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History of Old Sumner
Fairvue, Part Four – The Wemyss Era, Chapter 2

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Old houses have a way of disappearing.

Their original purposes fulfilled, these relics, with high ceilings, arcane plumbing and dangerous wiring, if they are to survive, require new lovers, with mechanical talents, money, or both. Fairvue was forsaken by its earlier ones several times and stood more than once near ruin. That it did not disappear like the others owes more to Will and Ellen Wemyss than to all its previous owners, none of whom occupied it for a third the time they did.

When Will Wemyss died in 1973 he left his widow Ellen, at 79, with the use of a considerable fortune and a farm in a high state of development. Three hundred fifty acres of scenic pasture lay on two peninsulas of Old Hickory Lake, well watered and home to a herd of prime black angus cattle. The brick slave cottages and overseer’s quarters had been converted to tidy apartments, whose young tenants had the use of the grounds and the swimming cove and boat dock. The stables were let to boarders and trainers and horses once more adorned Fairvue. The vegetable gardens were broken anew each spring and furnished fresh produce to all hands until first frost. The whole show was overseen by a vigorous Ellen herself, with the help of her loyal retainers Ruth and Margaret, who managed the household, Ruth’s gardener husband, Clarence, and Corbitt, the farm manager. Troubled times lay ahead for Genesco, the company Will Wemyss co-founded, but the halcyon years at his Fairvue plantation were but fairly begun.

Nor were her interests limited to farming. Raised an Episcopalian, she saw to it that a church was established. in Gallatin. The church held its first meetings in the basement of the courthouse, where the handful of worshippers struggled to kneel between the loafers’ benches. Soon it moved to a beautiful stone chapel on Hartsville Pike which she and Will built, expanded, supported and endowed. The church banner today bears two stars, one of which represents the Wemyss family. The entire congregation was often invited to hold worship or social events at Fairvue, where all were invited to Easter egg hunts or Christmas concerts.

Easter Egg Hunt Childrens Choir


Scarcely a worthy cause escaped their attention, including:

  • Gallatin Day Care Center, for working mothers
         

  • Sumner County Free Public Library
     

  • Volunteer State Community College
      

  • Sumner Academy
      

  • Sumner Regional Hospital
      

  • Dozens of other local charities such as Gallatin Cares, Senior Citizens, and private charity which she gave to the needy

Yet her major efforts were directed towards preserving those icons of our history, which tell us who we are, where we came from, and how we lived. In a culture bent on razing our heritage and replacing it with someone else’s, she put her own money and energy into buying and restoring the best and most beautiful. These included, among homes she furnished all or most of the initiative for:

  • Cragfont, home of General James Winchester, hero of the Revolution, the Creek Wars, and the War of 1812, whom Andrew Jackson sent to hold Mobile while he turned back the British at New Orleans. The magnificent stone Georgian ruin sat on a crag overlooking a spring above Bledsoe Creek Ellen found the ruin used to store hay and to feed cattle and hogs. Winchester, a merchant and land speculator, founded Memphis, which he thought would never equal the village of Cairo at the mouth of Bledsoe Creek, where he kept a store and stocked Homer, Cicero, Hume and Montesqieu. Today the restored gardens with gazebo and lake are a venue for summer parties and weddings, open to the public, and the mansion is a feature of historic tours.


Cragfont Gardens

  • Rose Mont – Home of Josephus Conn Guild, prominent early 19th century Tennessee jurist and political leader, who succeeded in bringing the L&N Railroad thorough Gallatin. Rose Mont shares with Fairvue the architectural influence of downriver Louisiana with open galleries and elevated first floors. It, too, is a favorite for weddings and parties.
        

  • And, finally, of course, Fairvue itself, the queen of Tennessee plantation homes.

Other historic shrines which she played a major role in preserving and maintaining included:

  • The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson.
        

  • Travelers Rest, home of John Overton
        

  • The Bowen-Campbell House, home of one of the State’s first governors, adjacent to Manskers Fort in Goodlettsville, the earliest pioneer station in middle Tennessee, and now the center of Moss-Wright Park, used by hundreds daily.
        

