Watertown’s small-town values impact our community in a big way
If you ever have the opportunity to drive through Watertown – you’re likely to see children riding bikes, grandparents sitting on their front porches and neighbors waving at each other as they drive down the road. Boasting only about 1500 citizens, Watertown is a close-knit community where neighbors check on each other, churches are full on Sundays and hard work is valued.
Wilson County’s smallest city was established in the 1790s when the grandparents of Wilson L. Waters, the founder of Watertown, moved into the Round Lick Creek area. Waters established a sawmill, gristmill and blacksmith in the early 1800s and in 1858 was appointed the first postmaster. Waters’ 400-acre farm became forever known thereafter as Watertown.
Watertown – with its rolling hills, fishing holes and a town that takes pride in the fact they don’t even have one traffic light in their entire town – almost sounds unreal in today’s 21st century modern world, where life happens fast and people are quickly losing their connections. But the people of Watertown are holding tight to their small-town values, finding that those values are impacting and shaping Wilson County for the better.
Just ask four local citizens who hail from Watertown. Each of them holds fond memories of growing up in Watertown and how their small-town values have influenced their lives and careers.
County Mayor Randall Hutto, County Attorney Mike Jennings, District Attorney General Jason Lawson and Criminal Court Judge Brody Kane were all raised in Watertown and have not wandered too far from their hometown roots. Hutto and Kane now live in Lebanon, Lawson is in Mt. Juliet and Jennings not only continues to live in Watertown but is also their Mayor. Visit a Friday night Watertown football game and you’re likely to see one or two of these men in the stands cheering their Purple Tigers on while talking to their old friends and neighbors.
“It’s about community. When you grow up in a small town like this, you always feel safe and protected. Everyone was always rooting for you, from your teachers who wanted you to succeed, to your coaches on the field who taught you grit and perseverance, to your friends who always had your back and still do 50 years later,” notes Criminal Court Judge Brody Kane.
Wilson County County Attorney, Mike Jennings, was born and raised in Watertown and then raised his own children there too. In fact, he liked it so much, he has stuck around and has remained the Mayor of Watertown for more than three decades. A job he does without pay because this way of life and preserving it, is important to him. Mike remembers that “growing up in Watertown revolved around church, school and family. These things were focal points then and, in my opinion, they still are.”
In the last ten years, Wilson County’s population has grown by over 26% and as Nashville keeps pushing east and people are moving to Tennessee in droves, change is inevitable. Yet, the reason so many people want to live in Tennessee and Wilson County specifically, is directly because of the fact – church, school and family are important to them as well.
A fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by all four of these men whose job it is to protect and preserve our community, as well as another Watertown resident, who chose to call Watertown home as an adult.
In July, Jeff Luttrell took over as Wilson County’s Director of Schools. Jeff was raised in a town much like Watertown north of the border in Kentucky. He became a teacher because of the deep impact his teachers had on him as a young child. They believed he could when others did not. Their words and actions impacted him and encouraged him. Their efforts led him down a path that eventually brought him to Cumberland University and under the guidance of Coach Woody Hunt, Jeff finished college and began his teaching career in Hartsville and later Watertown. He stayed in Watertown because of a pretty young lady from Watertown named Tiffany Allison, who at the time was cutting his hair. Jeff likes to share that his regular barber only charged ten dollars while Tiffany charged fifteen dollars, which was steep for a young teacher, but he laughs, he kept coming back every few weeks until she eventually went out with him and married him. Since then Jeff and his family have called Watertown home with Jeff eventually going from a teacher and coach to Principal of Watertown High School.
“Watertown is a great place to live and raise your kids. The people are hard-working and have integrity. What they say they mean. It’s not about money, it’s not about who your parents are or what they do, it’s about what you do and how you do it that matters. It was my privilege to be the Principal of Watertown High School and to see small town values in action daily within this community and the school specifically. You don’t necessarily teach honesty or work-ethic – instead it’s instilled in you as a way of life by watching and learning from those around you. Teachers take pride in their work and want their students to succeed. Parents are involved and support the teachers. The community as a whole watches out for each other and for our kids and often steps up to help each other out. The world our children are being raised in might be completely different than the one we were raised in, its faster, scarier, bigger but if your core values are solid, then you can handle anything that life throws your way.”
