Historic Orange Mound: Celebrating 125 Years of Community Pride

By Denise Gallagher, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

Orange Mound is one of Memphis’s oldest and best-known African American neighborhoods. For the past few semesters, the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) has been working with the Orange Mound community to document historic landmarks as part of the neighborhood’s upcoming 125th anniversary celebration. The CHP’s work has highlighted eight historic churches but has also included multiple schools, a day nursery, a park, and a cemetery. Over the course of several visits, CHP students and staff have met quite a few community leaders, including Ms. Mary Mitchell and Ms. Tiana Pyles, who have shared their vision of the past, present, and future of Orange Mound. The CHP is producing a printed driving tour of community landmarks in conjunction with the 125th anniversary celebration scheduled for May 2, 2015.

Lifetime Orange Mound residents Ms. Mary Mitchell and Mr. Tyler Glover share stories with CHP students at Beulah Baptist Church.

Long-time residents sometimes refer to Orange Mound as the largest historically black community in the United States other than Harlem, New York. The statement’s accuracy is less important than its reflection of Orange Mound’s pride as a community intended for and, most importantly, built by African Americans. Unlike Harlem, which was initially settled by Jewish and Italian immigrants, who then moved on to other parts of New York, Orange Mound was developed specifically as a residential suburb for African Americans. However, like Harlem, Orange Mound grew to be a large, self-contained, thriving urban black community that fostered upward mobility.

When Orange Mound was founded in the late 1880s, Memphis city boosters were pushing to increase the population after the devastating effects of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, which collapsed the tax base and bankrupted the city. Elzey Eugene Meacham, a white land speculator from Memphis, recognized the emerging market of African Americans who wanted to own their own homes. At the time, Shelby County had a total population of 112,000 people, of which half were African American.

In 1889, Meacham purchased a sixty-acre section of the Deaderick Plantation, located five miles from the city center. He named the subdivision Orange Mound after the row of Osage orange trees that grew near the plantation house. The rural subdivision was organized as a grid and contained more than 900 narrow lots measuring 25 feet by 104 feet, which were sold for as little as $40. The small “shotgun” lots provided maximum profit for the developer, while also offering affordability to new residents.

Historic shotgun-style dwelling built in 1912.

Historic shotgun-style dwelling built in 1912.

During the early 1900s, a great wave of African Americans migrated to Memphis, overcrowding the inner-city and fueling Orange Mound’s expansion. Because African Americans were systematically excluded from equal participation in Memphis’s economic and political development, they sought to create their own institutions in communities like Orange Mound. In the recent ethnography titled African American Life and Culture in Orange Mound (2013), Charles Williams describes the community as “a web of complex and enduring relationships based on kinship, friendship, church membership, business partnership, employment in community schools and businesses, and participation in mutual aid societies and voluntary associations….” (p. 24). Williams emphasizes that the lower, middle, and elite classes shared a bond through common religious values and a spirit of racial pride and uplift.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Orange Mound continued to prosper despite the limitations created by Jim Crow laws. An economic boom after World War I caused unemployment to be low and wages high across the city. In 1919, Orange Mound was annexed by the city of Memphis, along with several other independent communities.

The prosperity of the 1920s can be observed in the building patterns of Orange Mound’s historic churches. The two oldest congregations, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church and Mt. Pisgah Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, constructed new buildings in 1925 and 1929, respectively, that continue to be impressive community landmarks today. The churches are located on main thoroughfares near the commercial districts of Carnes and Park avenues.

Two other historic churches, Greater New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and New Era Missionary Baptist Church, constructed buildings in 1924 and 1925, respectively. The two churches are located a few blocks from each other on residential streets. Both churches expanded laterally with impressive new sanctuaries that complement the original structures. At some point, lots across from the churches were purchased and turned into parking lots to accommodate the growing congregations. The adaptive reuse of the old sanctuaries as multi-purpose fellowship halls was practical but is also likely indicative of Orange Mound residents’ reverence for the past.

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As the dates of the church expansions indicate, Orange Mound continued to grow in the decades after World War II; however, by then many social and political changes were underway that would greatly alter the community. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision set into motion a new relationship between blacks and whites that led to the Civil Rights Movement and increased racial equality, while at the same time undermining many of the sacred institutions in segregated communities like Orange Mound.

