History of Old
Fairvue, Part Five – the Wemyss Era, Chapter 3
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Ellen Wemyss once
remarked to me that she loved her home.
She had the same view
as had Isaac Franklin, who had once surveyed the operations of his
plantation from a cupola atop the mansion. From her upstairs bedroom
she could see across Old Hickory Lake to the new homes of country
music stars and wealthy executives. Up the Station Camp Creek loomed
Foxland Hall, the white-columned mansion of her friend, Laura
Branham, late patroness of the grand dream of Grasslands. Beyond
that rose Pilot’s Knob, which had once guided steamboat captains on
the Cumberland. Below it lay Duncrusin, where she had often ridden
her horse to visit Lucy Doyle.
East over the boat
dock, swimming cove, and the old slave quarters, now tidy rental
cottages, was East Station Camp Creek, once crossed by Peach Valley
Road, where lived the descendants of freed slaves from Fairvue.
South, beyond her vegetable garden, lay the long stone stable barn
and jockey’s quarters built by John Reed. Surrounded on three sides
by water, she had from her bed one of the most spectacular views in
the State of Tennessee.
To the north, beyond
the ice house and flower gardens, the catalpa shaded entry to
Fairvue ran a long mile past the brick stallion barns to Nashville
Pike, across which lay Kennesaw, still an active race horse
operation. Next to it ran the lane to St. Blaise farm and the
Peytona rail station, from where John Reed had led his world famous
stallion. Her stallion barns were empty now, with fat Black Angus
grazing around them, seeking midday shade. She counted them as she
walked to the first barn each day for exercise. Surrounded by three
of her long-time servants, a capable farm manager, and the local
high school Latin teacher, who doubled as her driver, Ellen could
have settled in to enjoy the last two decades of a life spanning
Stallion Barns at Fairvue -
Bill Puryear - 24"x36" - Oil on Panel
Morning Call - The Stone Stables at Fairvue
Enjoy them she did;
settled they were not. She was everywhere, knew everybody, or, if
she did not, was glad to meet them, and never forgot their names.
She kept the road hot to Nashville, driving herself there once and
sometimes twice a day to fulfill her many varied commitments and
keep her friendships and family relationships in good repair. She
talked her Doctor into a knee replacement at age 92 so she could
The Ladies Hermitage
Association, the Review Club, Tulip Grove, the Garden Club, Belle
Meade Country Club, the Centennial Club, Travelers Rest, Association
for Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, Belmont Mansion, her
children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Nashville and
Memphis – all claimed her attention and support. She was equally
supportive of Sumner County works, including her local church,
hospital, day care center, schools, Cragfont, Rosemont, and a number
of other historic sites, as named in earlier articles archived
above. Her private charities were well known, yet private, but she
was always a source of help for those unfortunates who found
themselves in a predicament and without sponsors.
She was sensible about
politics, never allowing it to interfere with friendships. She
marched as a teenager in suffragette parades. Generally conservative
and independent in her views, she gave early support to those
candidates she judged the most practical for the times. These
included Republican State Senator (now Mayor) Don Wright of Gallatin
and U.S. Senator and Majority Leader Bill Frist of Nashville. She
arranged for Ruffin Baker, son of a Fairvue slave, to drive
President Lyndon Johnson’s carriage on his pilgrimage to the
Hermitage, home of another Democratic President, Andrew Jackson. She
liked independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot, and she joined
an eclectic group of neighbors, liberals, libertarians, conservative
landowners, scientists and environmentalists in opposing the
ill-conceived and later aborted Hartsville Nuclear Plant, which cost
the TVA over $12 billion and was at the time the world’s largest
construction project. TVA later sold the scrapped equipment to the
Chinese for $1 million, but still owns the fenced and carefully
guarded failure. Its useless white cooling tower is visible 22 miles
away on a clear day from Pilots Knob above Fairvue.
Distant View of Abandoned
Hartsville Nuclear Plant
Everybody had a Miss
Ellen story. Most involved her energy, optimism, and determination.
She set the pace for people thirty and forty years her junior: if
you would be energetic and live long, stay very busy. She seemed to
prove Einstein's theory: the faster a body moves the slower it ages.
Just as the horse, the
river, and the railroad were the agents of communication when she
was born into the nineteenth century, the auto, airplane and the
telephone served the twentieth. She made the best of them all three
of them. When near ninety she flew to France with her friend
Margaret Warden to ride bikes along the trails verging the canals of
Brugundy and stay up with their tour barge. She flew to Alaska to
explore glaciers with her granddaughter Ellen, where they were
almost stranded when the tour bus left. And as her hearing loss did
not keep her from communicating by telephone, her aging reflexes did
not keep her from driving.
