Looking for the History Lovers, the Grassroots Preservation Advocates, and Community Connectors in Franklin and Williamson County
Rachael Finch, Senior Director of Preservation, Education, & Advocacy
History. Preservation. Community. These are the pillars of the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County – but it was not always so. By 1967, downtown Franklin was a plethora of pool halls, secondhand shops, broken sidewalks, and metal awnings. The buildings were slipcovered in vinyl siding, covering historic transoms, and in some cases, secondary doors. When the historic Corn House was finally demolished at the corner of 5th and Bridge Street to make way for a gas station, a group of concerned citizens, determined to advocate for Franklin’s history, established the Heritage Foundation. However, saving the old rather than demolishing for the new did not happen overnight.
It Starts with One Building – One Place – At A Time
Despite our fifty-five years of success, we were not met with universal support. As Franklin began to grow, so did the opposition from some developers. Naturally, the pushback made a few downtown merchants nervous. Some merchants feared losing their business while restoration occurred. A handful of business owners were not sure if it would even be worth the investment.
Heritage Foundation used one building downtown as an example of how preservation of a historic building could be done. Once completed, change did not happen overnight. Not everyone was on board. There is always pain when we grow. But through the Heritage Foundation and community grassroots advocacy, the change is exactly what was needed to save historic Franklin. John Beasley – a fierce advocate for saving Franklin’s historic Main Street – completed the first commercial restoration in 1963! Beasley’s example helped launch the Heritage Foundation four years later, becoming its first president.
Main Street, A Sense of Place and Preserving Streetscape
By the 1960s, Franklin’s downtown was languishing. But for the neighbors who recognized the power of place and advocated for change, the sustainability of Franklin’s Main Street was at a crossroads. Through preservation advocacy and community engagement, the Heritage Foundation partnered with the City of Franklin to promote economic revitalization and heritage tourism through Streetscape. In May 1995, Franklin was honored as one of the best downtown areas in the nation when it received one of the first five “Great American Main Street” awards ever given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Since then, accolades have included the “Best Small Town in Tennessee,” “America’s Most Romantic Main Street,” and “One of America’s Greatest Antique Destinations.”
The Franklin Theatre – Home of First Kisses
The Franklin Theatre operated from 1937 to 2007. Once it opened in the summer of 1937, it immediately became a treasured asset on Main Street, fondly known as the “Home of First Kisses.” Over the next 70 years, people in Franklin continued to visit the Theatre, but unfortunately, the doors eventually closed in 2007. Knowing our community could not let this historic building be lost, The Heritage Foundation acquired the Theatre in 2008. With the support of more than a thousand donors, the Heritage Foundation stepped in to buy and rehabilitate the historic landmark. After three years of work – and an investment of more than $8 million – the historic Franklin Theatre re-emerged better than ever. After a three-year rehabilitation, it re-opened in 2011. Now a premier venue and an anchor for downtown activity, it hosts a variety of music, drama, and films.
Civil War Battlefield Reclamation – Roper’s Knob, Carter’s Hill, and Eastern Flank Battlefield Parks
The Heritage Foundation saves the places and shares all stories of our intangible cultural heritage in Williamson County. Preservation does not just happen by accident. Preservation is deliberate.
In 1994, the Heritage Foundation raised $400,000 to purchase and preserve Roper’s Knob, the highest hill in Franklin, with the State of Tennessee. A key signal station during the Civil War, the site was listed on the National Register in 2000. The Heritage Foundation gifted its share to the city of Franklin, which preserves and interprets other sites in the city’s Civil War landscape. When HF learned it was slated for development, it was able to work with the Tennessee Department of Archaeology and formed the 1,000 Friends of Roper’s Knob to save it. This remains one of Heritage Foundation’s most successful Civil War battlefield preservation initiatives to date.
The Heritage Foundation began the preservation push in the late 1990s with the purchase of a little blue house on Cleburne Street, a home that sat on the actual site of Fountain Branch Carter’s cotton gin and later, as a local partner with Franklin’s Charge, Save the Franklin Battlefield, the Battle of Franklin Trust, the City of Franklin, and the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area to advocate for battlefield reclamation of the Eastern Flank and Carter’s Hill, two areas of the heaviest fighting during the November 30, 1864, Battle of Franklin. Today, over 150 acres of green space tells the whole story of the Battle of Franklin and the Civil War in Franklin.
Historic Homes, Historic Spaces
Breezeway, built in 1830 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is Williamson County’s oldest double pen dogtrot home, and has been integrated into the Breezeway subdivision off Clovercroft Road east of Wilson Pike. The house had been used as a hunting cabin for years but had been vacant for more than two decades when it and the land surrounding it was purchased by Bob Parks Realty for development. The Heritage Foundation worked with Bob Parks to paint the exterior of the house and secure it against vandalism while a preservation-minded buyer could be found. Bob Parks secured historic overlay zoning for the house, while the Heritage Foundation worked with the city’s developer to ensure that the development plan left the historic home surrounded by 30 acres of open space to preserve its context.
