Sites to Save

The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, TN, has compiled its first annual Sites to Save list, which seeks to identify historic places in Williamson County that are vulnerable to demolition, development or neglect.

Called Six at Risk, the 2021 Sites to Save list is designed as a tool to help the community come alongside the Heritage Foundation in its efforts to raise awareness of Williamson County’s significant historic, cultural, geographical and archaeological resources, including buildings, structures, cemeteries, historic districts, archaeological sites, natural and cultural landscapes, while respecting the rights of property owners whose land may include such resources.

2021 SITES TO SAVE “SIX AT RISK” PROPERTIES:

The Historic Franklin Masonic Hall

115 2nd Avenue South, downtown Franklin

Merrill-Williams House

264 Natchez Street, downtown Franklin

Williamson Iron Furnace

Caney Fork Road, Fairview

Civil War Earthworks

Spanntown Road, Triune

Farmstead Tracts

Nolensville

Creekside Property

370 Franklin Road, Franklin

Historic Franklin Masonic Hall

Built c.1823, the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall is the oldest three-story building in Franklin and is the earliest significant Gothic Revival building in Tennessee. The Masonic fraternity known as Hiram Lodge No. 7 of Free and Accepted Masons was chartered in 1809. It is the oldest continually operating Masonic fraternity in the state, and the Hall was the meeting site for generations of Franklin’s most prominent businessmen and civic leaders.

The designer of the three-story lodge is unknown, but the architect was likely familiar with a print of William Strickland’s Masonic Hall in Philadelphia, built in 1811 and lost to fire in 1819. In Franklin, as in Philadelphia, the main façade is articulated with four tall, pilaster-like projections, each capped with a pyramidal pinnacle. Like the Philadelphia building, Franklin’s Masonic Hall has Gothic windows with stone hood moldings.

The building played an important, if ignoble, role in U.S. history. In August 1830, three months after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, he met with Chickasaw Nation representatives at the Masonic Hall to negotiate the Treaty of Franklin. This was the first and only time a president met with an Indian council to negotiate a treaty, which resulted in the removal of the Chickasaw from their homelands, the commencement of the Trail of Tears, and the acceleration of westward expansion by the United States. While President Jackson met with the group, he did not sign the treaty itself. It was signed by two members of his cabinet, Secretary of War John Eaton, a native of Franklin, and Indian Commissioner John Coffee.

Occupied by Confederate and Federal soldiers during the Civil War, the Hall suffered significant damage during the Battle of Franklin (1864) but was later restored. The Masons received funds from the United States government in 1916 for damages done during the war and used the funds to raise the front parapet walls, relocating the staircase all the way to the third floor on the northwest side of the Hall.

Designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior through the National Park Service, the Hall still serves the Hiram Lodge No. 7 today, but faces many structural challenges.

Merrill-Williams House

Known as a historic African-American neighborhood within the larger suburban confines of Franklin, the Natchez Street community has many homes that have remained remarkably intact.

The Merrill-Williams house at 264 Natchez Street is one such home, built in 1881 by Moses Merrill, a formerly enslaved man who had been owned by local slave trader Charles Merrill of Franklin and Nashville. Upon getting older and less able to maintain the residence, Moses Merrill sold it in 1891 to Tom Williams, the son of well-known African American businessman and preacher A.N.C. Williams.

A.N.C. Williams was born into slavery in 1844 and received his freedom in 1863 during the Civil War. He owned and operated a shoe store during the war, serving locals as well as Federal soldiers. He was the first free black merchant to conduct business on Franklin’s main square, successfully owning and managing stores in Franklin for 63 years. His business occupied several locations before he finally purchased a building on Franklin’s downtown square. Both black and white customers frequented A.N.C. Williams’ store, which was unusual for this time and signified his elevated standing in the Franklin community as well as the Natchez Street district. He is listed on the Pioneer Families of Williamson County and is buried in Toussaint L’Ouverture Cemetery, Franklin’s historic African-American cemetery.

The Merrill-Williams house sits in the Natchez Historic District, recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior through the National Park Service. The Natchez Street neighborhood was nicknamed “Baptist Neck” by local residents in the early 1900s because of the three churches located along Natchez Street: Shorter Chapel A.M.E., First Missionary Baptist and Providence United Primitive Baptist.