  • Wynnewood, an early nineteenth century spa resort, in Bledsoe Fort Historical Park, the largest log structure of its time in Tennessee, and now a major tourist attraction.


Wynnewood

  • The Sumner County Museum adjacent to the home of William Trousdale, Governor of Tennessee and hero of the Mexican War.
       

  • Rock Castle, in Hendersonville, the grand stone structure built by Gen. Daniel Smith, who surveyed and opened up most of Middle Tennessee.

In times such as these, it may be asked why all this seemed so important to this lady, this expensive preservation of old homes, monuments more than houses.

Perhaps the answer lies in who she was.

Ellen Stokes was born into a prominent family in Middle Tennessee. Privileged is not so much the word as is involved. The Stokes family was involved in all aspects of the community of the Heartland of Middle Tennessee, social, political, economic, military, the law and justice.

This placed Ellen Stokes, from her earliest childhood, in contact with the leaders and shapers of society, politics and culture in Middle Tennessee. A quick, attractive and inquisitive girl, with near-perfect recall she never lost an opportunity to learn, to meet new people, or to have an adventure.


Ellen Stokes as a Young Girl

Born in the 19th century, her busy life spanned the 20th, and she lived into the 21st. She knew everybody, Austin Peay, Luke Lea, Rogers Caldwell, Frank Clement, Johnny Cash, Randy Wood, Hill McAllister, Colonel Berry, (How many of you busy air travelers know BNA stands for Berry-Nashville?), and wrecked one of the earliest automobiles driving with Percy Warner. She marched in the Suffragette Parade, flew in an early airplane, rode her horse into her late eighties, jog-walked in her 90s (I was the only 90-year-old to finish the Walkathon, she remarked.). She covered the globe, beginning with her grand tour in her teens, explored glaciers in Alaska, and bicycled along the canals of France. When the Princess Royal, Ann, made a celebrated appearance at the Iroquois Steeplechase she missed a great opportunity if she did not stop and meet the regal lady seated with her granddaughters in the second tier of boxes.


Ellen Wymess at Steeplechase with Grandaughers


Princess Anne

During this long life she was married and widowed twice, raised one son and two stepchildren, whom she adopted, as well as nurturing several cousins in the big mansion at Fairvue. When they grew up and made their own lives the house was not empty. The guest book recorded hundreds of guests and parties over the Wemyss tenure, but did not record the countless drop-in visitors the house and its Mistress hosted.

It was Sumner County’s great fortune that the doyen of Nashville culture married one of its sons, a captain of industry, and not only moved here, but adopted the county. The first Mistress of Fairvue, Adelicia Franklin, also moved out from Nashville to Gallatin to marry one of its sons, but forsook it upon his death and took the money and ran. When Ellen Wemyss’s husband died, she stayed and adopted the county and its people, educating, enculturating and enlivening it and them with her presence and her property.

As for the old houses, those precious, irreplaceable properties that she preserved, she did so not for herself, but for others She believed that beauty was not just to be owned or consumed, but to be shared. The generations of young who troop through these halls, looking at the tall ceilings and enjoying weddings and soirees in the gardens learn as they see of the great ones who pioneered our land and ask themselves, what manner of men were these?

In 1989 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, on the 50th anniversary of the release of Gone With The Wind sought the perfect venue in which to celebrate it. They chose Fairvue; the only question was, would Miss Ellen allow it? Her only question was, Can I wear a costume? After each pair of guests cleared the gray-clad honor guard and were announced they were greeted by Aunt Pittipat and conducted through the veranda to the lawn, where they mingled with the Colonels and Generals. There was not a top hat or Confederate uniform for hire in Tennessee or the eight adjacent states. MGM sent their Vivien Leigh look-a-like and the movie was projected onto a huge screen backed by the columns of Fairvue throughout the evening.

Honor Guard at GWTW Party Aunt Pittipat

Next Installment - Miss Ellen proves Einstein's theory correct


Party on the Lawn

 

Bill Puryear, Artist
1512 Cherokee Road, Gallatin, TN 37066, Email: pury@comcast.net

© Copyright 2017. All Rights Reserved.  Bill Puryear.