A highly-revered arts and cultural leader in Tennessee and across the nation, Linda Caldwell has spent her career honing a rural community-based development model that brings together heritage, arts, and local business interests in a common effort to develop sustainable tourism, strengthened economies, and enhanced pride of place.
In 1979, Linda became Director of the Etowah Arts Commission. During her tenure, she introduced new arts and cultural experiences to the area that ran the gamut from chamber music to folk music, juried arts exhibits to dinner theater, and more. She accomplished all of this with a tiny budget, but a firm resolve and a force of personality. Linda quickly became a skilled grant writer, and in the late 1980s spearheaded a public project that included a local history of the L & N railroad and the creation of a museum at the former train depot.
In 1990, the Etowah Arts Commission was one of four organizations in Tennessee awarded a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation as part of its Heritage Tourism Development Initiative. From this award grew the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association, a new heritage tourism and preservation initiative encompassing McMinn, Monroe, and Polk Counties. As it founding director, Linda built an award-winning organization with a bold mission to increase visitation to the region while also educating about and preserving cultural and natural assets and providing a catalyst for local economic and community development in the Overhill region.
Linda proved a master for bringing together stakeholders in the community not used to or inclined to work together. She devised a plan to hold monthly meetings that rotated between towns in the region. “By bringing people together on a regular basis over a meal, trust and respect were built,” Linda explained. Her efforts helped develop and grow many local groups, including the Englewood Textile Museum, Fort Loudon, Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, Tennessee Meiji Gakuin Culture Center, McMinn Living Heritage Museum, L&N Depot Museum, Monroe County Arts Council, Coker Creek Ruritan Club, and Ducktown Basin Museum.
In the early 1990s, Linda brought folklorist Brent Cantrell onto the Tennessee Overhill staff, demonstrating the integral place of folk culture in the Overhill region. Cantrell’s research led to the first comprehensive Artists Directory for the three county area, a tool that is still in use today.
Linda had a vision for cultural initiatives that would reflect and enhance the remarkable variety of arts and cultural activities in her rural area. She helped launch the Cousin Jake Memorial Bluegrass Festival, an annual music event to honor the legendary bluegrass musician Cousin Jake Tullock, an Etowah native. She also developed the “Gospel Explosion” program in an effort to broaden local participation, specifically from the African-American community. She brought noted photographers in for significant publication and exhibit projects, including Mark Steinmetz’s “Tennessee Overhill: A Cultural Landscape” and Tom Rankin’s “Expressions of Place: Roadside Signs” project. She has also staged a stream of exhibits at the Etowah L&N Depot Gallery over the years.
Under Linda’s leadership, the Tennessee Overhill hosted cultural performances and demonstration programming for the 1996 Olympics at the Ocoee Whitewater Center. Linda also took the lead for Tennessee stakeholders in the Cherokee Heritage Trail project, involving a partnership between Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia interests, and helped stimulate involvement by Cherokee tribal artists and tradition-bearers from the Eastern Band of Cherokee in public events throughout the region.
In 2001, when CSX announced plans to abandon the Old Line Railroad, Linda led a group of concerned citizens, local governments, and regional organizations in the formation of the Old Line Railroad Coalition. In 2002, the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association purchased the line. Since that time, the railroad excursions have attracted tens of thousands of visitors each year to the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the Overhill region.
Linda retired in 2013, but she has hardly slowed down. She still actively consults groups across Tennessee and the United States. In short, Tennessee’s Linda Caldwell has been a pioneer and leader in creative placemaking and asset-based development.