Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Making History

By Marc Stengel & Christopher Scribner

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  How could W. Ridley Wills II not know tales? He's the son of a Fugitive (of lyric rather than felonious persuasion, of course), scion of the belle of Middle Tennessee plantations, friend and relation to people whose very names comprise the street map of oldest Nashville--Harding, McGavock, Elliston, Jackson. Wills' chief difficulty lies not so much in selecting what topics to pursue as in deciding where to begin.

"I guess I originally focused pretty narrowly on doing the definitive history of Belle Meade Plantation," he says in reference to his 1991 book The History of Belle Meade: Mansion, Plantation and Stud. Wills' ancestor John Harding first acquired this storied place in 1807, and his great-great-grandfather William Giles Harding was born there a year later. "I really feel good about that book, although I admit it was a pretty narrow interest. But it was just a start, because I soon branched out from that subject as a result of transcribing all the letters that went back and forth between the Hardings and other families. Pretty soon, you discover that you're learning a lot as the circle of correspondence grows.

"By now, I've got six or eight three-ring binders, divided into decades, which include deeds and correspondence from Belle Meade for every decade in the 19th century. This has come about because, for a long period of time, I transcribed and footnoted the letters that were found in a trunk at West Meade, the home of my grandmother.

"And then, for instance, I was at the home of my friend Margaret Wiley. She and her sister had a lead box stacked with letters and the land grant for Midway, their family's home where Brentwood Country Club is today. I saw this box at her house, and I said, 'Margaret, if you'll give me that 1872 map of Williamson County that's rolled up in your garage in a blanket, I'll transcribe and footnote all of your family letters.' So I transcribed all these handwritten letters from the Lysander McGavock family, about 120 in all.

"Well, by doing that, I found out where William Giles Harding's plantation in Louisiana was, because Lysander said in one letter to Harding, 'I am sending some hogsheads of molasses up-river.' And he wrote it from Iberville parish. Now, when I wrote my Belle Meade book, I hadn't known where this plantation in Louisiana was; but here, by accident, was just the information I'd been looking for."

A haphazard muse orchestrates the clutter along the walls of Wills' writerly office at Meeting of the Waters, his antebellum home in Williamson County. The house, built in 1800, rattled by the New Madrid earthquake in 1811, and restored by Wills' son in 1990, hosts stories of its own: Here, for example, once lived Nicholas Perkins, who ended a season of frontier perfidy with his capture of Aaron Burr. Here, too, the seed of an idea for Wills' latest book, Touring Tennessee, 1898-1955, took root in the recollections of a boyhood pastime.

"A long-standing hobby for me has been collecting postcards," the historian admits. "I've got, now, 14,000 Tennessee postcards--I can hardly get them all on the bookcase where I store them. But that hobby led to this book.

"Back in 1961, I'd just gotten back to Nashville after working for National Life in the field, and I wanted to take pictures of old Nashville. So I took a camera down to Fourth Avenue, where I wanted to photograph the old Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House. There was a big wrecker sign out in front of it. They were tearing it down.


All in the cards
Ridley Wills II, Nashville historian and postcard collector

"It hit me just then that what I wanted, what I wanted to record of Nashville--so much of it is gone. So I thought back to a childhood postcard collection I had. I went to my mother's house, and I went up into my old room, and I found the old shoebox in the closet. I found a half-dozen Nashville postcards, and I said to myself, 'This is wonderful. I wonder how many more of these there are,' and from then on I began to collect.

"I use these postcards to tell stories. It's a very convenient and practical way to show the social history of a people and a place. I mean, look at that picture of Clarksville," he says, pointing to a forest of smokestacks dispensing the very essence of Industrial Revolution on the Lower Cumberland. "It looks like London, for God's sake! Clarksville was never that buoyant; that's some booster's hope for what Clarksville ought to look like.

"And here," he continues, referring to a "modern" chrome-process postcard from the '50s. "This is the Booker T. Washington Motel in Humboldt, Tenn. I thought it was important to make a point about how difficult it was for an African American--traveling on Highway 70 from Nashville to Memphis before the days of Interstates and before the days of integration--to find a decent place to stay. And this was the decent place to stay."

An important part of Wills' personal story is the literary precedent established by his father, Jesse Wills. A consummate insurance executive with the National Life and Accident Insurance Co.--a financial powerhouse his own father helped found--Jesse led a special sort of double life. In the world of letters, he was as well if not better known as a poet and member of Vanderbilt University's influential Fugitives, whose verse and criticism coaxed Southern regionalism into the modern age.

"I've done different things from what my father did," Wills reflects. "And I'm sure I must have frustrated him in some ways, but he always had patience with me. My father's father, on the other hand, only had one interest. National Life...that was his whole life. It broke his health, and my father was determined that wouldn't happen to him.

