Namesake: Niota in McMinn County

11:39 AM, Sep 10, 2010   |    comments
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Around halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga on Interstate-75, you'll find a small city with links to some big national history.

"I've worked in Niota for 33 years and been the postmaster here for 22 years," said Frances Powers.  "Niota is like another Mayberry.  It's a laid back and quiet town.  Nobody bothers you and they have always treated me like family."

As Powers and other postmasters can attest, Niota's history is full of cases where people mixed up an address.

"Today we get a lot of mail from Oneida and they get a lot of our mail," said Powers.  "Zip codes certainly help a lot with people mixing up the names, but some folks put the wrong zip code, too."

Confusion over the wrong address is why residents changed the community's name to Niota in 1897.  Originally, the town was called Mouse Creek.

"It was Mouse Creek here, but there was a Mossy Creek in what is now Jefferson City," said Powers.  "The mail and freight was constantly going to the wrong station.  One time there was a big delivery of ice cream that went to the wrong place and melted.  They said we've got to change the name because it is too much like Mossy Creek."

Residents submitted ideas for the town's new moniker.  The postmaster at the time made the final decision.  He chose a suggestion that came from the name of a fictional Native American chief in a dime novel.

"The chief's name in the book was Nee-o-tah.  It is shortened now to Niota," said Powers.

The creative juices of residents in McMinn County flowed to the point that someone conjured up a translation for the word Niota to mean "nigh onto heaven."

Native American linguistic experts in North Carolina told 10 News that there is no known name or English translation for the words "Niota" or "Nee-o-tah."

The small city has plenty of authentic history for visitors to enjoy.  The Niota Train Depot stands in its original spot where it was once known as Mouse Creek.

"That's the oldest standing depot in the state of Tennessee," said Powers.  "It is part of the Civil War History Trail.  The soldiers at the time thought they would have to turn the depot into a fort."

Members of the community are currently attempting to raise funds to preserve the historic building as it falls into disrepair.

"There is a real sense of nostalgia when you go in that building.  Especially when it is quiet, I can feel what it would have been like for those soldiers at this depot," said Powers.

Another structure in Niota features history during a turning point in our nation's history.  The large brick house was home to Harry T. Burn, the legislator who cast the deciding vote in the women's suffrage movement.

"Harry T. Burn gave the ladies the right to vote. He lived in a big house here on Ferrell Street," said Frances Clark, lifelong resident of Niota.  "His mom sent him a letter that told him 'to be a good boy,' so he changed his vote and broke the tie."

With ratification in Tennessee, the country then had approval from enough states to make the 19th Amendment a law nationwide.

"Sometimes I take my lunch and go up to the Burn house and just sit and look at it," said Powers.  "The history just overwhelms me. Because of that vote, I'm able to vote. Because of that vote, I hold the job that I have because they finally gave women some rights.   It was something they fought for years to get and the deciding vote came from Niota."

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Note: Namesake is the renamed title of the series formerly known as 'Why do they call it that?'

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