In the last half of the twentieth century, long-time Orange Mound residents struggled to maintain the strong community bonds that had shaped their collective identities. Although many of the residential and commercial structures have suffered from physical deterioration and blight, many of the foundational institutional buildings remain. In addition to historic churches, the community has remarkably preserved a gigantic reminder of Orange Mound’s celebrated past—the New Deal-built Melrose School, completed in 1938.

Melrose School opened in 1938 and featured 79 classrooms, a library, science labs, a music room, a shop building, and an auditorium.

Melrose School opened in 1938 and featured 79 classrooms, a library, science labs, a music room, a shop building, and an auditorium.

In the wake of school desegregation, the city opened a new Melrose High School a few blocks away in 1972. The historic Melrose School closed in 1979. In recent years, the looming historic complex has been threatened with demolition, but the community refuses to let it go. Alumni hope to see the building renovated and repurposed in order to once again serve the needs of the community. No other institution more fully unites and excites the community than the original Melrose High School, with its proud legacy.

Today, the campus of Melrose has evolved to include the boarded-up historic high school, a playground, the Orange Mound Community Center, and the Orange Mound Health Center.

Today, the campus of Melrose has evolved to include the boarded-up historic high school, a playground, the Orange Mound Community Center, and the Orange Mound Health Center.

On Saturday, May 2nd, Orange Mound kicks off its 125th anniversary celebration with a ceremony that will include many guest speakers and a procession of respected matriarchs and patriarchs escorted by the community’s youngest generation. The idea that the past can inform the present is deeply felt by the elder generation, which wishes not only to recognize Orange Mound’s rich history, but also to inspire the neighborhood’s youth. At the CHP’s most recent visit, the planning committee explained that the purpose of the celebration is to honor Orange Mound’s past achievements and to attract much-needed public and private resources back to the community.

What: Official Kick-Off Celebration for Orange Mound’s 125th Anniversary

Where: Melrose High School Auditorium, 2870 Deadrick Ave, Memphis, TN 38114

When: May 2, 2015, 12:00 PM

See Also:

Charles Williams, African American Life and Culture in Orange Mound: Case Study of a Black Community in Memphis, Tennessee, 1890–1980 (Lexington Books, 2013).

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Real-Life Applications: Using Primary Sources to Teach Math

By Brittany Wickham Walker, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

I recently had the opportunity to present at a workshop with my colleagues from Teaching with Primary Sources–MTSU. The workshop, “Using Primary Sources to Teach Math,” focused on grades 4 through 7. This was an exciting opportunity for me, not only because I was able to facilitate conversations about teaching math, but because four of my math lesson plans were distributed to the teachers and used to demonstrate how primary sources can be used in the math classroom (see Measurement Using Architectural Drawings, Calculating Perimeter and Area Using Architectural Drawings, Calculating Volume Using Architectural Drawings, and Geometry and Volume).

Math teachers hard at work finding the area and perimeter of a building.

Math teachers hard at work finding the area and perimeter of a building.

While writing these lesson plans, I found that the Library of Congress Web site offers far more resources for social studies and language arts topics than for math. Luckily, the Web site also has an incredibly rich collection of architectural elevations, photographs, and floor plans. Known as “HABS,” the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey is a collection of resources documenting more than 38,000 buildings since 1933. Although I used this resource almost daily while pursuing my M.S. in Historic Preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I never thought of incorporating the drawings and photographs into lesson plans. Luckily, Dr. Stacey Graham and Kira Duke were able to show me how HABS had been used in other lesson plans.

The math workshop was beneficial not only to the teachers who attended, but to me as well. The educators had great ideas for lesson plans to incorporate primary sources in their classrooms, which I plan to flesh out into unit plans or stand-alone sessions.

The entire group of teachers solving math problems without a calculator.

The entire group of teachers solving math problems without a calculator.

