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History of Old Sumner
Fairvue, Part Three – Grasslands

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After the Reeds Fairvue went through a succession of owners, some of whom even lived in the old place for a brief time. Then, in 1929, it regained its national and international status in a way most locals found dazzlingly unbelievable.

The late 20s were a time of great excitement and growth in America. Fortunes were made in the stock market and every kind of speculative and leveraged venture. Tennessee shared in this boom, with the Great War hero Luke Lea, who almost captured the Kaiser, and his associate, Rogers Caldwell, bringing Tennessee back to a prominence unknown since before the devastation of the War Between the States and Reconstruction.

Caldwell was nothing if not bold, brokering State bonds to fund much of this Southern renaissance. The proceeds he deposited in his investment banking firm, paying no interest on them, until they were disbursed to another of his companies for materials to construct the highways and schools of the New South. His investment banking contacts in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati and other financial centers brought him into contact with the richest and most powerful magnates in America, including the Duponts, Mellons, Whitneys, Fleischmanns, and McCormicks. In addition to money and political power, these men shared another passion – fine blooded horses.

How natural that these riches sought sport in the place which had been the nursery of the finest race horses in America – Old Sumner, in Middle Tennessee. Here General Jackson had come to raise and race his horses, when he was not warring or dueling. Here stood that most expensive of studs, St. Blaise, who fetched $100,000 at a time the average racehorse sold for $5,000.

Grasslands - Bill Puryear - 12"x24" - Oil on panel - 2004

Foxhunting, in which riders jump gates or wooden fences in pursuit of the game, offered amateur riders the heroic rush of racing. This sport originated in England and Europe where the gentry cooperated with the peasants to control the foxes which raided their henhouses. As hunters organized impromptu races between steeples of parish churches in rural England the term steeplechasing arose.

The farmers of Sumner County, not regarding themselves as peasants and not depending upon poultry as a major cash crop, did not welcome groups of mounted trespassers on their land. Worse, they preferred barbed wire fences to the old stone or chestnut rail fences, which did not turn cattle any better than horses. Virtually invisible to an excited mount and rider, barbed wire fences were a lethal hazard no rider dared.

Enter John Branham, owner of a Chicago Advertising Agency. Seeking his roots, he moved with his wife, Laura, to Gallatin and acquired the old Baber place, one of the Franklin houses across Station Camp Creek from Fairvue, a site which legend holds was once occupied by the King’s Indian Agent. He improved it, renamed it Foxland Hall, and bought an interest in the area newspaper, The Nashville Tennessean.

Foxland Hall

So taken were the Branhams and Rogers Caldwell with their new hunters’ paradise, they enlisted the help of the New York Architect, Joseph B. Thomas, author of the 1928 book Hounds and Hunting Through The Ages. Thomas immediately saw the possibility of a vast hunting reserve and sportsmen’s’ club in the park-like land near Gallatin bounded on three sides by water – the Cumberland River, Drake’s Creek, and East Station Camp Creek- and on the north by the paved Nashville-Gallatin Pike, a boundary no fox would cross.

In October of 1929 Rogers Caldwell, Mason Houghland and John Branham formed the Sumner County Land Company and bought Fairview with 632 acres for $74,000. Two weeks later the stock market crashed, but the effect was not immediately felt in Sumner County, where wealth was still measured in land.

The founders allowed a select group of their eastern millionaire friends membership for $10,000 and soon acquired or leased eighty adjacent farms comprising 28 square miles. Local farmers, sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, only too were happy to part with their land for cash down and the promise more.

Thomas’s enthusiasm and literary skills, backed by Branham’s ad copy capability and Caldwell’s money resulted in a prospectus for Grasslands rarely matched in its expansive hyperbole:

This Founders group chosen from the elite of the sporting, social, and financial world of North America will have the unique satisfaction of being instrumental in creating an island of sport to remain a beauty spot in future years when many sections of America will have been swallowed in the maw of industrialism. The names of these fifty Founders will be handed down to posterity, emblazoned as it were in the hall of sporting fame as those who had the initiative and vision to develop a hunting domain such as has never been created since William the Conqueror inaugurated the New Forest nearly a thousand years ago.

Deer shooting at Grasslands

The founders celebrated their conquest by ripping out the barbed wire and installing miles of post and rail fences. Nor would the members be limited to hunting of the fox or steeplechasing. Every imaginable sport was either provided for or planned, including:

  • Beagling

  • Polo

  • Dove and quail shooting

  • Pheasant hunting

  • Duck shooting

  • Horse breeding stables and programs

  • Fishing

  • Boating

  • Swimming

  • Golf privileges at Belle Meade and other nearby clubs

  • Tennis

  • Restaurants, featuring Southern fare

  • Residential accommodations, including Avondale and several other houses acquired as part of the purchase. The old Fairvue plantation house was slated for remodeling to serve as the Foundation’s headquarters.

