Sparta, Tenn.: Life at a Manageable Pace

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Sparta, Tenn., features a lively downtown, with weekly bluegrass music and monthly classic car cruises.
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Sparta, Tenn., is surrounded by spectacular natural beauty that includes nearby Burgess Falls.

Each year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS selects a handful of sustainable communities to highlight in our annual Great Places feature. Check out the other towns featured in our 2014 installment:8 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of.

Sparta, Tennessee. Margaret Petre’s family has lived in the hills and hollers of White County, Tenn., since the early 1800s, and she’s been visiting there all her life. A year ago, she and her husband decided to sell everything and move home to Sparta, located equidistant between Nashville and Knoxville in the upper Cumberland Mountains.

“Sparta has a one-room post office and a market that will carry your balance ‘on a card’ for you — that’s an index card, not a credit card,” Petre says. “My husband and I now have a log cabin in the woods, with the mountains as a backdrop, and I think you could say we’re living the dream.”

Though gardeners in the area have to contend with red-clay soil, most everyone in town grows something and, as Petre says, “It’s so embedded here, people don’t even think of themselves as gardeners — raising food is just what you do. We’re so rural, there aren’t many ordinances. You’d be surprised what you might see in front yards around here.”

If you ever heard The Beverly Hillbillies theme song, you’ve heard Sparta’s native son, Lester Flatt, playing guitar and singing “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” Lester Flatt Memorial Bluegrass Day is part of Sparta’s annual Liberty Square Celebration, and bluegrass bands play on the square every Saturday evening. White County boasts more waterfalls and caves than any county in the state, says Jody Sliger of the Sparta and White County Chamber of Commerce. Recreation from hiking and biking to kayaking and canoeing, draws thousands of visitors to the region each year and supports a major part of Sparta’s economy.

Dave and Don Sergio, brothers who have lived in Sparta since they were young children, started Calfkiller Brewing Company in 2008, named for the Calfkiller River, which runs through White County. Their microbrewery now furnishes local beer to several area restaurants. Dave says he loves living in Sparta because “There are no tall buildings, but lots of tall trees; no traffic jams, but chickens in people’s yards.”

“Nature is everywhere here,” Petre says. “Just today I’ve seen deer, turkey, snakes, squirrels, ducks, geese and a fox. There’s no public transportation — no buses, cabs or trains. But these wouldn’t be expected in a town with a population of 5,000. That’s part of the joy of a small town. I had to yield to a horse and buggy this week.”

The cost of living in Sparta is about 25 percent less than the national average. The downside to living in such a small, inexpensive town is that unemployment is high and job opportunities are low. However, the low tax rate and reasonable housing prices make it an appealing community for those wanting to simplify their lives.

Potter and gallery owner Thor McNeil sees the area’s growing arts community as a harbinger of future economic growth.

“Our history has been in industry, so that’s where a lot of people still look when they think of ‘development,’” McNeil says. “Because of the low cost of living, the area is home to several artists and they contribute to a vital part of the economy that’s growing all the time.

“And as far as creating a local food system — not just growing the food, but processing it and adding value to it — we’ve just gotten started with that adventure.”

Stats: Sparta, Tennessee

Population: 5,047
Climate: 54” annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 52 degrees F; July avg. high: 88 degrees F
Median Household Income: $26,475
Median Home Price: $93,400

K.C. Compton is an editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publication, GRIT. She has visited 44 U.S. states, and sees great places and meets great people everywhere she goes. Find her on Google+.

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