Why do we need to have primary sources in the math classroom? Why not just leave these resources for social studies or language arts teachers? Based on my past experience working with Teach For America as a middle school math teacher, I see now that using primary sources would have completely changed the way my students learned and how they connected math to real-life applications. Using primary sources helps answer a question that every math teacher dreads to hear: “But when are we EVER going to USE this?” Browsing through the HABS database can show students how math and architecture go hand in hand. Some students may not be convinced and challenge this with, “But I don’t WANT to be an architect.” At this point, just remind them that they’ll want to design their own dream house when they’re rich and famous. That usually gets the point across.

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Witness Houses and Council Grounds: Tracing the Trail of Tears in Tennessee

By Jenna Stout, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

The Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) is involved extensively in projects throughout the Southeast. One particular program at the CHP focuses on documenting and interpreting the Trail of Tears. Working with a number of partners, the CHP has developed interpretive trail markers, brochures, and exhibits on the Cherokee and key sites along the Trail of Tears.

When I first joined the CHP as a graduate assistant in the fall of 2013, I spent a semester conducting chain-of-title deed research on a series of houses. Located on Red Oak Road in Lincoln County, Tennessee, the houses sit along the Bell Route, one of the routes taken by the Cherokee during their forced removal to the West in 1838. Preliminary fieldwork had identified several houses on Red Oak Road that might predate the Trail of Tears. The next step was for me to trace the deeds of the properties to find evidence that the structures did indeed exist at the time of Cherokee removal. If so, the houses bore witness to one of the great travesties in nineteenth-century American history and remain a significant part of the Trail of Tears cultural landscape.

Researching deed histories at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) proved to be both a rewarding and frustrating experience. Looking through countless rolls of microfilm, I gradually grew acclimated to the typeface of past registers. For three of the Red Oak Road houses, I traced the deed titles back to the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, with each property, I eventually encountered a dead end in which the deed history grew murky.

This deed from November 9, 1911, transferred ownership of 189 Red Oak Road in Lincoln County from M.E. Whitaker and wife to C.E. Clark. Courtesy of TSLA.

This deed from November 9, 1911, transferred ownership of 189 Red Oak Road in Lincoln County from M.E. Whitaker and wife to C.E. Clark. Courtesy of TSLA.

Along with researching the deeds, consulting census records and inventories of estates helped me formulate some idea of the families and their possessions. The house standing at 189 Red Oak Road, for example, had a deed history that traced back to the Whitakers, a prominent family that had settled in the area in the early 1800s. While the earliest located deed for the property only dated back to 1911, county histories and records suggested that the Whitaker family had held the original land deed, which predated the Trail of Tears. A description of the “old M.E. Whitaker dwelling” in the deeds was the only mention of a house. Ultimately, I was unable to pinpoint the construction date of the dwelling, and no other documentary evidence pointed to it being a witness house. Although my research culminated inconclusively, we have successfully identified other witness houses in multiple states in an ongoing effort to identify historic buildings associated with the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in partnership with the National Trails Intermountain Region of the National Park Service.

Potential witness house, located at 189 Red Oak Road, Lincoln County, TN.

Potential witness house, located at 189 Red Oak Road, Lincoln County, TN.

At the beginning of this academic year, I found myself working on a different type of Cherokee history project: an exhibition at Red Clay State Historic Park in Cleveland, Tennessee. Nestled in the southeast corner of Tennessee, Red Clay served as the capital of the Cherokee government from 1832 until removal in 1838. It was at Red Clay that the last council meetings were held. Today, Red Clay State Historic Park preserves and interprets the historical significance of the grounds in Cherokee history. The visitor center houses a museum with permanent exhibits from the 1970s that will now be updated with new scholarship.

The current exhibits at Red Clay date to the 1970s.

The current exhibits at Red Clay date to the 1970s.

Last November, I accompanied a group of CHP staff members to the park to meet with rangers and look at the current museum interpretation. The park is off the beaten trail, accessible by a series of curving country roads. School groups are the bread and butter of the park’s visitation, so it was no surprise to see dozens of children. Once inside, it was evident that the exhibits contained solid information that could benefit from new scholarship and an updated presentation.

