3 Times the Museum’s 1898 Building Witnessed Clarksville History 

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

As we observed last month, the oldest section of the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center is now 125 years old. That’s a lot of history to observe. When the building opened to the public as a post office in November 1898, Queen Victoria was still on the throne in Britain, William McKinley was president in the United States and the Spanish-American War was coming to a conclusion. Clarksville residents had yet to experience the exciting changes and turbulence of the coming 20th century. From 1898 through today, however, the Customs House has witnessed Clarksville through it all.  

Landmark Bank 

Brenda Runyon, a Sunday school teacher, Red Cross volunteer and community leader, was no housewife. In the societal aftermath of World War I, Brenda opened the world’s first bank operated by women. WWI gave many women an opportunity to step outside their homes to show the world what they could do. At the end of the war, the expectation was that women would retreat back to home life.  Brenda did her part to keep the advancement of women in the public sphere going.  Brenda’s bank gave women financial autonomy for the first time. Women could open accounts under their own name and take out loans to start businesses or buy a house. First Women’s Bank was located inside the Arlington Hotel, right across Commerce Street from the Post Office and Customs House. The sight of the First Women’s Bank of Tennessee is now a parking lot, but a nearby plaque tells the story. 

Wilma Rudolph’s Homecoming Parade 

When Clarksville’s favorite hometown hero Wilma Rudolph came back from winning three gold medals in track and field events during the 1960 Rome Olympics, the governor of Tennessee and mayor of Clarksville conspired to throw Wilma a huge welcome home ceremony. The planned ceremony included a huge parade for the public.   

One problem, though – Clarksville was mostly a segregated city at the time. Wilma herself had attended the designated black high school, Burt School, near the Austin Peay campus. Amid the increasing activity of the civil rights movement, Wilma used her celebrity to make a stand – she would not participate in any homecoming celebrations unless they were integrated events. The organizers complied. Wilma’s historic welcome home parade processed through downtown Clarksville, including down Second Street and past what was the Clarksville Department of Electricity at the time: the 1898 building. 

Natural Disasters  

The 1898 building has seen – and avoided severe damage from – many natural disasters over its 125 years. Safely positioned on a hill above the Cumberland River, the Customs House has observed some major flooding events. January 1937 saw the crest of the river reach an epic 65.5 feet, according to the Montgomery County Historical Society, while the May 2010 flood reached nearly as far at 62.5 feet, the highest since the Army Corps of Engineers have been recording measurements.  

Most famously, however, the building managed to avoid ruin by pure luck when an F3 tornado shaved by on January 22, 1999. The tornado hit and demolished several buildings surrounding the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center, including the historic home of Supreme Court Justice Horace H. Lurton next door, the Leaf-Chronicle building directly across the street and the Montgomery County Courthouse diagonally across the street. Except for some broken windows and the finial atop the old building, which you can now see in its twisted glory today inside the Becoming Clarksville exhibit in Heritage Hall, the building made it through. Check out this Leaf-Chronicle article for photographs of the surrounding damage, including a shot taken from the roof of the 1898 building. 

What this building has seen within its 125 years of life is amazing. Even more incredible is to imagine how many more years this building will see. Protected now by the National Register of Historic Places and its status as the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center, the 1898 building will no doubt see countless decades to come. Walk inside and enjoy the living history that is the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center during the Museum’s open hours.  

Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters. 

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