The first thing you notice about Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary is the bone-chilling cold of the place. 

The proprietors of the century-old prison, in recent years a tourist attraction in a beautiful valley in East Tennessee, warn visitors taking the tour they should expect temperatures inside the prison buildings to be 10 degrees colder than outside.

It’s almost certainly on account of the thick stone walls and only intermittent shafts of sunlight that reach the cells and cellblocks along the route of the tour. It is also, perhaps, the lasting echoes of the menace and violence that played out inside for a hundred years. 

It’s an unlikely place, as well as an ingenious place, for a tourist attraction. The day that I walked through Brushy – that’s the fond nickname for the prison and tourist spot – there was very little light-hearted banter and laughter from others on the tour. The weight of the place seems to tamp down spirits.

Brushy Mountain lower cellblock. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

And then there are the spirits in the gift shop. Brushy features not only the tour but a restaurant called the Warden’s Table and the End of the Line Distillery, which makes and sells a variety of liquors with names like Scared Straight Tennessee Moonshine. Also in the gift shop are Brushy caps, coffee mugs, and soap on a rope.

This is a very different Brushy than the prison from which James Earl Ray, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s convicted assassin, escaped in June 1977. 

But even though it’s a different Brushy, it’s still a part of the small town of Petros – pronounced, I’m told, Pete Ross – home to about 500 residents whose households were once largely those of the men who worked as guards in the prison. In the past five years, the people of Petros have been living with an attraction that brings visitors to town, curious to see first-hand the place where hard time was truly hard time.

Petros Public Library Director Carol Smith Beene said in an interview that there’s been an adjustment for those in the town who, like her, have a long family history with Brushy. Her husband and “his whole family” worked at the prison. “For many people in the town, that’s true. Generations have worked there.”

Now the town is learning to live life with a very different function in the prison and a different economic model: tourism instead of incarceration.

‘How Things Have Changed’

On this sunny October Saturday, swarms of all-terrain vehicles roar into the gravel parking lot just down the hill from the prison. The gift shop, where Brushy visitors can buy $20 tickets for the self-guided tour, is just off the parking lot, and so is the Warden’s Table, which, the brochure notes, “Offers up the kind of classic Southern comfort food prisoners only dreamed about: generous portions of slow-cooked BBQ, massive baked potatoes loaded with toppings, nachos, burgers. Oh, how things have changed.”

The modern-day Brushy walks this fine line – for the most part successfully – between being a kitschy tourist stop and a grim reminder of the history of Tennessee incarceration.

Established by the state in 1896, born out of a dispute over unpaid convict labor in coal mines and a lockout, Brushy was in its early days a wooden structure built by convicts, who also mined coal and built a railroad spur so that coal could be shipped out. By the end of the century, the convict miners were producing 1,000 tons of coal a day. 

The original prison was replaced by an imposing, castle-like stone structure finished in 1935. Built to hold 600 inmates, the prison often swelled from twice that many convicts crammed into its cells.

Life at the prison over the next 70 years was harsh. In an introductory film played for visitors taking the tour, former guards recall brutal attacks, usually of inmates upon inmates, that left floors, prisoners and guards covered in blood. We’re left to assume the threat of violence went both ways: one guard who was interviewed on film was nicknamed “Ballbat.” 

In the modest museum inside the prison, displays include not only weapons and contraband taken from prisoners but a pair of brass knuckles that belonged to a former warden and a wooden-handled strap used to whip prisoners. 

Brushy Mountain from the “Hole.” (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

It’s that history of violence that intrigues many of those who visit Brushy. No doubt many of us can try to imagine ourselves in the place of prisoners and the dread they would feel, particularly those in the Hole, a cellblock isolated from the rest of the prison and consisting of a handful of small cells, where “troublesome” prisoners would be sent to live in isolation and darkness for days or weeks or even months. 

Besides the metal bunks, the cells in the Hole included two buckets, one for water and the other the toilet. Even with the doors to the four-foot-by-eight-foot-by-10-foot cells open, the Hole feels oppressive. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like after the door slammed shut. The Hole was in use until the 1960s.

Outside the walls and in the kind of daylight prisoners in the Hole once yearned for, the keen rumble of the ATVs subsides as visitors file in to eat lunch and buy tour tickets. People stand in a long line to order and eat at the Warden’s Table. One woman approaches the gift shop checkout with a double armload of bottles of vodka and whisky. 

The ATV riders – who later congregated at a little bar and grill along the road leading into Petros – are visitors from Morgan County’s other major tourist attraction, the Windrock Park Campground. 

“Thousands of people come to Windrock,” Beene said. “The back side of Petros to the West connects to Windrock. The ATVs are due to Windrock.”

Pam Gunter of the Morgan County Tourism Alliance agreed. “Brushy is a destination as they’re out on the trails, for lunch or dinner, and a destination is what everybody is after. Those ATVs just pour in from the hills.”

Gunter said that the wilderness of Morgan County makes it easy to promote.

“What we brag about is that we have the beauty of the Smokies but none of the crowds,” she said.

The beauty of the heavily wooded hillsides around Brushy are visible through some of the windows in the prison, including one just outside the Hole.

‘We Will Be Your Best Neighbor’

Pete Waddington, one of the owners of the Brushy Mountain tourist attraction, already had a background in restaurants in Chattanooga when, upon catering an event for fellow motorcycle enthusiasts, he and some friends rode up to the former prison, which had been closed since 2009.

Brushy Mountain Warden’s Table restaurant. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

“It was closed but the warden at the time allowed us access because our event was for a good cause,” he said. “It was just sitting there empty and I looked at my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and said, ‘I’m gonna buy this place.’”

After Waddington, who is partners with Brian May in the venture, was able to convince state and local authorities, including the Morgan County Economic Development Board, to let him lease the former prison for a dollar a year, the work began. Although the electrical system was modernized and buildings including the gift shop, restaurant, distillery and a band shell were built, the prison’s atmosphere – peeling paint, rusting cell doors and dusty windows – was preserved. 

Brushy looks like the last prisoner got on the bus for transport to another prison an hour ago.

Adding the distillery was a challenge: Morgan County, like some others in Tennessee, was a dry county. To this day, Brushy distills and sells bottles of liquor but can’t serve it to guests at the Warden’s Table. The closest visitors can come is by buying for $5 a selection of five samples of liquor to buy in bottles to take home.

Waddington said Brushy has tried to be a good neighbor to Petros, donating $10,000 to the local animal shelter. Brushy is not only home to wedding ceremonies and concerts but events that benefit local causes. He said a dollar from every concert ticket sold is donated to the local fire department.

Gunter of the economic alliance group said Waddington and May “jumped into the middle of the community and said, ‘We will be your best neighbor,’ and that has been true. They’ll offer up their property for any kind of event we bring to them.”

Brushy the tourist attraction opened in August 2018, and one gets the feeling the government was happy to find new owners for the prison, outbuildings and 280 acres of rough, steep terrain. Waddington noted that the $15,000 monthly electric bill was only one expense the state was covering. 

The town was likely happy to find new owners too, he said. 

“There’s a ton of history in that town,” Waddington added. “Nobody in that town didn’t have family that worked there. They were happy it didn’t fall down.”

History and Family Tradition

The Hole and nearby D Block, the maximum-security section, held some of the most hardened inmates at Brushy. Among them was Ray, “arguably the prison’s most infamous inmate,” as Brushy says on a sign outside Cell 28, Ray’s customary cell located in the general population. Arrested and convicted of assassinating King in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Ray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Ray later recanted his confession and escaped from Brushy on June 10, 1977, as part of a group of seven who got over the wall and escaped into the unforgiving, tree-covered hills surrounding the prison. He was recaptured three days later and, as Brushy’s signage notes, sent to D Block.

During his time at Brushy, Ray was targeted by other inmates. Four Black inmates fell upon him one day and stabbed him 22 times, but he survived, only to die from kidney disease and liver failure in a Nashville prison hospital in 1998.

Newspaper accounts from the time noted that Petros residents joined in the search for Ray.

Beene said Brushy was “a family tradition” for Petros. The family of her husband, who passed away three years ago, worked at Brushy, dating back to his great-grandfather, who came to the area with the engineer who designed the coal mine. “Every generation has had multiple Beenes who worked at the prison.”

Entrance to the Brushy Mountain prison-turned-museum. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

The closing of the prison and redevelopment as tourist attraction left some Petros residents saddened, Beene noted. “Some people in the town said, ‘We’re losing our small-town community.’ Especially in a little town where everybody knows everybody, the change is startling. I do grieve it. I grieve that I used to know everybody’s name.” Beene will leave her post as the Petros library director at the end of the year, but after six years at the library and 30 years as a teacher before that, she said it was time for a change. 

The relationship between the town and the new Brushy “seems to be going well,” she said. “It has brought a lot of outsiders to the community, In terms of money, it’s really good for the community. Once the prison closed, there was no one else to bring money into the community.”

Waddington said the ideal circumstance is for people to tout Brushy in word of mouth and the numbers of visitors will build.

“Somebody can come and take the tour and get a good lunch and buy a bottle of ’shine and a T-shirt and … go back and tell their neighbors in a cul-de-sac in Ohio, ‘You gotta visit this place on your way to Florida.’”

The precedent for a prison-turned-tourist-attraction is, of course, Alcatraz, off the coast of California. The comparison is apt, Waddington said.

“After all they used to call Brushy the Alcatraz of the South.”

Keith Roysdon is a Tennessee writer of news and pop culture articles. His first crime novel, “Seven Angels,” is set in Tennessee and won the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for Best Unpublished Novel from Mystery Writers of America Midwest. His third co-authored true crime book, “The Westside Park Murders,” was named Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by Indiana Society of Professional Journalists. 

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.