The Buckeye Family


Unless you have lived in the Rickman-Monterey area for a very long time, or have some family ties there, you’re probably like me when it comes to knowing about a place called Beaver Hill, Tennessee. I had never heard of it until recently when it came to my attention that a fellow who lived there practically all of his life would be a good subject for a story. So with this chapter of my journal, I will undertake to share the story of Joseph Cummings Lee. Before I begin Mr. Lee’s story, the location of Beaver Hill should be given, especially for those like myself who did not know it existed. Beaver Hill, which consisted of a post office and general store, sat on the hillside on the Rickman highway behind the former location of Billy Lee Livingston’s store just off of Highway 84 between Livingston and Monterey.

Beaver Hill


Joseph Cummings Lee

Joseph Cummings Lee was the sixth child in a family of twelve children whose parents were John Wesley Lee and Mary Jane (Clark) Lee. John Wesley Lee and wife Mary Jane were originally from Board Valley in White County and moved to Beaver Hill when Joe was eleven years old. The Lee family moved from White County to Overton County with the help of a team of oxen. It took three days to travel that distance.

Upon the marriage of Joe Lee to Amanda Clouse, who also originated from White County, they began their life together in the home of Joe Lee’s parents where they remained the rest of their lives. Although Mr. Lee was said to have always stayed pretty close to home during his adult life, he did travel all the way to New York city in the year 1911 to attend the World’s Fair. The family of Joe and Amanda Lee grew to include three children, and their names were Maggie, Stella May, and Beecher.


 Mr. Lee began a general merchandise business around 1896, and it was while he was making his living as a merchant as well as serving as postmaster of Beaver Hill, that a little boy came to him with a request that set in motion a series of events that ended up with Joe Lee’s handiwork on display in at least two or three museums, something he didn’t live long enough to know about. It seems that this little boy had been given a hand carved wooden doll and he came to Joe Lee asking him to improve it. Mr. Lee agreed to try, and from that request and the efforts he made in order to make the doll look better, he discovered a talent and an interest in wood carving. This discovery led to the creation of what became known as the Buckeye Family which was composed of almost life size carvings of four wooden figures that took three years to complete. The lumber used for these carvings came from small buckeye trees Mr. Lee snaked with the use of a mule from the woods near his farm. The only tools Mr. Lee used in his work was a pocket knife, an axe, sandpaper and paint. A soldier who was given the name Mr. Buckeye is dressed in a blue uniform with brass buttons. The lady, named Mrs. Buckeye, is a brunette, with a blue dress with pleats down the front, and black high heel shoes. The little girl, Shelby Jean, is dressed in a light blue dress trimmed in pink. She has on brown shoes with red anklets. The fourth is an smiling African American depicting a servant dressed in a pink blouse and blue skirt. Another item Mr. Lee carved was an ear of hickory cane corn that it’s likeness to a real ear of corn was described as being good enough to fool a mule. That would have to be pretty good, wouldn’t you say? Others who are familiar with the Mr. Lee’s work say that there was once a dog he had created too, but no one seems to know what became of it.



  As word began to spread about the Buckeye Family, Mr. Lee started a register for visitors to sign who came to see his works of art and sculpture at Beaver Hill, and the names totaled more than sixty-five thousand, and addresses of the visitors were from every state in the union and fifteen foreign countries. Family members would like to know of the whereabouts of this register which was once said to possibly be located with someone in Monterey. Pictures of the Buckeye Family also appeared in several daily papers in Tennessee, in sixteen national magazines, and one foreign magazine. A newspaper article written about the Buckeye Family once quoted Mr. Lee on one occasion as saying "I do not want wealth," he declared. "Wealth is only trouble. All I want to just enough to stay above debt and have plenty to eat and wear for my family." Mr. Lee was also quoted in a book by Robert Bishop titled "American Folk Sculpture" as saying, "When art people came to see my figures, I felt small and wanted to crawl under the store, but way before they were gone, they made me fell like I am somebody." A picture of the Buckeye Family, along with many other works by other artists, is also included in this publication.