As Wilson County grows, the Director of Schools has a huge responsibility because how Luttrell leads will affect not just the children but the entire community in the future. “I’m ready for this job. I don’t take lightly the impact my decisions will make. I talked to my family and prayed about it long and hard before deciding to put my name in for the position. I’m up for the challenges ahead and excited to see all that these kids will be doing in the future. And I hope that many of them will return to the area after finishing up their education. The world out there may be all shiny and new but there is something to be said about living and working in a community like the one we have here in Watertown.”
Mayor Hutto, a former teacher and coach himself, also hopes that many of our young citizens will decide to stay within the community. “It’s one of the many reasons I decided to become Mayor eleven years ago. It’s important to me that as this community grows, we grow in a way that preserves our past but makes room for our future. We have to have opportunities for both our older and younger citizens and give them all a good quality of life – good jobs, good neighborhoods, good school systems, safe communities. While we can’t bring Mayberry back, we can teach and encourage the values that support a good quality of life. I was blessed to be raised in Watertown and maybe that’s why I love The Andy Griffith Show so much, because it reminds me of my early years in Watertown.”
“Growing up in Watertown, when you were not in school, a ballfield or church then you were somewhere working,” Hutto reminisces. Hutto remembers at nine years old working for his Uncle Donnie Roberts at the Valley Discount Store in Watertown. “It was the only store that stayed open past 6 p.m.. I learned how to pump gas, run a cash register and eventually become the butcher. When I wasn’t there, I was on my grandfather, Claude Roberts’ farm raising tobacco and taking care of two large chicken houses – which had over 10,0000 laying hens. The eggs had to be gathered twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening – 365 days a year. The store was open 365 days a year as well and only closed early on Christmas evening. So during a typical day, I would wake up around 5:30 in the morning and ride to the store with my Uncle Ed Roberts who also worked there and was like a brother to me. I would pump gas until it was time to ride the bus to school. We practiced football during school in those days, so when practice was over, I’d ride the bus back to the store and stay there until 10 o’clock at night when I’d drive home with my Pa, who would often allow us to do the driving.”
“Those were different times but hard work never killed anyone and made you stronger in my opinion. I support Jeff Luttrell and know he knows the value of hard work and how it impacts our younger generation. To be successful in our world today you must be able to withstand the storms of life – and to do so, you must have a strong foundation. Watertown gave me the foundation that has helped me navigate this world and hopefully make a difference. The first foundation was being raised with people with similar values as my own – people who valued family and a strong work ethic. The second foundation came from the people that came into my life from teachers and coaches to friends. These people helped me make my decisions. I remember my principal Mr. John D. Johnson’s response as I asked him whether I should go to college. He simply said ‘If you don’t try it, you will never know if you can succeed or not.’ The third and most significant foundation would be my faith, which was built by my grandmother Corine Roberts. She made sure I went to church every Sunday at the Watertown First Baptist Church. This church has not only been special to me because it was the first church I regularly attended and served in, but it was also the church that I was married in 35 years ago. I have many great memories in this church but the faith I live by today, especially when the storms of life arise, help me get through the other side.”
“Watertown is different today but I still believe the product it continues to produce is above average. There is just something special about this place. And I carry what I learned those years in Watertown and the foundation it gave me into everything I do to this day, including my job as County Mayor.”