Three generations of the family lived in this home. In 1881, Tom Williams built the white six-room home that now sits on the property. In 1950, Fred D. Williams, the grandson of A.N.C. Williams, and his wife, Mattie, purchased the house in which current owner Cassandra Taylor grew up. 

The Williams family transformed the house into a cultural hub for the Natchez community during the era of segregation, when they hosted art shows and musical performances. AAHS President Alma McLemore said, “The Williams family turned the property into a Natchez Street showplace…. Merchants, musicians, educators and antique collectors, the Williams family and their house became a neighborhood institution for the next 100 years.”

The house sat vacant after the death of Taylor’s mother in 2009. It was listed for sale in November 2020, and many feared the home would be threatened with gentrification or demolition if sold, given the lack of inventory in the Williamson County real estate market. But in April 2021, leaders of the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County and other community partners announced a campaign to acquire and save 264 Natchez Street.

The AAHS now has a legal option to purchase and renovate the house into a cultural center. They say the project will require $1 million dollars: $610,000 to purchase the house, with the remaining for restoration and opening of the center. Funds raised to date covered the escrow, but they are still accepting donations at https://gofund.me/0f047dc6.

Williamson Iron Furnace in Fernvale

Located near Fairview, in the northwest corner of Williamson County along the Caney Fork of the South Harpeth River, are the remains of the limestone stack of the Williamson Furnace.  Built in 1832 by Moses Speer, its existence is a bit of a mystery since there are no significant iron deposits in the immediate area. 

According to the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation’s website on the Tennessee Iron Furnace Trail, furnaces like this one were vital to the survival of the pioneering communities of our area. From primitive spearheads and knives to farm and kitchen tools, weapons, battleships, railroads, bridges and buildings, generations have relied on iron to survive and to flourish.     

Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the blast furnace would chemically reduce large amounts of ore and limestone flux into molten metal and waste material. This site was the only known iron furnace in all of Williamson County, specializing in primitive “pig iron” that could be further refined into cast-iron consumer products.

In 1830, Moses Speer had obtained approximately 2,000 acres around the furnace, as well as a tract of land on Turnbull Creek that contained an ore bank.  He brought the raw materials to the furnace over land by heavy wagons.

Over the next decade, the furnace changed hands several times and was even auctioned off. It eventually passed into the hands of the Perkins family, but there is no evidence that the furnace was ever put into blast again. 

MTSU says the presence of a slag pile near the ruins is proof that some iron had been produced here, but by 1849 the furnace was reported to be out of use by a contemporary trade journal.  It is believed that the columns of the historic Williamson County Courthouse on the square were cast in 1857 at Pugh & Company’s Franklin Foundry from pig iron manufactured at this Williamson Furnace.

But the site itself, currently owned by a development company, has deteriorated under heavy plant growth and neglect over the past century. The 26 acres surrounding the furnace ruin were purchased in Fall 2020 for potential development, and the owner is open to working with a preservation-minded donor to restore and fence off what remains of the furnace, with interpretive signage.

Civil War Earthworks in Triune

The history of the Civil War Battle of Franklin is shared often in our area, but information about Civil War activities and encampments in other parts of Williamson County is not as well known.

In fact, many folks drive past what has been called some of the most complex and best-preserved Civil War earthworks in the U.S. without even knowing it. Historic preservation expert Phil Thomason has called the Civil War fortifications located across 500 acres off Spanntown Road “one of the most intact and unaltered set of Civil War earthworks in Tennessee.” The National Park Service has listed the Triune Fortifications on the National Register of Historic Places for their historic and archeological significance.

For those who have not toured local Civil War sites, earthworks are barriers between an army and its enemy, basically an embankment or mound of earth built for concealment and protection. Greg Wade, president of the Franklin Civil War Round Table, says this particular fort complex enabled Federal forces to supply and transport troops to Murfreesboro, Nashville, Franklin, and related outposts by its dominance over two major road corridors, Murfreesboro Road and Nolensville Pike. Without this facility, Wade says there would have been less Federal control from Franklin to Nashville, negatively impacting Federal strategy for the entire Middle Tennessee region. There were numerous skirmishes and fights near the earthworks involving everything from small patrols to major attacks led by Confederate leaders like General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The fort also opened the way for enslaved people to escape into Federal lines, some who would eventually serve in the Union military.