Gallatin drivers knew
Miss Ellen, recognized her oncoming down the center line, and made
way. Following her one day from church to a luncheon I watched
breathless as she drifted into the oncoming lane and cars pulled to
the curb. As she overshot the restaurant and passed in front of the
Baptist and Methodist Church as they were letting out, the
worshipers parted like the Red Sea for the Children of Israel. She
found it easier to. recruit drivers than passengers.
In her last decade,
her advice and authority was sought by those who visited Fairvue to
meet the lady who had known so many makers of Tennessee history.
Strangers knocked at her front door and asked to see the mansion.
They were generally admitted and often were even entertained. She
never feared living alone in the mansion, but the Sheriff's
department did kept a protective eye on her.
In her later years we
often had Miss Ellen as a guest. She enlivened every party, with her
knowledge of past and present and her interest in the future. She
knew who was seeing whom, who was marrying, having children, where
they traveled, what they did, who their parents and grandparents
were, amusing tales, all true, and, most importantly, she never
forgot any of it. Her energy and curiosity never failed to add value
to any gathering. She often took Christmas Eve Dinner with our
family. Once she asked if we would mind beginning earlier than
planned, as she had to make a party at Demi and Anne Johns by nine
in order to make Midnight Mass on time.
At a testimonial dinner for her about 92: when she tells a story
even Alfred McFarland listens.
Her son Livy thought
Miss Ellen's One-Hundredth Birthday was the largest party ever held
at Belle Meade Country club. Well-wishers lined up from one end of
the clubhouse to the other, then doubled back, in a patient wait to
offer their personal appreciation and best wishes to one who had
meant so much to so many. Dinner over, the band struck up, and I
took the opportunity to dance with this century-old friend. She was
a light on her feet as a girl.
It was not her last
party. She was honored by US Senator Fred Thompson at the Hermitage.
I attended her one-hundred-and-third birthday party where I was
seated at dinner between the daughters of Luke Lea, On one of her
last outings, I escorted her to Cragfont in her rolling chair, as
she called it, for the gala, where she was recognized with standing
applause as its founder.
As her voice, sight
and stamina failed in her last three years of her life she remained
increasingly at home, venturing out only to church. On June 4th
2001, rich with years, at 106, she passed peacefully to another
She had had time to
get ready for this. Several years earlier she engaged Tommy Barton,
a third-generation cabinetmaker in Bethpage to custom fit a casket
to her dimensions –52 inches tall with wide shoulders. It was
six-sided, the classic English design, with gold stirrups for
handles, fastened with leather straps made by her young equestrian
friend, Joy Alexander. It was fabricated of finest black walnut from
Fairvue and topped with a cross of ash cut from Wynnewood. Tommy
stood it on end and held her hand as she backed into it. She
emerged, laughing, and declared it would do just fine.
She died as she had
lived, exemplifying her grandchildren's name for her - Happy.
In no way was Miss
Ellen's' small Church of Our Saviour equal to the crowds that
descended on it for her visitation and funeral. The service was
piped downstairs, but most had to content themselves with joining
the wall-to-wall crowd at visitation the day before. On that
beautiful late spring day State troopers and Sheriff's patrol
cleared Highways 109 and US 70 all the way from Gallatin to Mount
Olivet Cemetery in Nashville. There the priest said the burial
office, friends and family took turns tossing in a handful of soil,
and Miss Ellen rejoined her family.
On September 8, three
months after her death, the dispersal sale of her personal property
was held at Fairvue. Hundreds of buyers from auction houses and
antique shops were joined by local friends, as well as the just
curious, who came to paw through boxes of books and pictures in
hopes of finding a treasure. Teams of clerks and of auctioneers were
deployed to display, solicit, record and collect bids. So great was
the volume of goods and buyers, that they were often forced to work
separately, in and outside the house. Everything not claimed by the
family was sold, including the furniture, drapes and chandeliers
from inside the house, which were bought by the developer and never
left the premises. The Wemyss era at Fairvue had ended.
As I write this,
Fairvue enters a new, exciting era.
Its natural beauty,
history, ancient structures, central location, large area, level
rich land, and access to water have always attracted attention. Now
it is the subject of a large and extensive residential development,
featuring a private country club, 18-hole golf course, olympic-size
swimming pool, clubhouse, fitness center, several restaurants, and
marina. The developer, Leon Moore, a successful banker and hotel
chain owner, lives on the property, in the Fairvue Mansion. All the
original plantation structures have been preserved and restored,
including the stallion barns, the stables and the ice house. The
brick slave and overseer houses are being converted to
bed-and-breakfast cottages for the use of members’ guests. The
gardens are being restored and replanted, and there is extensive new
landscaping, including a huge entry gate using the stones from
Isaac’s tomb. Streets bear the name of Franklin, Reed, and Adelicia.
Home buyers from
across the country have been attracted by the marketing program and
many have chosen to make Fairvue Plantation their home.
They are in good
Beginning In July – Bledsoe
Valley – Cradle of Tennessee