Nelson Kirby Farmhouse
An Architectural History
Prepared by Judith Johnson, “The House Detective”, October 2016
The Nelson-Kirby Farm House
The area along today’s Poplar Pike was high ground used as an aboriginal trail by the original inhabitants of this area. Over time, it was also the Cherokee Trace, Alabama Avenue, State Line Road, Germantown Road, and Poplar Pike. The trail began at the mouth of the Wolf River and ran to the present Gayoso Bayou to Alabama Avenue and Poplar Avenue. It traveled east on Old Poplar Pike through or near the towns of White Station (now the city of Memphis), Germantown, Forest Hill, Bailey Station, and Collierville. There it crossed over into the state of Mississippi along Holly Springs Road and on to Mussel Shoals, Alabama. Early settlers used this same trail when journeying to and from Memphis. Traveling west on Highway 57/72 to Old Poplar Pike, the route remains virtually the same today.
In 1818, the Chickasaw Cession Treaty moved the tribes to land south of the Tennessee state line as determined by a survey by General James Winchester. One of the earliest settlers in the area was Scottish abolitionist Frances “Fanny” Wright who purchased 1940 acres just east of the acreage where the subject property was located.
Wright’s Nashoba Community was an experimental project initiated in 1825 to educate and emancipate slaves. Located on the west side of present-day Germantown, Tennessee, along the Wolf River, it was to be a small-scale test of her full-compensation emancipation plan in which no slaveholders would lose money for freeing slaves. Wright proposed that, through a system of unified labor, the slaves would buy their freedom and then be transported to the independent settlements of Liberia and Haiti.
Wright left Nashoba in 1827 for Europe to recover from malaria. During her absence, the trustees managed the community, but by Wright’s return in 1828, her dream had collapsed. Despite the failure of Nashoba, it provided an example of a working utopian theory. Wright had progressive ideas of liberty and equality for her time, but the burden of leadership and financial hardship proved too much for the community.
The earliest European ownership of the land on which the Kirby Farmhouse was constructed was the state of Tennessee. The first recorded deed for the subject land is a 143.5-acre land grant deeded to Charles Dougherty in 1831. The next year the land was granted to Col. Eppy White by the State of Tennessee which in due time entitled him to a Land Grant. It is unlikely that White ever lived on the property, as it appears he bought it for speculative purposes. He may have farmed it, however.
Prominent Shelby County pioneer settler Colonel Epaphroditus (Eppy) White was born March 14, 1790, in Elbert, Georgia, and died at age 66 on May 10, 1857, at his home in Shelby County, TN. He married Martha M. Cox (1793-1873) on Oct. 26, 1817. They had six daughters-Louisiana, Amanda, Mary, Louise, Celestina, and Arabella, and one son, Orrin. The three-hundred-pound White was a colorful character in the community and a supporter of Henry Clay. He was also a Justice of the Peace. The Colonel title seems to have been honorary as in the case of Major Gabriel Bartlett, maybe it was a mark of respect for an innkeeper.
In these early years, White maintained a wagon yard and a popular tavern or coach house for travelers on the Alabama Road called White’s Station. White was named U.S. Postmaster of Pea Ridge (Germantown) from 1832-1834 which would make sense if he owned a stagecoach stop. Much of Eppy White’s personal and business history is lost in the mists of time. It is unknown when White moved here. He appears in Georgia in the 1820 census and does not appear in the 1930 Census in Georgia or Tennessee. By 1840, according to the U.S. Census, he was living in Shelby County and had twenty-six slaves. In 1849, his daughter Louisiana married William Blackstone and White gave her four young slaves as a wedding present. The 1850 Census shows him living in District 12 and his property was 500 acres valued at $15,000. At that time, he had thirty-three slaves. White deeded two acres of land to build Eudora Baptist Church in 1850. Later, they built White Station School on part of the two acres as well.
The location of his plantation in the Perkins to White Station area seems to have extended from today’s White Station west to Perkins Extended and the southern boundary was a little south of the BNSF railroad tracks. It is likely that Shady Grove was the northern boundary. Union forces probably burned down the house/tavern down during the occupation of White Station, which was brutal.
