History of Old
Fairvue, Part Four – The Wemyss Era, Chapter 1
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When the last
history of this area is written and the final outcomes are
measured, two names deserve to be included alongside those of the
pioneers, politicians, preachers, soldiers, and heroic women who
came this way. – Will and Ellen Wemyss.
first three eras began in slavery, pride and prosperity, yet ended
in untimely death, litigation, bankruptcy, loss, and ruin. The
fourth, the Wemyss era, beginning in war, defeat, ruin, and
poverty, ultimately bore fruit in freedom, generosity, prosperity,
preservation, beauty, education, religion, good health and long
This is the story of the Wemyss tenure at Fairvue, a happy one,
and longer than the other three combined. These did so much over
so many years, it will require at least a couple of more
installments to complete the tale. It is a tale I have long wanted
to tell, and I hope you – some of whom knew Miss Ellen and Mr.
Will – will enjoy as much as I.
As Tennessee shared
the effects of the stock market crash and the Great Depression,
Fairvue, bereft of its eastern millionaire sponsors, fell once more
on hard times.
Fairvue from White Pillars
In the 1930s, Frazer
Smith, the Architect and Author of White Pillars, made an
unannounced visit to Fairvue. On the veranda was a black man
attempting to play a newly purchased guitar for the first time..
Smith offered to teach him a few basic chords in exchange for a
tour. After an hour’s instruction, when Smith pressed for entrance,
the man nodded to the door. I think de doe’s unbarred – I don’t
belong heah. One hundred years after its construction by Isaac
Franklin, the great mansion lay unlocked and vacant, indifferently
serenaded by a descendant of one of his slaves.
This was soon to
change. In a time when just keeping food on the table was a priority
for many area families, the Nashville-Gallatin area became home to
an industry destined to become a national and, later, an
international commercial company, furnishing badly-needed wages and
as well as reasonably priced clothing to thousands. Its name was
General Shoe – later Genesco – and its co-founder was Will Hatch
General Shoe Plant
General Shoe, whose
President, Maxey Jarman was married to Gallatin girl, Sara Mac
Anderson, daughter of a prominent family on North Water and a
descendant of the Franklins, opened two factories in Gallatin. These
offered much needed employment to hundreds of Sumner Countians
during the depression and for years afterwards, as will Wemyss went
about the country selling his Friendly Five, a good shoe available
to the working man for five bucks. Maxey and Sara Mac named their
son Franklin, and he succeeded Maxey as President of Genesco, which
later became an international company.
Wemyss was a Scotch
name which the unknowing pronounced as Wim-iiss, but which
all locals knew as Weems. Mr. Will’s great-grandfather had
come to America as a Major of the British 63rd Foot to subjugate the
Revolution in Charleston Finally pushed off the peninsula by the
Continentals, he returned, as did many of his Majesty’s, to become
an American. A hundred fifty years later the D.A.R. ladies of
Charleston were quoted as saying, Oh yes, we remember Major
grandson chose another losing side in The War Between the States,
raising his own company in the 36th Infantry Regiment of Alabama
Infantry of the Army of the Confederate States of America. Following
Appomattox he moved his family to Sumner County, Tennessee to escape
the retribution of carpetbagger rule in Alabama. Here, at Mapleshade,
a lovely cottage north of Gallatin, Will Wemyss was born.
devastated by the War, the refugee family was unable to furnish Will
a college education. He left home at sixteen to receive an education
in money with his Witherspoon cousins at their shoe factory in
Louisville. There he met J.F. Jarman, with whom he co-founded in
1924 the Jarman Shoe Company. With Will as executive vice-president
and head of sales, the company climbed to become one of the four
largest shoe manufacturers in America.
With his money,
experience taught Will the Scottish virtue of being veery keerful.
Commodore Bradford of Equitable Securities told of encountering him
one noon in the Arcade shoe repair shop. The man who sold more new
shoes than anyone in America was having a new half-sole put on one
of his own.
Why only one shoe,
Only one has a hole
in it, was the terse response.
Early in his marriage
Mr. Wemyss suffered the death of his first wife, the mother of his
young daughter and son. Later, on a vacation with his children, he
met a similarly situated widow, who also had a young son, Ellen
Stokes More. She, too had deep roots in Tennessee, her father and
grandfather prominent members of the legal profession.
In Ellen Stokes, Will
had met his match. Indefatigable, she shared his love for historic
preservation and farming. In 1934 Will had purchased Fairvue, and
now he had found the perfect partner for its restoration. They
married in 1939 and the Wemyss era began at Fairvue. It was to last
for more than sixty years, longer than the eras of Isaac and
Adelicia Franklin, the Reeds and the Grasslands eras combined.
Will and Ellen Wemyss
Not every marriage is
recognized by an Act of Congress. In an effort to make up for the
financial loss of her inheritance from her deceased first husband
occasioned by her remarriage, Will settled a large gift upon Ellen
and the Internal Revenue Service attempted to levy taxes on it. The
Appeals Court upheld the Wemyss argument that a gift between spouses
was not taxable, but the Supreme court reversed and held for the
IRS, Congress had the last say, though, when it passed legislation
establishing that gifts between spouses are never taxed. Wemyss vs.
US is still cited today as a landmark case anticipating Congress’s
The couple turned to
restoration of the old house, which had been most recently used for
the storing of hay and livestock feed. The cracked plaster walls and
molding were torn out and replaced, and the brick foundation was
bolstered with concrete. Modern conveniences were added, including
electricity, built-in bathrooms, a furnace and an updated kitchen.
