Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
Five Macon County citizens are preparing to file for an injunction in the Macon County District Court that may block the Town of Franklin’s planned April 1 vote to add the nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative to the deed of the historic and sacred Indian mound of the same name, located in East Franklin.
Former president of the Macon County Historical Society Gloria Raby Owenby joined Betty Cloer Wallace, Mary Ruth Byrd, Edgar Burton “Bud” Shope and Judith B. Dowdle as plaintiffs in the proposed complaint and request for preliminary injunction for relief, a copy of which was obtained by the Macon County News prior to its submission to the court. As of Tuesday, the application for injunction had yet to be filed.
Mary Ruth Byrd, 67, who lives with her cousin, Gloria Raby Owenby, owns property in East Franklin and explained that the purpose of the injunction is to “honor the deed” and prevent commercialization of the property.
“I don’t know what they would do,” she said of the community development organization founded in 2016 that is at the center of the controversy. Asked if she opposed development of East Franklin and the addition of green space in the area, Byrd added, “They own other properties and they can do whatever they want to with [them]. They don’t need the deed.”
The Nikwasi Initiative itself does not own property in East Franklin, but partners in the effort do. One such partner, the nonprofit Mainspring Conservation Trust is a land trust whose main office is on E. Main St. within sight of the mound. Mainspring owns and has overseen the clean-up of potentially contaminated “Brownfield” sites formerly used by oil companies that once operated in the area. Mainspring’s hope is to revitalize the area with new green space near the Little Tennessee River, which it was founded to protect, and to connect new green spaces to the nearby pedestrian Greenway.
The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian (EBCI), also an Initiative partner, purchased the property adjacent to the Nikwasi mound, formerly Dan’s Auto, for $400,000 in 2017 and plans to establish an annex to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
Town Councilmen offered little in the way of opposition in a brief March 4 discussion after Vice-Mayor Barbara McRae proposed that a legal document be prepared for the April 1 meeting that would add the Nikwasi Initiative to the mound’s deed. The mound came into the town’s hands in 1946 when locals raised money to save it from demolition.
The injunction application quotes the original deed, which states, “the property above-described shall be preserved for the citizens of Macon County and for posterity.” The deed further states that the mound shall not be used “for any commercial purpose and shall be kept as a monument to the early history of Macon County.” Nowhere in the deed is the EBCI mentioned, nor the ancestors of the Cherokee, which are believed to have built the mound 1,000 years ago.
The plaintiffs seek the injunction for irreparable injury due to the “loss of respect for and confidence in the Town of Franklin” claiming the original intent of the deed would be breached. The five citizens’ right to file for injunctive relief is stated in the deed “should the Town of Franklin at any time fail to carry out the provisions of this instrument.”
Byrd underscored her interest in the non-commercialization of the property, and that it remains solely in the town’s hands.
“It’s been there all my life and I just think we need to keep it,” she said. “I just wish it would remain like it is.”