The CHP was asked to revamp the Cherokee government and politics section of the exhibition. Alongside Amy Kostine, the CHP’s Trail of Tears project historian, and Sherry Teal, a CHP volunteer, I have spent the last few months developing panels that place Red Clay within the larger story of Cherokee government, politics, and removal. After months of research, panel-writing, and editing, we are nearing the final phases of the project. Before installation, the walls of the visitor center will be painted in a more neutral palate. The updated exhibition will provide a much-needed facelift to the museum and is set to open late this summer.

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“We Shall Overcome”—The Music of the Movement

By Ethan Morris, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

Over the past two months, I have started to realize the limitless possibilities of the Tennessee Social Studies Standards. The standards cover many aspects of American history. If time were not an issue, a Tennessee teacher could cover almost any American history topic imaginable. As a graduate assistant with Teaching with Primary Sources-MTSU, I have the time and opportunity to design lesson plans about both Tennessee’s little-known history and America’s major historical events.

I have recently been working on a lesson plan that explores the connection between the music of labor advocacy and the songs of civil rights activism. The lesson plan looks at the role of the Highlander Folk School, now the Highlander Research and Education Center, in New Market, Tennessee, in bringing labor and civil rights activists and musicians together.

Pete Seeger, half-length portrait, singing while playing banjo [1955]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Pete Seeger, half-length portrait, singing while playing banjo [1955]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For the first segment of the lesson plan, students examine the music of Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. The students look at Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On,” written by Florence Reece about the Harlan County, Kentucky, coal strikes, and Robeson’s rendition of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” a song that details the life and legacy of International Workers of the World activist Joe Hill. Students then research the songs and their subjects to see which facts are left out of the lyrics, analyze the lyrics for bias, and examine the effect of the songs on American audiences.

After the students have sampled the music of Robeson and Seeger, they listen to an oral history interview with Seeger, archived at the Library of Congress, as he talked about his activism, the Peekskill Riots of 1949 (an anti-communist riot in Peekskill, New York, in protest against a Paul Robeson concert), and the song “We Shall Overcome.” Seeger initially heard the song from Zilphia Horton, the wife of Myles Horton, the director of the Highlander Folk Center. Zilphia had learned about the song from South Carolina tobacco workers who were on strike. With a few rhythmic changes, Seeger, Guy Carawan, and Frank Hamilton helped popularize the song.  Eventually, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy would hear Seeger sing the song at a workshop at Highlander in 1957. As Seeger remembered it, activist Anne Braden told him that King had remarked to her, “that song really sticks with you doesn’t it.”

; The Moving Hall Star Singers including Benjamin Bligen (third from left) with Guy Carawan (far right) at the Sing for Freedom Festival and Workshop, 1965. Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004)  [1965] (Event sponsored by Highlander). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Moving Hall Star Singers, including Benjamin Bligen (third from left), with Guy Carawan (far right) at the Sing for Freedom Festival and Workshop, 1965. Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004). (The event was sponsored by Highlander). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Over the years, “We Shall Overcome” has become famous and permanently connected to the 1960s portion of the civil rights movement. The final part of the lesson plan looks at the song’s ongoing relevance by having students analyze the recent fast food strikes to see that the songs, phrases, and tactics of civil rights activism are still connected to labor advocacy. “We Shall Overcome” is as potent today as it was in 1957.

The range of topics found in the Tennessee Social Studies Standards and the enormous collection of oral histories, songs, and photographs available online from the Library of Congress make lesson plans on subjects such as “We Shall Overcome” possible. To see the complete lesson plan, follow this link to the Teaching with Primary Sources-MTSU Web site. Also, make sure to explore the Library of Congress Web site for more stories and surprises of your own.

See Also:

AFL-CIO, “Joe Hill (1879-1915),” aflcio.org/About/Our-History/Key-People-in-Labor-History/Joe-Hill-1879-1915 (accessed March 20, 2015).

Highlander Research and Education Center, “Timeline,” highlandercenter.org/media/timeline (accessed March 20, 2015).

People’s World, “Today in Labor History: Remembering Florence Reece,”(last modified August 3, 2012), peoplesworld.org/today-in-labor-history-remembering-florence-reece/(accessed March 20, 2015).