Judge Kane also holds fond memories of growing up in Watertown and how that shaped him. “Mrs. Marian Driver was my 4th Grade teacher and she was wonderful. She often read books to us and had each row of students compete against the other in hotly contested math flash card competitions. Her classroom was located in the “new” high school building which meant I would often see my older sisters during the day when the high schoolers changed classes. I don’t ever remember being afraid of the high school kids, everyone was nice and respectful to each other.” Interestingly, the home and farm that the Kane’s grew up in in Watertown was torn down to make way for the current Watertown High School campus. “Whenever I drive onto the campus, I feel like I’m coming home – because I am. I rode my bike up and down that driveway thousands of times – riding my bike into town to the five and dime located on the corner of the square or to the Snow White for the vanilla shakes. It never once crossed my mind to be scared or that something would happen to me. I felt safe everywhere I went. And when I got older, there was less bike riding with friends and more working in the hay fields with them in the summer. And when I wasn’t working on someone else’s farm then I was helping my parents out on our farm – from taking care of sheep or cattle when my Dad was out of town to planting rows and rows of potatoes for my mother. Work kept me out of trouble. I was too tired for trouble by the time I planted ten rows of potatoes!”
And of course, then there was football. Kane recalls that “Junior Pro Football started in the 3rd Grade and so I immediately started playing. William Taylor and Jack Hale were the coaches my first year followed by Ken Fountain and Bruce Harris and eventually Coach Robinson in high school. They all had a great desire to not only win but to teach us that in order to win we had to work hard at learning our skills and work together as a team. They spent countless hours teaching us these important lessons and for that I will be forever grateful.”
“I moved away from Watertown for college and law school and then lived in Memphis for a few years. All of a sudden the big city and all that came with it was at my door. That impacted me in a big way because I realized that without the support of teachers, family, and church behind you, shaping you, like I had had, you could easily make wrong decisions that could affect you and others negatively for the rest of your life. I returned to Wilson County because I knew I wanted my children to be raised with the same values I was raised in. And as Criminal Court Judge, I see daily what is happening to our world. But if a child is raised with a strong foundation, much like Mayor Hutto, mentions – family, faith, work ethic and then our schools and churches also are proponents of values like honesty and commitment, they are less likely to go astray. But if they do, you find ways to get them back on course. Those are Watertown values for sure – responsibility and caring about your neighbor.”
District Attorney Lawson, the youngest of the Watertown natives, grew up like Kane and Hutto – in that family, school and church were the cornerstones of his childhood. Lawson notes that “as I reflect on my memories about Watertown what I have come to realize is that the most special thing about the town is the people.” From his childhood friends Alan Hill, Patrick Orrand and Jennifer Hearn with whom he would play way past dark in games that spanned all the yards on the street, to attending church and listening to his grandfather Ben Fuston preach on Sundays, to his teachers Paulette Dorris, Sue Simpson and Janice Rochelle (to name just a few) who shaped the future of each child they taught, Lawson attributes who he became on all these one on one connections. “The people of Watertown, those memories, they have helped shape me to be the person I am. A person that cares about other people. A person that wants to help out. A person who isn’t afraid to step forward and make the effort to correct the situation and make it better than it was before.”
It was a great childhood – filled with great memories. Lawson remembers that playing softball at the Watertown ballpark was a right of passage. “My team was sponsored by Anderson’s Backhoe, a company ran by Billy Anderson, with whom I attended church. We were terrible but I’ll never forget one night my teammate Eric Dies crushed his first homerun over the fence. There was a reward for anyone who could hit a homerun – a free ice cream from the concession stand, and we were so bad I was really excited to see someone finally get one! I remember coaches like Clint Dennison and Steve Carlisle who would often talk to us about life lessons that had nothing at all to do with the sport they were coaching. They just cared about the kids they were helping raise. To all of these coaches and teachers, it wasn’t just a job to them, it was a profession that they invested themselves in. They knew how important their job was to make all of us become the people that we ought to be.”
“Watertown people have a spirit of helping people out. When the roads would ice over, my dad would get my brother and I up and tell us to get our warm clothes on, that since we had larger trucks with his business, that we had a duty to use them to help people get unstuck and to make it to their homes. I remember local farmers like Bob Haley reaching out to kids to hire them to help work in his tobacco fields not because he truly needed the help, but because he knew that the kid or the kid’s family could use the money. I remember Fridays and Friday nights during football season. Whether it was a year that I was a fan or a year that I played, the experience was unforgettable. The pride that the whole school and the whole town had for its team. The school decked out in royal purple face paint, pep rallies, and then a parade in town for a team meal at the Depot. It’s an amazing way to grow up.”
“All these people and their acts of compassion and dedication shaped me to be the person I am and I’m not alone in sharing this. County lawyers, county mayors, judges, district attorneys, school directors, there are easier ways to make money. These jobs come with challenging problems and more often than not not everyone agrees with your decision. But there are not better ways to help families in our county and to shape our community into what we want it to be. It is the spirit of service that I learned in Watertown that draws us to these positions and continues to motivate us to continue to serve.”
Lawson, who graduated from Watertown High School and went on to MTSU and then UT Knoxville for law school has been a prosecutor his entire legal career. In 2021, he was appointed by Governor Lee to be the new District Attorney General upon the retirement of General Tommy Thompson. At his swearing in ceremony, Judge Brody Kane had the honor of administering his oath of office, a touching moment that did not go unnoticed by many of their Watertown teachers, coaches and neighbors who undoubtedly had a hand in their achievements.
And it is in that same spirit of service that Mike Jennings, the final Watertown native continues to give back to his small community that has given him so much. Mike has been Wilson County’s county attorney for decades and Watertown’s Mayor for 38 years. He and Luttrell have raised families in Watertown and have no plans to leave. In fact, Mayor Jennings now has grandchildren growing up in Watertown.
Mike reminisces that ”I was blessed to have teachers that cared about me and made sure that I applied myself to my education. The older I get the more I realize how much these teachers influenced my life. Expectations were laid out in class and you were expected to meet them. Behavior issues were dealt with by the teachers in the classroom and they were not afraid to use the paddle. In fact, Mrs. Sadie Knox had an axe handle which she laid out on the front of her desk to remind you of the need to behave! And, should your behavior not rise to their expectation level you can better believe that information would beat you home and there would be worse consequences awaiting you there. One teacher, in particular, Mrs. Dorothy Bass, told me at her desk one day ‘you will be the Mayor of Watertown someday.’ I laughed at her and told her she was crazy. We both laughed about that and I thought about her the night I took my first Oath of office as Mayor of Watertown at age 28.
Mayor Jennings is also a member of Watertown First Baptist Church and remembers how the men of the church spent time with the boys like himself taking them camping, fishing and to the occasional minor league baseball game. They even built a ballfield out back at the church for the kids. With connections and support like this, you can do anything you put your mind to. “Like most boys of that age and time, I started out wanting to be a major league baseball player or football player. At the end of my junior year, the Watertown Lions Club selected me to attend American Legion Boy’s State in Cookeville and that is where I began to get interested in government. In college I became more and more interested in the law, traveling with my best friend, who also became an attorney, to the Wilson County Courthouse many afternoons to sit in on trials. By the time I graduated MTSU, I knew that I wanted to go to law school.” After law school, Jennings started his own law practice that eventually led him to being named the County attorney, representing Wilson County in various governmental matters. And a few years after starting his law practice, he also became the Mayor of Watertown.
As Mayor of Watertown, Mike believes “it’s important to continue the family values and guidance that I received as a student and young man. That is what I have tried to do in my 38 years as Mayor. I want Watertown to be a family friendly community where people want to live and, if they can’t live here, that they enjoy visiting. I want it to be appealing to any age and we try real hard not to make decisions that would not be in the best interest of our families, schools and churches.”
And while Watertown strives in many ways to stay the same and preserve its Mayberry type of community, Mike and the citizens of Watertown see the change coming right before their eyes. The new high school is a jewel in the county, and many families are moving in so their children can attend the school. “We’ve gone from one ballfield in town to a community Park and three fields. We have a drive-in theater and we have many annual events such as the Jazz Festival, Car Shows and the Watertown Mile Long Yard Sale. We still don’t have a traffic light though,” Mike says proudly, and then chuckles, “but we like it that way.”
Small town values – integrity, mean what you say, treat people how you want to be treated, work hard at everything you do. These are the qualities instilled in Watertown’s young not just by words but by the actions of those around them. And these are the qualities instilled in those guiding our community into tomorrow.