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History of Old Sumner
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.

Whereas, Fairvue’s 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 life.

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 Wemyss.

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 Wemyss.

Major Weymss’s 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.

Their wealth 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, Will?

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 action.

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 Saviour.

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


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

© Copyright 2019. All Rights Reserved. Bill Puryear.