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Educational Public Outreach: Fisk University Special Collections and Archives

By Marquita Reed, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

It is a Tuesday, and I am sitting in the second-floor reading room of the Fisk University Special Collections and Archives, working on a reference request. (As part of my graduate assistantship at the Center for Historic Preservation, I help to make Fisk’s collections more accessible.) I look up as a student hesitantly enters. The student slowly walks around the room, pausing only to examine the artifacts in the display cases. After a few moments, the student nods her head and moves on, content with what she has seen. Before the student can leave, however, the head archivist, Mrs. Chantel Clark, asks the student if there is anything she can help with. Shrugging her shoulders, the student replies, “I did not know we had this here. What exactly is this place?”

The reading room at the Fisk University Special Collections and Archives.

The reading room at the Fisk University Special Collections and Archives.

Clark, the Fisk University Special Collections and Archives director, says that this has happened numerous times since she became the head archivist. After only a few weeks on the job, she noticed two different things about students at Fisk. First, many did not know that Fisk University had a special collections and archives. Second, those who did know of the archives, assumed it was not a place for undergraduate research.

Clark set out to change this perspective. Within her first few months, she incorporated a student-outreach initiative into the archives mission. Working closely with professors, Clark began to develop assignments that would bring undergraduate students into the archives for research. In the past three months, I have had the opportunity to work with Clark on two of these assignments. This semester, Clark has worked closely with Dr. Katharine Burnett and Dr. Lean’tin Bracks, first meeting with them to talk about their course syllabi and course objectives.

For Dr. Bracks’s English Harlem Renaissance class, I was charged with creating a PowerPoint assignment that would help guide students in how to research in the archives. For this assignment, I gathered biography files, oral history tapes, reference books, and publications such as the Crisis and created a guide about how to access archival and special collections at Fisk. I created a sample research topic on writer, poet, and Fisk librarian Arna Bontemps (1902-1973) and pulled items from the archives that related to his life during the Harlem Renaissance. I prepared the presentation in a way that would help ease students into learning how to use archival material. My goal was to help students understand the benefits of the archives. I wanted the students to leave with a foundation for archival research and an appreciation for the material that was available for them on campus.

Fisk's yearbook, The Oval (1949).

Fisk’s yearbook, The Oval (1949).

The next project that I was involved in was with Dr. Burnett’s class. As a way to engage the students in history and literature, Dr. Burnett wanted to have the students work with primary material from the archives. Clark decided that a good way to do this would be by using Fisk publications. For this project, I pulled different years of the Fisk Herald, The Fisk Forum, Fisk yearbooks, and the Fisk Alumni News. Although the students came with ideas about what they wanted to research, they encountered some problems with lack of evidence, or they did not know how to contextualize the material. When this happened, I found myself helping the students analyze the evidence that they had on hand and develop new research topics or fine-tune their research topics. I found working with students enjoyable and discovered that they had more questions and seemed more engaged with working with the materials than they would have been just sitting in a class and reading about Fisk history.

One core principle of public history is that the public historian should actively engage the public. The outreach that Chantel Clark has started at Fisk University is energetically following that principle. Working with resources in the archives, students can learn valuable research skills but also new ways to approach history, literature, and political topics. The students did not just work with official records but were encouraged to work with material culture. These included photographs, yearbooks, newspapers, and student anthologies of poems. As an advocate of using material culture and primary resources as a teaching tool, I sincerely hope that this initiative that Clark has started continues to flourish and that more professors will join this effort and allow students to explore a wealth of cultural resources at their fingertips.

Located on the second floor of the John Hope and Aurelia E Franklin Library, Fisk University Special Collections and Archives contains a wealth of resources related to African Americn history and Fisk history.  These incldue special collection books, periodicals, oral history, archival collections, and Fiskiana. Mrs. Chantel Clark serves as Special Collections Librarian.

Located on the second floor of the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Fisk University Special Collections and Archives contains a wealth of resources related to African American history and Fisk history. These include special collection books, periodicals, oral history, archival collections, and Fiskiana. Mrs. Chantel Clark serves as the director.

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Bedford County: Muddy Boots, Cows, and the Places Preservation Takes You

By Torren Gatson, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

About two weeks ago, I received an energetic e-mail from Leigh Ann Gardner, interpretive specialist for the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area. Her enthusiastic message was directed to any student who wanted to venture into Bedford County to hunt for a stone building believed to be possibly a slave dwelling. After reading the first three sentences of the e-mail and seeing the words “slave dwelling,” I immediately replied and informed Leigh Ann that I would love to join her on this quick trip.

Leigh Ann Gardner documents a stone building in Bedford County.

Leigh Ann Gardner documents a stone building in Bedford County.

Only once our journey began did I learn how the  Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) had first found out about this location. The owner of the property had contacted our director, Dr. Carroll Van West, noted that the structure was old, and asked if someone could come inspect it at some time. Our journey to Bedford County and the town of Shelbyville was interesting, to say the least. I was in awe of the tranquility of the countryside. Rolling hills dot acre after acre of rich Tennessee agricultural land with accompanying livestock.

When we arrived at the landowner’s property, we began our hunt for the structure. We both knew that we were close as the navigation system (GPS) simply told us to “turn off the main road” onto a winding, narrow, dirt road. Immediately encountering a large yellow sign labeled “Dead End,” we quickly stopped the car and then proceeded to maneuver down the road carefully. It was clear that only one vehicle could (barely) drive down the road at a time. There were several clues riddled throughout the landscape that alluded to what may have once been there. The remains of a layered stone wall in the streambed quickly grabbed our attention. At the very end of the road, there were four homes secluded within the hills; each dwelling had signs clearly stating that they were private property. We decided to turn around and check out the farm area we had seen next to the road as we entered the property.

On our second pass down the road, we could see through a few trees a medium-sized stone structure. From the road, it appeared to be in excellent condition. The log roof appeared to be caved in partially, yet the building was a complete stone structure. Next to it was a 1960s-style camping home and what appeared to be twenty head of cattle. We parked the car and approached the area, only to be stopped by a locked gate with another sign warning off hunters. Leigh Ann decided that we should call the landowner and ask if we could venture onto the property to take better pictures and inspect the structure. The landowner answered the phone and was delighted to know of our arrival. He then gave us permission to get closer to the structure.

At this point, the real fun began. Immediately after walking onto the property, we looked down and realized that we were stuck in at least two inches of a mud-and-manure mixture. We knew that to reach this structure would not be easy. We plotted out the best route and worked our way through the mud. Our boots sunk deeper and deeper with each step closer. Once we finally reached the house, we both stood on old wood that was on the surface of the mud.

We had to venture through the mud to inspect the stone building.

We had to venture through the mud to inspect the stone building.

Standing in front of the structure, two things were noticeable immediately. First, this completely stone structure from foundation to walls was evenly proportioned, with one door and only a carved-out window. Second, whatever purpose this structure served, it was an old building. Leigh Ann noted that she wouldn’t be surprised if the structure predated the Civil War.

Could this wall have been erected before the Civil War?

Could this wall have been erected before the Civil War?

If you have ever had the feeling that you are being watched, that feeling suddenly came over me. As I turned to my left, less than one hundred yards from the structure were cattle mindlessly staring at us. Wherever we moved, they followed us around the property and made sure that we knew that they were watching us and protecting their turf. After we had taken several photos and made sure that we had captured all of the necessary documentation of the site, we attempted to retrace our steps back to the entrance of the property. Once out, we knew that there was no way we could set foot in the state vehicle until we placed our boots in the adjacent stream. We carefully lowered our boots into the stream and did our best to clean them.

Cleaning up after field work.

Cleaning up after field work.

The next step in this process will be to review the documentation collected and add it to the CHP’s archive for possible future use. As is the CHP’s policy, Leigh Ann told the landowner that she would correspond with him and share any pertinent information gathered from the visit. This is how partnership and collaboration often begin between the CHP and the community.

Although the trip took less than two hours, it was packed with informative insight into just how random, yet historically fulfilling, projects are that fall into the lap of the CHP. I have been at the CHP now for one official year. This trip afforded me the right to say that the CHP truly believes in the saying “boots on the ground”–or, in our case, “boots in the mud.”