"I never had any idea that I would eventually come to write as much as my father did; although, of course, he wrote poetry and little prose, and I'm writing only prose. But one of the advantages of living long is that if you pursue an interest that you picked up relatively early in life, by the time you get to my age, you've accumulated a lot of information. In unexpected ways, perhaps, many of my father's and my interests have run parallel. Over time, I've come to understand--like him, I think--how hobbies bring such a richness to our lives and often lead to a second, unexpected vocation."--Marc Stengel


Riches untold

Walter T. Durham, Volunteer Forty-Niners: Tennesseans and the California Gold Rush (Vanderbilt, 1997, 352 pp.) Last year, a joke circulated around Nashville that went like this: Tennessee sent Sam Houston and Davy Crockett to Texas, and all Texas sent in return was Bud Adams. Whatever its accuracy regarding football, the comment reminds us that Tennessee played a vital role in the settlement of Texas and in the history of American expansion.

In Volunteer Forty-Niners: Tennessee and the California Gold Rush (Vanderbilt University Press, 1997), award-winning local historian Walter T. Durham tells us about another aspect of western expansion, one much less often associated with the Volunteer State. By highlighting Tennesseans who went to California in search of wealth, Durham hopes to relate an overlooked story. And in doing so, he promises to explain how the "products of a regional culture" had a unique impact on the founding of California. Durham fails to do this, however. Despite their geographical origins, we discover, Tennesseans acted pretty much like everyone else with gold fever.

Even without a distinctive role for Tennesseans in the Gold Rush and in the settlement of California, Durham's work has a straightforward logic and a concise style that relate one of the most adventurous epochs in America's past. And in his account, certain Tennesseans do come to the fore. Durham's definition of "Tennesseans" is somewhat liberal, however, including both longtime and short-term residents.

Durham tells us why Tennesseans went west, what routes they traveled, and how they financed their trips. He explains how the forty-niners searched for gold once they reached California, how they lived when they left the mines, and how preachers, among others, fought for the miners' souls. He also relates the political misadventures of the proto-state, episodes in which ex-Tennesseans assumed prominent roles.

At its best, Volunteer Forty-Niners recaptures a lost world, reminding us both of the tedium and the dangers of westward travel. Durham uses letters, diaries, and reminiscences from travels, public records, newspaper reports, and the accounts of other historians to tell stories of hope and fear, of frustration and ambition, of opportunities lost and gained. The protagonists of his story are the ordinary persons often neglected in historical accounts.

Thus we learn of Robert Farquarson and the 37 members of his Lincoln County company, who in March 1849 left Memphis for California. "The Lincoln Countians often took two or three days of each week to repair damaged doubletrees, axles, and wagon tongues," Durham writes, adding that "muddy bogs, sand hills, stream fords, and steep descending grades seemed to guarantee problems." The travelers' fears of Indian attacks at times translated into anger with each other. In June one company member murdered another.

Life was likely as rough and tumble once the prospectors reached California. The Nashville Gazette's California correspondent, writing under the pen name "Grizzly," described a confrontation between two men in which "Shearson then drew a revolver, holding it to the major's breast, and attempted to fire, when the major caught the pistol, turned it aside, and struck Shearson on the head with the 'old knotty cane,' cutting an ugly gash, causing blood to spurt in the major's face and over his clothes."

Volunteer Forty-Niners touches on some of the main themes in America's antebellum history: Manifest Destiny, slavery, sectionalism, and the rambunctious pursuit of wealth. But it succeeds as a more limited book of journeys, detailing some of the individual decisions and choices behind the California Gold Rush. The problem with Durham's book, however, is that it struggles to find the proper audience. Too detailed for the general reader, it offers too little new information for historians. Nonetheless, its stories may engage Tennessee history buffs or those curious to know more about 19th-century American life.--Christopher Scribner


The dog-eared page

"He, with the copy-rights and copy-wrongs, in his squalid garret, in his rusty coat; ruling (for this is what he does), from his grave, after death, whole nations and generations who would, or would not, give him bread while living,-- is a rather curious spectacle! Few shapes of Heroism can be more unexpected."--Thomas Carlyle, from "The Hero As Man of Letters" in On Heroes, Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History (University of California Press, 1993)

" 'Taste is what it's all about in publishing: taste and the telling, the ability to convey your enthusiasm,' says [Farrar Straus & Giroux executive editor Jonathan] Galassi. 'In literary publishing, you've got to be able to smell something good, and then be able to promote it, to market it.' He praises Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic Press and others who are 'swashbuckling it, doing it with panache, flair, savvy, shrewdness. If you don't take commercial risks, you're not going to make any money.' "--Craig Lambert, from "High Type Culture" in Harvard Magazine (Nov.-Dec. 1997 issue)

"On Shrove Tuesdays, as if to work off his animal spirits before Lent, each boy brought to school his own fighting-cock, and the morning was spent in sanguinary cock-fights, the whole school looking on. In the afternoon, the boys played football."--Frederick Harrison, from Medieval Man and His Notions (John Murray, London, 1947)

"Africa was the sole cradle of human evolution for millions of years, as well as perhaps the homeland of anatomically modern Homo sapiens. To these advantages of Africa's enormous head start were added those of highly diverse climates and habitats and of the world's highest human diversity. An extraterrestrial visiting Earth 10,000 years ago might have been forgiven for predicting that Europe would end up as a set of vassal states of a sub-Saharan African empire."--Jared Diamond, from Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W.W. Norton & Co., 1997)


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