The area around Poplar and Mendenhall has changed considerably over time. Current Poplar Avenue was developed in 1933. Back then, Mendenhall was a two-lane road that stretched southward from Summer and dead-ended at Poplar. It did not cross the railroad tracks, as it does today. About a block to the east, another two-lane road, called Mt. Moriah, ran southward from the railroad tracks along Southern all the way to Quince. The two roads did not line up, so drivers had to make a “jog” along Poplar if they wanted to drive from Summer to Quince. Sometime in the 1960s, the city widened the roads and constructed that big curve that runs by the Half Shell, effectively linking Mendenhall to the north with Mt. Moriah to the south.
From the early 1900s to the late 1950s, there was a little train station at that intersection, on the south side of Poplar. The depot was White’s-later just White-Station. It was located at Mendenhall/Mt. Moriah, not White Station. White Station was originally called the Bartlett Road and stretched from Summer to Poplar. It didn’t gain the name White Station Road until the late 1950s when developers extended it south of Poplar to bring traffic to all the subdivisions they were building in that area.
After the Civil War, many of his former slaves settled in the area known as Truse-McKinney. This neighborhood was a little south of the New Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church at 533 Mendenhall, a historic African-American church. A historic African-American cemetery lies just less than a mile, as the crow flies, on Shady Grove between Yates and Mendenhall. This abandoned cemetery has former slaves buried in it judging by the dates on the headstones.
This section of the old White Station community also had a black school, Patterson Elementary, which would indicate there was a sizable African-American population in the neighborhood at one time. Since the suburbanization of the area in the 1950s and 60s, the black population of this part of Memphis has dropped, at least proportionately. Patterson Elementary sat right behind New Philadelphia Missionary Baptist and during its final years, the old school building was used as a haunted house during Halloween season.
Truse-McKinney remained a rare African-American East Memphis community until the 1990s. At that time, commercial developers bought the modest neighborhood and razed it for commercial development. Today the area is a Home Depot store and bounded by Eastgate Shopping Center on the east facing White Station so it is likely it was located on the northern part of that area by Poplar Avenue. White also gave two acres of his property to build the Eudora Baptist Church located at Perkins and Poplar so his holdings were extensive.
It is probable he arrived in the area in the late 1820s, began the wagon yard and tavern business on the Alabama road, and bought his land for a plantation. White was residing in Shelby County, Tennessee as early as 1831 according to Goodspeed’s History of Shelby County, Tennessee. In July of that year, justices of the Shelby County Court met and appointed judges to hold an election for Tennessee Congressmen on the first Thursday and Friday in August. Among those appointed was Mr. White. James Avery’s house was the polling place for the election. At that time, White was 41 years old and already a prominent member of the community. It was also the year he purchased the 143.5-acre Nelson-Kirby Farmhouse tract.
General (later President) Andrew Jackson was a forceful proponent of opening the area to settlers. During the decade of 1814-1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating nine treaties that divested the southern tribes of their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the West. Because of the treaties, the U.S. gained control over three-quarters of Alabama and Florida, as well as parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, and North Carolina.
In 1830, a year after taking office as President, Jackson pushed legislation called the “Indian Removal Act” through both houses of Congress. It gave the President the power to negotiate removal treaties with the remaining tribes east of the Mississippi. By 1837, the Jackson administration had removed 46,000 Native Americans from their land east of the Mississippi, thus opening millions of acres of fertile land to cotton cultivation. Between 1800 and 1840, a period when annual southern cotton production increased from 40 to 871 million pounds, yields per acre increased by forty-six to seventy-eight percent due to the introduction of new varieties.
As an innkeeper, White had a stake in the development of early transportation in Shelby County. He was a part of a committee to contract and supervise the building of a bridge across Thomas Creek on State Line Road (Poplar Pike). At that time, Stateline Road was a first class road and the bridge was to cost $15.00.
John C. Calhoun, Senator from South Carolina and later Vice President of the United States considered Memphis as a possible terminus for a railroad from Charleston to the West as early as 1831. Calhoun came to Memphis that year to try to build support in Memphis for a rail connection between Charleston and Memphis via Muscle Shoals in Alabama. Calhoun foresaw a day when slavery would split the North and South. A railroad between Charleston and Memphis, he argued, would promote Southern nationalism by tying the two sections together.
Reacting to Calhoun’s urgings, the leaders of La Grange and Memphis formed the Memphis Railroad Company and petitioned the state legislature for a charter. A charter was granted in December 1831 to the company to build a railroad from a convenient point within the corporate limits of Memphis to a point on the dividing line of the states of Tennessee and Mississippi in the direction of Muscle Shoals. La Grange lay on the most practical route for the fulfillment of this requirement of the charter. Scant information has survived the Memphis Railroad Company. It failed in 1832 because of the financial crash that year, a cholera epidemic, and, according to some observers, the excitement of the Presidential Election of 1832.