After its purchase by the Skipper and Debbie Carlisle in 2011, the house went through a dramatic renovation which included the installation of modern amenities and an addition. The couple’s preservation efforts have been rewarded with the Heritage Foundation’s 2012 Preservation Award and a Certificate of Merit from the Tennessee Historical Commission.
McLemore House: A Story of Trials and Triumph
Situated in the heart of Hard Bargain on the west side of downtown Franklin sits one of Franklin’s most remarkable historic properties, McLemore House. Currently owned by the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County, its roots are deeply intertwined with both hardship and triumph. Originally owned by former enslaved person Harvey McLemore, it stands today as a living testament to the determination and resilience of Williamson County’s freed citizens following the Civil War.
Laverne Holland, Harvey’s great, great granddaughter, was the last descendent to occupy the home. In 1997, The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, led by Executive Director Mary Pearce, partnered with Habitat for Humanity to purchase the property from Maggie Matthews’ estate. That same year, the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County was founded to continue telling the important stories of African Americans in the community. The Heritage Foundation, in a gesture of goodwill, subsequently sold the McLemore House to the newly formed society for $1, and they opened it as the African American House Museum in 2002.
Today, the McLemore House serves as a powerful reminder of the trials and triumphs Williamson County African Americans endured on the path to equality and freedom. From its early days as a haven of protection for the Harvey McLemore family to the birth of women’s entrepreneurship, the stories inherent in its walls encourage all who visit to honor the sacrifices and hardship that bore its success.
Old, Old Jail – The Lehew-Magid Big House for Historic Preservation
The Old, Old Jail is a building at 112 Bridge Street in downtown Franklin that served as Williamson County’s third jail from 1941 until 1970. From the 1970s on, it was used at various times as a highway patrol outpost, an employment office, the County archives, and book storage for the school system. It fell into disrepair and had been vacant since 2008.
Many a prisoner languished away in cells at Franklin’s Old, Old Jail. Notorious prisoners included Betty Burge, Tennessee’s first woman sentenced to the electric chair, car thief Clayton A. “Rabbit” Veach, and Willie York, who served 11 ½ years for murdering Franklin constable Clarence Reed. In 1970, singer Johnny Seay, encapsulated Willie’s life in the back hills of Franklin and criminal activities into a popular country song, “Willie’s Drunk and Nelly’s Dyin.” Etched into several walls are names of former inmates including Veach’s own personal graffiti, visible on the first-floor renovated kitchen wall.
Constructed towards the end of the New Deal Era, the Jail opened in 1942, housing men and women, black and white. Male white prisoners were held on the first floor while female prisoners were held in the basement, nearest the kitchen. Female prisoners performed “household tasks” including laundry and cooking. The second floor held African American prisoners, as well as waiting rooms.
The Jail closed its doors in 1970 and its uses varied until the county shut the doors completely in mid-1990s. In 2013, the Heritage Foundation purchased the jail and by 2016, “The LeHew Magid Big House for Historic Preservation,” was fully restored. Today, the Jail serves as the Foundation’s headquarters and is open for tours Monday through Friday.
Historic Five Points Post Office
Five Points Post Office has served Franklin since 1924, and it was the first and only U.S. Post Office for Franklin, TN till 1991. The main floor was the consumer area for post office functions, and underneath were all office functions. Some of the original chutes going from the top floor and outside to the basement still exist. The building has served as a post office all these years, as well as a genealogy library, archives, and headquarters for the Heritage Foundation for a time. When archives were stored there, one could find old will books and deeds, along with deeds of enslaved people, in the basement. These archives were eventually moved across the street into what is now the Williamson County Archives.
The entire building was a post office till 1991, when the United States Post Office moved their facility. That year, Five Points Post Office was recognized by the National Register of Historic Place as one of the 11 most endangered sites in America, because of the plan to close it. It was purchased by Williamson County in 1992. They used it for the Heritage Foundation and archives downstairs, as well as a contracted post office. In 2014, First Bank leased and built out their portion of the building after the Heritage Foundation had moved to the Historic Old, Old Jail on 112 Bridge Street. There continues to be a contracted post office in the building next to the bank.
For fifty-five years, the generosity of preservation-minded advocates enables the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County to preserve our architectural, geographical, archaeological, history, culture, and green spaces as well as share authentic content that connects the public to Williamson County’s unique place in Tennessee and the United States. Only through members and public contributions may we continue to provide resources and experiences to advocate for saving our historic and cultural resources throughout the county through our signature events, performing arts center at The Franklin Theatre, and education and public programs at Franklin Grove Estate & Gardens and the History and Culture Center of Williamson County.
