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FRANKLIN. Every family home tells a story, a chapter told in the worn places on a wooden floor, a chip in the marble, or a pantry door with children’s names and marks noting their growth spurts. Nashville Interiors staff were invited into a lovely home in the historic district in Franklin that left an actual diary entry scripted on its dining room wall.
The year is 1895: It’s a spring day in April as the Lillie family is about to sit down at the table for dinner in a new room in a new house on Church Street. Transoms with stained glass allow light to enter and diffuse among the glassware and silver as the family gathers at the center of the home. Suddenly, the father, or maybe the mother, has a mindful moment and locates a lead pencil or ink quill, to record everyone who is ‘present.’
In a small frame not much larger than a recipe card or folded napkin, are the words written in cursive on the original plaster: ‘First dinner, Wednesday, April 10, 1895.’ The names ‘John, Mabel, and Lillie Jo’ are easily read, bringing a narrative into focus, bringing alive the word ‘family.’
Homeowner Marty Parish Ligon, has lived at the address with her family since the early 1960s and continues to honor the diary entry; she framed the 1895 words. The page of history has been set apart as worth remembering, in the same way the entire district is set aside as museum quality. The wallpaper layers must find their workaround.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” That quote attributed to John Muir kept crossing my mind as our tour of this Franklin home continued. Throughout the house were more stories, told in similar delicate detail. Because the visit was impromptu following the opening of the O’More Show House just up the street, I recorded a few of the moments and images with my ubiquitous but limited iPhone camera. As our neighborly tour progressed I began realizing that a story was forming, a compelling tale of how the smallest details or artifacts hold within so much weight. Each object had been collected over many years, some from family with stories firmly attached, while others came from auctions, tagged as ‘Anonymous.’ The tour suggested a visual diary of symbols that together illustrated an American timeline worth sharing.
The gesture of recording the first dinner on the wall hints at such hopefulness; and I read further, realizing 1895 proved to be a remarkable time when innovations and imagination spelled out optimism and the emergence of a distinct American culture.
Small things make a house a home. From a shiny collection of silver baby cups, some with matching lockets, to porcelain jars with handpainted roses for holding a girl’s clipped lock of hair, we listened as the artifacts of history revealed a broader context. There was a walking cane made entirely from match sticks that we marveled at as both ‘camp’ and fine art. It had been a gift between two men from very different circumstances. The South is full of such odd olive branches, walking canes that help us move forward.
A bouquet of wooden baseball bats gathered in a wooden barrel caught our eye next. The name Worth repeated on each bat’s so-called ‘sweet spot.’ The homeowner turns the page of her own family history, one I later found thoughtfully recorded in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Seems Marty’s father, Chuck Parish, was the son-in-law of George Sharp Lannom, III, the owner of the Tullahoma-based Lannom Manufacturing Co. that his father had founded in 1912. Parish became the leader of Tennessee operations, while G. Sharp focused on the Iowa plants. Parish expanded the Tennessee company’s line to include wooden and then aluminum baseball and softball bats. Quickly, the brand ‘Worth’ became the market leader in bats, and Parish would produce the first official Little League and NCAA Collegiate aluminum bats under the tag, “Performance through Technology.” What began as a tannery producing leather horse collars and harnesses for animal-powered farming became a case study for clever growth and also tells the story of the trajectory of passion for America’s favorite pastime. From a collection of baseball bats stamped “Worth—Another name for Value” in Marty’s home we had landed at another tie to Tennessee and American history. Through research and development Parish’s aluminum baseball bat, was, well, forgive us for the pun, a ‘home run!’
We don’t dwell there long, because Marty has more to show us on our quick tour. On her kitchen wall is another diary entry. We are shown a lovely framed flour sack with bright graphics for Franklin Mill’s Lily Flour. In another frame is the Lillie Company’s letterhead with typewritten correspondence from 1916. THAT Lillie family was the original owner of the Church Street house. Joshua B. Lille established the Franklin Flouring Mill twenty six years prior, in 1869, and that is the name of the family who recorded their first dinner on the wall.
In a gentlemen’s bedroom and study were quite wonderful old family oil portraits with a chiaroscuro technique at play that made me think of the Dutch masters. As Marty adjusted the lamps, these paternal poses were nicely illuminated. She asked us if we’d like to see more. We stayed, compelled by each tiny treasure looming large in symbolism. On the bright marble-top side table sat a rough iron cannon ball. On another table a contrasting gray and white mocking bird feather. She loves birds we are told, and shows us a crafted nest of twigs she’s created among the interior millwork spindles over the parlor arch where silk birds perched.
