Monday, December 3, 2012

An Historic American/Japanese School at Risk

There have been many times that Laurie and I have driven down US Route 11 to Sweetwater Tennessee…and just before we got into the town itself, we’ve passed by a mysterious complex of buildings hidden in the woods and undergrowth.  The driveway to the facility is chained shut and the grounds leading up to the buildings were completely littered with downed trees and brush gone wild.

With most of the leaves gone from the trees and the field in front of the facility recently cleared and mowed, we recently got a little better glimpse of this large structure.  A Tennessee Historical Plaque by the driveway identified this as the second campus for the Tennessee Military Institute, later identified as the TMI Academy. 

It all began in 1874 with the founding of the Sweetwater Military College just down the road from this location in the town of Sweetwater.  In 1902, the school was renamed as the Tennessee Military Institute…and then the school was relocated to this 10 building 144-acre site in 1909.  In 1975, it was named as the TMI Academy, but the demand or need for preparatory schools declined over the years and the school closed in 1988.  The main building is over 103 years old…
I was a little surprised just how challenging it would be to find photos of this historic old school.  Most were too small to be used and then there were a couple of photos for sale…copyrighted even…and good to avoid.

Following the Civil War, Tennessee completely lacked an educational system.  There just wasn’t enough government funding available so various communities, religious groups and individuals started private schools.  James Kirkland, the chancellor of Vanderbilt University, championed these schools as he saw them as a means by which he could maintain the University's high admission standards.  At one point there were 32 of these schools in operation in the state…and from what I can find out, only 7 of them remain.
This is a photo of some of the cadets looking at maps in a room on campus.

As I dug around the Internet looking for information on the school, I came across a remarkable number of attendees and graduates of the Tennessee Military Institute or the TMI Academy.  I discovered many of them via LinkedIn at  The school had been listed as part of the various subject’s educational background.  I found a well-known sports writer, (Nashville, New York City and nationally), Henry Grantland Rice, as well as a professional football player, Antone Davis.  Davis played at the University of Tennessee and then he was drafted in the first round by the NFL and then played Offensive Tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons.
I also noted that the 6-degrees of separation rule was in effect, big time!  I found a number of TMI graduates/attendees who were within 3 degrees of separation from myself… In other words, a number of my own 260 LinkedIn connections were connected to one of these former student’s own list of connections.  Some of the graduates have achieved enough ‘fame’ to have their own Wikipedia pages.  In addition to Rice and Davis as mentioned above, other TMI attendees listed in Wikipedia include historian North Callahan, political advisor/consultant Phil Noble, Texas judge and US Congressman Joseph Franklin Wilson, SC politician James M. Waddell Jr. and Joe “Dixie” Fuller, a showman, musician and restaurateur from Chattanooga.  
So, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering about the reference to the American/Japanese School in the title of this blog.  When the TMI Academy closed in 1988, the facility was purchased by the Japanese Presbyterian institution Meiji Gakuin University.  The Tennessee Meiji Gakuin High School opened in 1989.  Its purpose was to provide a Japanese style education for Japanese students residing in America…so they could easily enter Japanese Universities upon their return to their homeland.  Students attended classes 1 hour longer than local schools…6 days a week and 230 days a year...

(Note: The marker in the photo above was placed by the Meiji Gakuin University to commemorate the contributions made by this school and to mark the school’s friendship with the Sweetwater community)
The town of Sweetwater held a welcoming open house just before the school opened.  Over 200 people attended the event…which included a Japanese tea ceremony and country music.  Unfortunately, a cross-burning incident took place in late May of 1989, when a group or person placed a 6.5 foot wooden cross at the school’s entrance and set it on fire.  It appears that no one was ever arrested for this action… 
A new building was added to the campus as recently as 2005, but with high tuition costs and declining enrollment, the school closed in 2007.  A total of 677 students graduated from the school. 
In 2010, the Japanese owners of the campus gave the land and buildings to a local non-profit.  An internal dispute by the non-profit’s board of directors has led to complete inaction.  Lawsuits are flying, city and county taxes are in arrears.  A judge had forbidden either party to enter the property for any purpose…all utilities had been cut off for over a year…and the place was slowly starting to fall apart.  Recently, after Sweetwater issued several safety related citations against the property, the judge allowed for a ‘clean-up’ period.  As this blog is already a bit too wordy, if you’d like more information just click on this recent article published by the Knoxville News Sentinel.  This is a sad story for what was a great institution.  Hopefully the future holds some promise for both historical and local economic reasons... 
Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…
Thanks for stopping by for a visit!
Take Care, Big Daddy Dave 


  1. It is a sad story and I've wondered about it's status since closing

  2. I found this fascinating and not at all wordy, Dave. Thanks for sharing this with us. Have a great day. Blessings...Mary