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An “Oiseau Chantant” at Glenmore Mansion

By Noel Harris, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

The Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) recently asked me to look at the decorative art collection at Glenmore Mansion in Jefferson City, Tennessee. Built in 1868, the house served as the residence of multiple families and servants over the years. John Roper Branner employed highly skilled, formerly enslaved carpenters and masons to build the house. A vernacular, Second Empire-style house with Italianate elements, Glenmore evokes the spirit of the Newport, Rhode Island, “cottage” Chateau-Sur-Mer. Both structures include a multi-story, cupola-topped tower, shaded balconies, and mansard roofs. But, however similar to the Newport “white elephant,” Glenmore’s styling certainly speaks with a southern accent. Like many house museums in the United States, Glenmore is full of possibilities–and full of fantastic stuff from all different eras: raggedy stuff, gorgeous stuff, and curious stuff.

The house is gigantic. It has two main stories for living space, as well as a third floor that was never finished. The first two floors have almost sixteen-foot ceilings, and most of the large, square rooms open off a central hall. The house is so big that I was only able to document the furnishings on the first floor, including the hall, parlor, library, and dining room, on my first visit.

Glenmore Mansion, Jefferson City, Tennessee.

Glenmore Mansion, Jefferson City, Tennessee.

So many aspects of these rooms interested me, from the original wall coverings and the architectural elements to the book collection and the furnishings. However, one object inspired me to investigate further immediately. On a card table in the middle of the first- floor parlor, sat a little gilded cage with what appeared to be a stuffed bird sitting on a perch. Upon closer examination, I found a little yellow, feathered bird sitting on a perch decorated with artificial ivy. According to the museum’s docent materials, the object was a “Parisian” music box. I lifted the cage to see any markings on the bottom. I noticed that the bird was covered in a real feather coat that was coming undone and beginning to fall off. I looked into his tiny open beak, and, instead of a tongue, I saw a gear. Becoming very excited, I realized that if this was a music box, the bird was probably an automaton!

Singing bird at Glenmore Mansion.

Singing bird at Glenmore Mansion.

Automata are usually effigies of people, like harlequins, clowns, or dancers, but some are made to look like animals, such as birds and monkeys. Propelled by clockwork mechanisms, some play music, some dance, and some even write messages. They were usually unique and rare, produced for a particular patron. However, the Glenmore automaton seems to have been mass-produced sometime after the turn of the twentieth century by Charles Bontems, a “singing bird box” maker working in Paris, France. Bontems produced many different sorts of oiseaux chantants, set into jeweled boxes or placed in cages.

Calling card of Charles Bontems featuring the image of one of his caged oiseaux chantants. Courtesy of Wikimedia.org.

Calling card of Charles Bontems, featuring an image of one of his caged “oiseaux chantants.” Courtesy of Wikimedia.org.

Glenmore’s singing bird, when new, would have moved its head and tail, and then opened and closed its mouth in imitation of a chirping bird. Although the Glenmore bird isn’t able to sing currently, I found a video of a Bontems oiseau chantant that had been recently conserved. Rather than the tinkling of a standard music box, the bird’s clockworks force air into a bellows that is then forced through a small compression tube, like a slide whistle, that creates different notes. The sound is fantastic and quite natural.

Bontems's 1910 catalogue, featuring a caged bird similar to the one at Glenmore. Courtesy of Wikimedia.org.

Bontems’s 1910 catalogue, featuring a caged bird similar to the one at Glenmore Mansion. Courtesy of Wikimedia.org.

An inventory taken at the time the house was turned over to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities confirms that the singing bird was a gift from a donor in the 1960s, rather than purchased by the Jarnigans, the family that had lived at the house since the late nineteenth century. However, the object was chosen for the collection because it reflects the luxury of leisure time and the financial capability to indulge in objects of beauty and delight. Through my continued research, I look forward to finding more curious objects at Glenmore Mansion.

See Also:
Leigh Ann Gardner, “From Cabins to Mansions: Rambling Through Tennessee’s Civil War Landscape, Southern Rambles (Sept. 2014).

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