The role of the Heritage Foundation is the same today as it was in 1967: to recognize what is so special about this community, value all its history and culture, and continue to advocate for its preservation of places, stories, and green space. We all have a role to play in our neighborhood. Franklin is quintessentially historic, but it also fragile. It took us years to save it, and if we are not careful, we could lose what we advocated for – preservation.
Ready, Set, Advocate!
There are many ways to get involved with the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County.
Williamson County residents are the backbone of our organization. We rely on our community members to perpetuate our mission throughout our community – and they never let us down. Last year alone, our membership helped us by raising $18 million of private investment, spent on nearly 70 rehabilitation, public improvements, and new construction projects, joined nearly 400,000 attendees at our signature events, volunteered more than 5,000 hours, and provided more than 1,500 donations and sponsorships to ensure we continue our work of preservation, education, and advocacy. To become a member, contact Christina Metzgar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jr. Heritage Membership
Williamson County students are the future lifeblood of historic preservation, and we love seeing our 9th – 12th graders get involved in grassroots advocacy and history education initiatives. Membership includes Jr. member-only events, hands-on preservation workshops, field trips throughout the year, and volunteer opportunities. For more information, contact Senior Director of Preservation, Education, & Advocacy Rachael Finch at email@example.com.
The Annual Fund
Your annual gift is a vital lifeline for Heritage Foundation of Williamson County’s direct impact and scope of preservation advocacy, public programming, and community outreach. At a time in which education about our history is more important than ever, your gift makes it possible for Heritage Foundation to inspire and engage thousands of school children, lifelong learners, college and graduate students, and lovers of history and historic preservation each year. Your gift ensures the Heritage Foundation remains the resource for all local preservation, education, and advocacy initiatives and a destination for inspiration through our beloved signature events. Annual gifts are vital lifelines for Heritage Foundation’s To donate, please contact Christina Metzgar at firstname.lastname@example.org or Heather Kantor at email@example.com.
The Heritage Foundation Leadership Society
The Heritage Foundation Leadership Society is an important circle of donors who provide vital support to the Heritage Foundation’s annual operations. By contributing $1,000 or more a year, Heritage Foundation Leadership Society donors close the gap between our operating expenses and funds raised from events, sponsorships, membership, and other sources. The Leadership Society is the lifeblood of our organization and makes an immediate impact on the scope of our work on preservation and education for generations to come.
Please lend your support by joining the Leadership Society today. As a thank you, you will receive an invitation to the annual Leadership Society reception, special access to private events, and more. For a list of full benefits, contact Chief Advancement Officer Grant Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 1799 Society
Building on the philanthropy of generous individuals that helped to found Heritage Foundation in 1967, members of the 1799 Society play an important role in helping to preserve this Williamson County’s history, culture, and green space, planning for the next 50 years with the same ambition that came before us. By supporting the Heritage Foundation through a planned gift, you automatically become a member of Heritage Foundation’s Legacy Society. This group of supporters share the common interest of preserving the beloved places for generations to come by leaving a legacy that ensures those who follow will continue to enjoy Williamson County’s treasures. For more information about the 1799 Society and gifts through your estate, please contact Chief Advancement Officer, Grant Martin at email@example.com.
Be A Corporate Sponsor & Partner
Many businesses are moving their operations to Williamson County and want to be connected in community. Join a unique group of dedicated corporation and businesses who are advancing their goals while also partnering with the Heritage Foundation to preserve its intangible history and cultural heritage. If you are interested in learning more about how to connect your corporation through community-led preservation advocacy, please contact Director of Corporate Sponsorships Mary Catherine Mousourakis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Historic Items and Artifacts
We strive to share all stories of Williamson Countians and Tennesseans through art, objects, and artifacts at the Heritage Foundation. Community generosity helps us achieve our goal of sharing history, making it fully accessible to everyone. Do you have a piece of history that may be relevant to our mission? If so, please contact Senior Director of Preservation, Education, & Advocacy, Rachael Finch at email@example.com
Our dedicated volunteers make our mission possible and allow our current and future generations of citizens and visitors to Franklin and Williamson County be inspire by our collective past. Interested in volunteering at our festivals, working at our headquarters inside of the Old, Old Jail or in our preservation department? Please contact our Volunteer and Database Manager, Heather Kantor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Franklin and Williamson County is the intersection of thousands of stories. Yours. Mine. Ours. Join us and help us save places and share stories – your story – for generations to come. To learn more about ways you can become a preservation advocate, contact Senior Director of Preservation, Education, & Advocacy, Rachael Finch at email@example.com. To become a member of the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, go to www.williamsonheritage.org/membership or contact Membership Coordinator, Christina Metzgar at firstname.lastname@example.org.