She then opens a wooden box that may have been at one time a place for sewing notions. But the threads of history she pulls out, surprise us. She shows us one Civil War locket after another. Each locket includes an exquisite portrait not much larger than a postage stamp. When opened, she showed us the lock of hair inside that we conclude had been an intimate connection between the soldier and his wife or romantic interest. One locket was fastened to an intricate handmade wrist band that upon closer examination was braided from a woman’s brunette tresses.
There were letter press poetry books on the shelf with leather bindings. Silver tea settings and portraits of stair step children that confuse the decades. A child’s small table is set for pretend tea. Steiff bears evoke the Velveteen of a certain storybook rabbit. Like that rabbit, everything in this home is “real,” meaning loved and well-known.
In the dining room the crystal chandelier further glistens with strings of pearl necklaces the owner has added as embellishment. Centered over the dining room mantle was a portrait of the homeowner as a young woman.
I’ve thought often about this wonderful tour many times since that day, and have returned to the photographs, the way I love to tune into the Antique’s Roadshow of a particular place via PBS. The interior of the home was foreshadowed by the charm of the structure’s exterior detail. There’s complex millwork throughout and a turret steep-pitched tower roof, an inviting rounded porch. Gingerbread and hospitality distinguish this home among the more opulent Victorian mansions on the street, more the scale of the lovely Tudor frames, and bungalows.
More about the year 1895:
Reflecting upon each touchstone we share in our image gallery here from Marty Ligon’s house in Franklin, I became increasingly curious about the historic footnote of the year 1895. The gesture of recording the first dinner on the wall hints at such hopefulness; and I read further, realizing 1895 proved to be a remarkable time when innovations and imagination spelled out optimism and the emergence of a distinct American culture.
Leisure was becoming organized in the states and abroad. I read that in 1895, the game of volleyball was introduced in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The Paris-Bordeaux-Paris first motor race took place, followed later in the year by the first American auto race sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald. In Pennsylvania the first professional American football game was played among a YMCA roster and in England, the first rugby football league is formed. I noted that 1895 was the year Babe Ruth was born.
In arts and culture, 1895 is the year England established The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty, that would set precedents for historic sites around the world to be treasured and documented. Rudyard Kipling’s story about Mowgli is published in part in Cosmopolitan, so magazines were popular on the scene. Oscar Wilde’s last play, The Importance of Being Ernest, is performed at St. James Theater in London. That same year New York seeks a starring role in American performing arts. Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympic Theater is the first to open in Times Square. Meanwhile, overseas, Paris, always a step ahead, shows the first moving picture film by Auguste and Louis Lumière.
In the fields of education, engineering, and science, the world in 1895 is making leaps and bounds. Rudolf Diesel of Germany patents the Diesel engine. Booker T. Washington advocates for education access for all Americans, even though Civil Rights is not yet a part of common vocabulary or collective consciousness. George Baldwin Selden files a patent for the automobile engine, inspired by the mammoth internal combustion engine on display at the 1876 Expo in Philadelphia. X-ray radiation is discovered. Svante Arrhenius delivers a scientific paper at the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. His colleagues’ data was already showing a sensitivity of global climate to atmospheric carbon dioxide in 1895, what we now call the “Greenhouse Effect.” W.E.B. DuBois graduated in 1895 with a PhD from Harvard University, the first African American to do so. That year he would move from Massachusetts to Atlanta, Georgia, to become a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. It would be much later, in 1909, when he would go on to found the NAACP.
In 1895 Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, setting aside his estate to establish the Nobel Prize. Writer, statesman, impressive orator, and former slave, Frederick Douglass passes away in 1895, a man whose writings remain essential reading on the syllabus of nearly every freshman English class.
As a Franklin family began a new life in a new house in 1895, another Southern home was in a flurry of finishing touches, including a landscape of elaborate gardens adding to the study of horticulture in the South. Biltmore Estate was that ‘house.’ The Vanderbilt’s were overseeing their property in Asheville, North Carolina in April 1895, as the Lillie family enjoyed their first meal in their dining room. George Washington Vanderbilt II would open Biltmore Estate with a large Christmas Eve celebration at year’s end.
Indeed, every home tells a story, whether it is the African-American House Museum cottage in the Hard-Bargain community of Franklin, or the grand museum of Biltmore, or a row of historic homes along mainstream Main Street that make history particularly meaningful and real. From one footnote, from one scribble on a wall of a dining room in Franklin, Tenn., we see how local history is never detached from a much wider world.
Enjoy the visual journal of the small things that make this Franklin house a home: