Vinson: Hidden treasure in Kentucky

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When one wanders off the beaten path to "parts unknown," part of the intrigue is not knowing what awaits you. The possibilities range from getting lost in the dark to finding a hidden treasure. Well, that's what happened when a friend, Brenda, and I recently made the trip from McMinnville, Tennessee, to Cumberland County, Kentucky: I accidentally stumbled up on a "hidden treasure," which I value as priceless!

Cumberland County, Kentucky (population approximately 7,000) is located in the South-Central portion of the state of Kentucky, 18-20 miles north of Celina, Tennessee. Cumberland County was so named for the Cumberland River, which runs nearby. For you outdoorsmen, world-famous Dale Hollow Lake, vacation resort and one of the nation's premier bass fisheries, is a short drive away. Though the major area of Dale Hollow Lake is located in Tennessee, a small branch of Dale Hollow Lake covers the southern end of Cumberland County, Kentucky.

In short, Cumberland County, Kentucky is a small, slow-paced, rural, farming area. For example, the City of Burkesville (population approximately 1,600), county seat for Cumberland County, has only one stoplight. Think "Andy of Mayberry," more Brahma boots and Carhartt coveralls than J.C. Penney khakis and loafers.

Okay, how does Maxwell House Coffee and Teddy Roosevelt come into play?

After arriving in Cumberland County, Brenda and I drove out on Highway 61 (a main route in Cumberland County) so she could show me where her sister, brother-in-law, and nephew live. (They were busy working an annual flea market, taking place a few miles away.)

When we pulled into the driveway, Brenda said, "Here's where the guy who invented Maxwell House Coffee, Joel Cheek, was born and raised."

"You mean in that house right in front of us, where your sister, brother-in-law, and nephew now live . . . the house I'm looking at?!" I excitedly interrogated.

"Well, the original Cheek house is gone," she said, "but, yes, right there is where Joel Cheek's home place sat at one time, until it was torn down. Just look to your right and you can see the plaque that tells the history of Joel Cheek and Maxwell House Coffee."

Lo-and-behold, looking to my right, I saw a plaque with this headline caption: "Creator of Maxwell House Coffee." With that, Brenda and I exited the vehicle, and I commenced reading the words etched on the plaque.

Indeed, Joel Cheek was born in 1852 in Cumberland County, Kentucky. Always ambitious, Joel eventually moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and became a traveling salesman. However, Joel was particularly fascinated with coffee and set out to find the perfect coffee blend. In 1892, Cheek approached the food buyer for the upscale Maxwell House Hotel, in Nashville, and gave him several pounds of a new, special blend. Guests at the hotel raved about this new blend, and the Maxwell House Hotel commenced serving Cheek's coffee exclusively, "serving no other" coffee. In return, Cheek received permission from the Maxwell House Hotel to name his coffee . . . well . . . "Maxwell House," which, records indicate, would become the largest selling brand of coffee in the United States.

Later, Joel Cheek would partner with Nashville-based wholesale grocery distributor John Neal to form Cheek-Neal Coffee Company, a mega success. Postum Company (later renamed General Foods) purchased the Cheek-Neal Coffee Company in 1928, also acquiring the right for and title to Maxwell House Coffee.

And where does Teddy Roosevelt fit in? Popular legend has it that, in 1907, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt was a guest at the Maxwell House Hotel. Having been served some Maxwell House Coffee, Roosevelt remarked, "This coffee is good to the last drop," which became Maxwell House Coffee's trademark slogan.

Though I consider the connection between Kentucky, Maxwell House Coffee, and Teddy Roosevelt to be a rare "find," the way it came about is just as rare and special: If Brenda and I hadn't driven out to her sister and brother-in-law's home--on a whim, just so she could show me where they live--I probably wouldn't have found this historical treasure.


(NOTE: A special "thanks" to husband-and-wife Jerry and Glenda Willis, for historical input.)

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Mike Vinson
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