The Franklin Civil War Round Table has long supported finding solutions that help preserve this historical treasure while teaming with landowners as key partners in an effort to create an acceptable solution for everyone.

In 2008, at a meeting of concerned locals in Triune, Andra Ladd of the Land Trust for Tennessee pointed out how “a conservation easement could protect the character of land, maintain landowners’ rights to sell their land, farm or manage timber, transfer land to their heirs and restrict public access while giving the landowners a number of financial benefits.” The Triune fortifications could be protected by such a conservation easement, but no significant legal steps have been taken since then. The fort remnants and earthworks traverse more than a dozen different properties today, and while having multiple landowners makes a cohesive plan more complicated, the lack of any protective easement leaves them vulnerable to inadvertently being destroyed.

Farmstead Tracts

Nolensville is said to have been founded in 1797 by William Nolen when he, along with his first wife Delilah and five children, was traveling through Middle Tennessee and a wheel on his wagon broke, causing the family to delay traveling until the wagon was repaired.  According to the town website, “After inspecting the local terrain, William Nolen noted the area had an abundance of game and clean creek water. These resources convinced him and his family that they needed to travel no further. Regardless of the reasons, Nolen purchased property and sold lots for the town, which still bears his name, Nolensville.”

Nolen and his family built their log cabin home and farm and lived there until William Nolen’s death, when the land was sold.  Many other families settled in the area, and a precious few of their historic homes remain.

In 1814 son Stephen Nolen received land from his father on Mill Creek. In 1828 Stephen sold 122 acres of that land to James Johnson. Over the next few decades, the tract was sold off in smaller parcels until in 1874 it came under the ownership of Sherwood Jenkins, who is thought to have built the house standing on the remaining 12 acres at the corner of Nolensville Road and Clovercroft/Rocky Fork roads today.

According to the book Nolensville 1797-1987, Federal troops camped on the property during the Civil War, and relics have been found to support that.

Along with the efforts of elected officials and the historic commission, one reason Nolensville has been slower to develop than other towns in Williamson County is the lack of direct interstate access. Many of the large farmsteads are still intact, but expansion of utilities and roads brings change. The realignment a few years ago of Clovercroft and Rocky Fork roads brought a traffic light to Nolensville Road, and recent changes to the town’s downtown zoning made that intersection an attractive location for larger-scale commercial development than was previously allowed in the area.

In fact, major grocery chains have expressed interest in the properties around that intersection. While this use is a natural fit for a growing area with so many families, it also would be a significant change for Nolensville’s smaller scale historic downtown.

For decades, developers of residential subdivisions in Williamson County have gotten accustomed to working with historic homes, usually converting them into a neighborhood clubhouse or selling them as a private home situated among the new homes. That use is not typical in commercial developments, which is what makes these farmhouse properties vulnerable.

It’s a similar situation Nolensville faced in 2019 when the c.1870 Morton Brittain house faced demolition when the land it occupied was purchased for commercial development. After a last-minute scramble, preservationists were able to secure funding to move the home to another location. The historical society hopes to be more proactive as Nolensville feels the burden of more growth.

The Creekside Property

The Creekside house near the intersection of Franklin Road and Mack Hatcher was built in 1835, according to the Tennessee Historical Commission. Developer Capital Investment Group is currently proposing construction of a residential neighborhood on the property, on both sides of Franklin Road, of 33 single family homes and 32 multiplex buildings, each of which would contain four apartments.

A subdivision is not an unexpected proposal for this tract along a state highway and the Mack Hatcher bypass, but the history of this site has barely been told. The Creekside home is significant for its age and also because it was the home of Sarah Florence McEwen Adkerson (1846-1867), who was one of the daughters of John B. McEwen, mayor of Franklin during the Civil War. The property became heavily used during Federal occupation in 1863 and, sitting directly off of Franklin Road, witnessed troop movements following the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. Sarah married Rev. W.L. Rosser in 1866 and died a year later in childbirth at age 20, but her only child Florence Rosser Adkerson (1867-1951) lived on the property her entire life.