But Mr. Lee’s interest wasn’t limited to wood carving. He was also known for his artistic abilities. He drew political campaign posters in pencil that were described as even better than anything printed during that period of time. He was also an avid reader and the shelves in his country store contained many classic novels. His reading materials also included medical books, and he made a study of law as well. Writing poetry was something else Mr. Lee did.

Joseph Cummings Lee died on May 10, 1941, at his home after suffering a heart attack. The Buckeye Family was forgotten for a while and left in a room of the general store or post office at Beaver Hill. Then on August 18, 1962, a deal was made between Joe Lee’s son, Beecher, and Thurman Tinch and Charles Tinch. Lee family members have a handwritten receipt that Beecher Lee and his wife along with Thurman Tinch and Charles Tinch all signed which shows an amount of $200.00 as being paid by the Tinch brothers to Beecher Lee for the Buckeye Family. With that transaction, the Buckeye Family left the possession of the Lee family, and could be viewed at the Tinch watermill in Overton County for a period of time. From information some the present Lee descendants have put together, the ownership of the Buckeye Family has changed several times over the years. The folk art family has since traveled many miles and has been viewed by thousands of people since leaving the Tinch watermill. Along the way, they were on display at the Brooklyn Museum. A newspaper article published somewhere in California dated July 19, 1976, tells about how curators at that museum swear that what was referred to as the eerie-looking daughter, Shelby Jean, is supposedly haunted, and that she walks around at night. The article went on to say that the Buckeye Family traveled to that area as part of a show called "Folk Sculpture USA" held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which highlighted over 100 pieces made by self-taught artists throughout the country. Eunetta Jenkins, a great-granddaughter of Joe Lee, has recently been in touch with the present owners of the Buckeye Family, and has learned that they have agreed to loan the family to the Frist Museum in Nashville for a show on Tennessee art beginning September 13 of this year and running through January of 2004. Personnel of the museum have already been to the home of the owners to measure each item for shipping crates. The Lee family members have all heard stories of how the Buckeye Family long ago had been wrapped in quilts and hauled around in the back of wagons or other vehicles, and to know now how royally they are being treated today makes the fact that even though they no longer technically belong to the Lee family, they are being handled with the utmost care and respect, both of which they are well deserving of.

Just out of curiosity, I checked on the internet to see if there was anything to be found there about the Buckeye Family, and sure enough, under the website, there they were. From such humble beginnings in 1925, to world wide travelers via the net! Mr. Lee couldn’t possibly have imagined how his folk art family, even after 78 years in existence, would be such sought after works of art.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if at some point the Buckeye Family could eventually end up in the Overton County Historical Museum? I think it would be very fitting since they started life in this county and were crafted by someone who lived and served an area in Overton County all his life. It’s unlikely that the Overton County Historical Society would ever be able to purchase the Buckeye Family since members of the Lee family has heard that the amount of money involved during the many transfers of ownership has continued to escalate with each change of hands, making the original transfer of $200.00 look like chicken feed in comparison to their value today. I’m sure Mr. Joe Lee would be extremely proud to know that his three years of labor spent to create this unique family has achieved such notoriety since the time of their simple beginnings which all came about through a request of a small boy and a crudely carved wooden doll. And I can’t help but wonder too, what would Mr. Lee’s son, Beecher, think of his father’s famous hand carved family now?

I need to give credit for this story first of all to Charles J. Cullom, formerly of Livingston, and who now resides in Orlando, Florida. Mr. Cullom wrote to me with the suggestion that I do a story about Joe Lee. (By the way, Mr. Cullom was Mayor of Livingston during the years 1948-1951, as was his father in 1930.) Hugh Livingston and his wife, Joann, and Mrs. Opal Krantz helped point me in the right direction. Joe Lee descendants that provided a wealth of information as well as a very enjoyable afternoon in the home of Juanita (Finley) Swack were invaluable to me in the preparation of this writing. Those descendants include Mrs. Swack, a granddaughter of Joe Lee, her daughter, Linda (Swack) King of Gallatin, and Mrs. Swack’s niece, Eunetta (Finley) Jenkins of Cookeville, both of whom are great-granddaughters of Joe Lee. Eva Lee Finley of Rickman, a granddaughter-in-law of Joe Lee, also helped in providing information. My sincere thanks to each one for their help.

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