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History of Old Sumner
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 three centuries.

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 keep moving.

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 mansion.

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 company.

Beginning In July – Bledsoe Valley – Cradle of Tennessee


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

© Copyright 2019. All Rights Reserved. Bill Puryear.