Archaeologists uncovered the foundation of the Franklin wall
surrounding the ice house, where blocks cut from the river were
stored during plantation summers. They replaced the octagonal wall,
which Reed had razed during modernization.
When Will returned
from his office in Nashville one day, he missed Ellen. Anxiously
searching, he finally located her as the source of the cries
emanating from the depths of the ladderless round ice cellar, where
she had dropped when the old floor above gave way. She had spent a
dark day with the spiders.
Gardens were tilled
and the stone stables were repaired and refitted for use by trainers
and boarders. The formal flower gardens were restored and new
boxwoods planted along the allees. Stallion barns were cleared of
debris and iron gates were installed at entryways. The old overseer
and slave and quarters were converted to attractive apartments which
were rented out to young marrieds. A prime herd of black angus
cattle was introduced, and trainers moved into the jockey quarters
to teach riding to young people of the area.
Foyer & Double Parlors of the Mansion
The mansion itself was
coming to be recognized as one of the most splendid in Tennessee.
With hand painted wallpaper, twin parlors with black marble mantels,
furniture used by Napoleon, paintings by Sully and the 1500s Italian
Master, Baroccio, a carpet given to Rudolph Valentino by the King of
Spain, Ellen Wemyss, the latest mistress of Fairvue, lived in a
style which Adelicia Franklin, the first one, who occupied the
mansion a hundred years before, might well have envied.
The Wemyss’s energies
were not all spent on Fairvue. Will, as a native of Sumner County,
whose brother Jim had a hardware business here and whose Sister
Hattie occupied the homeplace, Mapleshade, was committed to the
improvement of his hometown. His wife took to it as enthusiastically
as the town did to her. She became known far and wide and everyone
had their favorite Miss Ellen story. Finding Gallatin without
an Episcopal Church, she and Will founded one, funding the
construction and most of the operating budget of Church of Our
As a charter member of
The Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA)
in Nashville, Miss Ellen now transferred her membership to the
Sumner County Chapter, which has never been the same since. First,
she approached then Governor Frank Goad Clement, also a resident of
the county, and explained to him why the State had to buy another
hay-filled ruin, Cragfont, home of General James Winchester, founder
of Memphis. The 1802 stone structure stood stark on a bluff above
Bledsoe Creek east of Gallatin, where it hosted cattle and sometimes
hogs, roaming its former elegance in search of fodder. Ellen Wemyss
never heard no, the State made the purchase, and APTA undertook its
restoration and operation. Now a major tourist resource for the
State, its house and beautiful gardens are a favored venue for
weddings and parties, including the Cragfont Gala, an annual
fund-raising soiree held in August. The home anchors an area of
tourist attractions on the Tennessee History Trail which includes
Wynnewood, Bledsoe Fort Park, the Parker and Rogan Cabins, the Avery
Trace, the Indian Temple Mound excavated by the Smithsonian
Institution and Bledsoe Creek Park.
Ellen Wemyss at Cragfont, Home for Which She Pushed Preservation
Miss Ellen then turned
attention to the preservation of other significant landmark
structures in the county, including the Bowen Campbell house, home
of one of Tennessee’s earliest governors. She donned boots and
shoveled out the debris and manure from the ruin, which later became
the centerpiece of the beautiful Moss-Wright Park in Goodlettsville.
She gave the money to purchase Rosemont, the historic Guild mansion
south of Gallatin, which had entertained visitors from Andrew
Jackson to George S. Patton. Rock Castle, Trousdale Place, Wynnewood
and other local icons owe at least a part of their continued
existence to Ellen Wemyss.
The Wemyss initiatives
were not limited to historic preservation. Seeing the working
mother’s need for healthful, safe day care for their children, she
pioneered the development of the Gallatin Day Care Center. Still
operating today, many of the Center’s clients are black, single
mothers, whose ancestors may have once been residents of Fairvue
plantation. One of my favorite recollections of Will and Ellen
Wemyss is their going to their garden early to cut turnip greens,
which they then prepared and served to the staff and children at the
Center later that day.
The Supreme Court of
Louisiana overturned the provision of Isaac Franklin’s will which
bequeathed the remainder of his estate to found an Institute for
education of the poor children of Sumner County. Public education
now provided free basic education through the first twelve grades.
What it did not provide was College education, the cost of which had
become prohibitive for working families. Miss Ellen provided
substantial financial support and endowments for the establishment
and operation of Volunteer State Community college, which opened
across the Nashville Pike from Fairvue in 1971. In 1973 she endowed
the Will Wemyss library at Sumner Academy, a private day school
serving exceptional students. And she continued over her lifetime
support of the Sumner County Public Library.
During the mid-1950s,
the impoundment of Old Hickory Lake took away 350 acres of Fairvue’s
choicest river bottom land, leaving the mansion on a peninsula,
almost surrounded by a sparkling new lake. A levee dam was
constructed to protect the slave village and shops and a bridge was
thrown over the inlet to connect the mansion to the quarters. This
furnished a boat dock and a swimming area to the Wemyss an
opportunity Miss Ellen made the most of with family and friends.
Once, when she was in her eighties, with a boatload of
grandchildren, the engine of her boat caught fire and she had to
abandon ship and swim with them to shore.
Will Wemyss died in
1973, having served with his own hands, shod, employed, and restored
the community Franklin, Reed, and Caldwell and Company had used up
and abandoned. Ellen, widowed for the second time, at 79, might have
been presumed by the mourners who thronged the mansion to be
entering a quiet age, the Wemyss era ended. In fact, the Wemyss era
at Fairvue had only fairly begun.
Next – Miss Ellen of Fairvue
– Everybody’s Favorite Doyen