The developers of the current proposal say they intend to make the home a significant feature of the neighborhood entrance, but any large-scale development would be a major change to downtown Franklin’s northern gateway.

Sites to Watch

Daniel McMahon House

Located on the Franklin First United Methodist Church property near Franklin Road and Mack Hatcher, this home started as a cabin around 1812 on a sprawling farm owned by one of the county’s earliest settlers, Revolutionary War veteran Daniel McMahon. An ancient oak tree guards the approach at Spencer’s Creek, while the historic Wyatt horse race track is near the house, all of which is on church property. The home itself is being used for storage and is in disrepair, with exposed wood and water damage evident.

Gaylor House

Located at 253 Natchez Street, this home was owned by Ruth Gaylor from 1902-1982 and is now owned by the Shorter Chapel AME Church next door. Gaylor’s house was listed in the Negro Travelers’ Green Book from 1956-1961. State laws in the South required separate facilities for African Americans, and many hotels, guest houses and restaurants in northern states also excluded African Americans. The Green Book offered a listing of accommodations deemed safe for Black travelers, and this home was Franklin’s only known entry. The church wants to restore and preserve the home.

McCord-Patton Cemetery

Located in Arrington, this cemetery holds the final resting places of some the county’s earliest settlers and is threatened by development of a subdivision off Cox Road. Its stone walls are said to contain the burial of David McCord (1745 – 1819) who served in the Revolutionary War, among other family members.

Commitment To Advocacy

Our Commitment

For each of the sites on the list, staff at the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County plan to:

  • Attend relevant public meetings that involve the sites on the list.
  • Consult with willing property owners and municipalities about the history of the property and offer insight on preservation and restoration.
  • Connect willing property owners with construction and preservation experts related to the needs of the site.

In addition, the top two sites on the list, the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall and Merrill-Williams House in 2021, will receive in-kind resources valued between $25,000 and $50,000, through the Heritage Foundation and its divisions:

  • Preservation Resources: The top two sites will receive free professional services through the Foundation’s preservationists, including resources such as conditions assessments, preservation plans or historic structures reports to support the property owners’ understanding of the sites’ history, preservation needs and recommendations for future preservation, restoration and/or rehabilitation.
  • Fundraising Events at The Franklin Theatre: In addition, the sites will have an opportunity to host a fundraising event or concert as part of a new “Playing for Preservation” series at The Franklin Theatre. Special events encourage community engagement and can be a powerful tool to rally support and needed funding to support the preservation project.

Get Involved

The Heritage Foundation hopes the  Sites to Save  list will help make locals aware of the historic sites around them, as well as educate newcomers to the area.  To donate to the Foundation’s preservation efforts, including supporting the Sites to Save program, visit WilliamsonHeritage.org/Donate.

Our Commitment

For each of the sites on the list, staff at the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County plan to:

  • Attend relevant public meetings that involve the sites on the list.
  • Consult with willing property owners and municipalities about the history of the property and offer insight on preservation and restoration.
  • Connect willing property owners with construction and preservation experts related to the needs of the site.

In addition, the top two sites on the list, the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall and Merrill-Williams House in 2021, will receive in-kind resources valued between $25,000 and $50,000, through the Heritage Foundation and its divisions:

  • Preservation Resources: The top two sites will receive free professional services through the Foundation’s preservationists, including resources such as conditions assessments, preservation plans or historic structures reports to support the property owners’ understanding of the sites’ history, preservation needs and recommendations for future preservation, restoration and/or rehabilitation.
  • Fundraising Events at The Franklin Theatre: In addition, the sites will have an opportunity to host a fundraising event or concert as part of a new “Playing for Preservation” series at The Franklin Theatre. Special events encourage community engagement and can be a powerful tool to rally support and needed funding to support the preservation project.

Get Involved

The Heritage Foundation hopes the  Sites to Save  list will help make locals aware of the historic sites around them, as well as educate newcomers to the area.  To donate to the Foundation’s preservation efforts, including supporting the Sites to Save program, visit WilliamsonHeritage.org/Donate.