The centerpiece of these Elysian Fields was a four-and-one-half race course with twenty-four obstacles or jumps, patterned after the famous Aintree course, in England. Here on May 19, 1930, two days after the Kentucky Derby, was held the Inaugural Steeplechase of Grasslands. The glitterati of the East were joined by a few local notables from Belle Meade and even Gallatin, such a Eleanor Allen Sullivan, Howard Hitchcock, who participated in the pre-race pigeon shoot, Billy Dan and Alice Calgy, Felice Ferrell, John Noel, Gideon Wade, and 8,000 locals who turned out for the spectacle.

Attendees of the Inaugural Steeplechase of Grasslands

Vogue Magazine covered the event, focusing on the social proceedings:

“The ball on Friday night was a curiosity of the first order. The old hall at Fairview has been whipped into dancing shape in about a week.... The room was packed and jammed – silk knee breeches and white wigs. To me, the whole interest lay in the contrast – a poor old house, only fractionally reclaimed, seething with a riot of gay modern foreigners from almost every section of this democratic land except Tennessee.”

Perhaps the Vogue reporter did not recognize Tennesseans in such outlandish costumes, or know that Gallatin’s own Felice Ferrell had been given carte blance to array Fairview in the best possible ante-bellum Southern style, sparing no expense. The Nashville Tennessean in its coverage was more explicit:

“She loaned or otherwise acquired chandeliers, mirrors, and other furnishings for the pleasure of some three hundred fifty guests. The invitation had a card enclosed which read: ‘De rigueur: Masks to be worn until midnight. Ladies will wear white wigs. Gentlemen full dress – scarlet if qualified.... In lieu of curtains, beautiful silken flags of the United States, England, Spain, and France, the nations represented at the steeplechase, were draped fan-shaped over the windows....The wall decoration, produced in panoramic effect, was seen over a panel fence of glistening white, with familiar buildings, such as Race Horse Tavern (Avondale, the R.C. Owen place, now Leon Moore’s residence) Fairview Manor, Governor’s House (Foxland Hall) Pilot Knob House (now Kennesaw, owned by Johnny McMahan) and other home in the colony, pictured in the distance, and the figures in action forming a frieze.... Supper was served throughout the evening from long tables arranged in the candle-lighted supper hall. Typical old Southern dishes featured the menu, such as turkey and ham in massive platters of antique silver. The maids appeared in gaily-colored calico costumes, with red bandannas, snowy white kerchiefs and aprons, and gold-hooped ear-rings. The men servants wore red frock coats and buff-colored breeches.”

The Tennessean’s article on the Inaugural race three days later observed:

“Wagons, buggies and broken down automobiles mixed with swank, shining, motors.... Eastern fashionables mingled with Nashville’s own smart set within an enclosure set aside for visiting notables at Grasslands…among whom were the Princess Respigliosi and Prince George of Russia….in a setting never before equaled for color and brilliance in either the social or sporting history of the city.

Crowd at the Inaugural Steeplechase of Grasslands

Byron Hilliard of Louisville, riding his own Red Gold won the race, and his step-father, Barry Bingham, owner of the Louisville Courier Journal, give the race big coverage. The first introduction of the English sport, replete with thrills from start to finish, was enough to send the…witnesses away clamoring for another such event.”

Red Gold, winning racehorse of the Inaugural Steeplechase

They did not have long to wait, for on December 6 that year the first a thrice-around four mile steeplechase was held, an American counterpart to the English Grand National . The King of Spain added a gold cup to the $5,000 first place.

The weather was miserable and the grass track “greasy”. The Nashville Banner estimated a turnout of 8,000 shivering persons. Each of the seventeen entries fell or was pulled up, and only three finished the race.

The economic climate was even nastier. Just one month before the race, on November 8, bank examiners declared Rogers Caldwell’s Bank of Tennessee insolvent and in default on State deposits. Six days later Caldwell and Company, largest investment house in the South, went into receivership. Within two weeks 120 banks in seven Southern states had closed. The Great Depression had reached Tennessee.

The following year both Tennessee and Kentucky indicted Caldwell on several charges. He was convicted of breach of trust in Tennessee but successfully avoided extradition to Kentucky. His associate, Luke Lea, was not so fortunate, and, waiving extradition to North Carolina, served a prison term there. The Nashville Tennessean was placed into receivership.

Weather for the following year’s race on December 5, 1931, was good, but attendance was down. Perhaps some sensed this was the last race, despite assurances by Association officials that things were not so grave as they might appear. Then, in March of 1932, Grasslands, unable to continue payments on the land, filed for receivership.

The Eastern elite vanished, returning to home to tend more pressing concerns and their shrunken investments. John Branham, riding with his wife Laura, stopped to drink from a spring on the place. Contracting typhoid fever, he refused medical treatment for religious reason and died.

The bubble burst for Sumner County. Merchants lost trade and collections. Worst hit were those farm owners who had sold and reinvested in other farms who now lost capital they had counted upon and now returned to farming their old places in the bottom of a great depression. Ben. J. Franklin, no relation to Isaac, took back Fairview, for the third time.


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

© Copyright 2019. All Rights Reserved. Bill Puryear.