-related activities today at the General Morgan Inn include presentations on "The Nolichuckey Settlement," "The Earnest Family Story: A Tribute to David Taylor" and "The Earnest Family in the Civil War."