The railroad project was revived in 1833 through the efforts of General Edmund P. Gaines, who had come to Memphis to establish the headquarters of the Western Division of the United States Army. Gaines was a visionary who saw the military and commercial possibilities of railroads. He was convinced that Memphis’ location gave it great possibilities as a commercial center. Gaines began stirring up favorable railroad sentiment with speeches and newspaper articles and successfully petitioned the legislature in 1833 to have the name of the defunct Memphis Railroad Company changed to the Atlantic and Mississippi Railroad Company. However, his efforts to obtain financial support from the state failed.
Gaines, who was also becoming an ardent advocate of a national system of railroads and turnpikes for national defense, began arranging for surveys of possible railroad routes from Memphis to the East Coast of the United States. In 1834, Gaines ordered a survey for a route through West Tennessee, Northern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to connect with Charleston and Memphis. Gaines and his supporters felt that the South Carolina route, with its greater potential for financial support, was more feasible than a more northern route.
On December 14, 1835, the Tennessee General Assembly granted a charter for the La Grange and Memphis Railroad Company (BNSF). The charter named twenty-nine men from Fayette, Hardeman, and Shelby counties as commissioners for the company, set up procedures for capitalizing the company and defined its routes. Among the commissioners was Eppy White representing Shelby County. The capital stock amounted to $250,000 in individual subscriptions and $125,000 furnished by the State.
White apparently helped survey the route for the La Grange & Memphis Railroad in August 1836. The survey determined the best route for the railroad to be along the “high, dry ridge” that cuts across Shelby County from Memphis to Germantown, Collierville, and on to La Grange, a distance of fifty-two miles. White propitiously owned 143.5 acres on the proposed route. Despite the survey teams’ findings, they gerrymandered the route, which veered south of the Poplar Ridge in order to pass over John C. McLemore’s property in the downtown area.
In 1823, presidential hopeful and Memphis proprietor Andrew Jackson, due to a scandal regarding land he had promised his enlisted men during the War of 1812, sold his one-eighth interest in Memphis to his nephew by marriage, John Christmas McLemore. The property edged the banks of the Mississippi near where the Harahan Bridge is today. McLemore named the tract Fort Pickering, after a United States Army fort established in the area in 1801 and named after Secretary of War Timothy Pickering. It remained as an Indian trading post until after the end of the War of 1812.
McLemore deeded 208 acres of his property to the La Grange and Memphis Railroad with the understanding that the railroad would lay out a town on the land. One entire block was set aside and designated as the site for a depot. A Street one hundred feet wide ran from the depot to the river on the west and Bayou Gayoso on the east named “Broadway” and was intended to be a street and a railroad right of way combined. Today it is more or less E.H. Crump Boulevard. McLemore also owned the land east of Bayou Gayoso and granted the railroad a “right of way” (later to be judged an easement) over this property to connect with the railroad at the point where the railroad diverged toward Memphis.
Almost immediately, the new railroad began to encounter financial difficulties. Although the stock subscription sold quickly, collecting the money pledged for the stock was much more difficult. A series of notices appeared in the Memphis Enquirer and the La Grange Whig urging subscribers to pay for their stock. Later notices threatened legal action if the subscribers did not pay.
With the funds from the state’s subscription and some payments from stockholders, company officials tried to begin construction. In a notice in the Enquirer, Charles Potts, who had been selected chief engineer, reported that the company would begin receiving bids for the grubbing, clearing, and construction of all embankments and excavation of the sections of the railroad.”
Despite the economic drawbacks, the directors continued their efforts to put the company in the train business. On January 2, 1837, groundbreaking ceremonies were held for the company’s LaGrange depot. By spring, construction began on the preparation of 40.5 of the 52 miles of track between Memphis and La Grange. Some of the contractors, among them Eppy White, continued work on their sections without any assurance of payment.
In 1837, the state of Tennessee granted Eppy White his homestead. He sold his Poplar Pike property in 1838 to his next-door neighbor to the east, planter Wilks Brooks. Eppy White would live until age 65 and die of a heart attack. His widow inherited the bulk of his estate minus a few slaves gifted to Arabella who was still an unmarried minor.
The 1860 Census indicates that his widow Martha and youngest daughter Arabella were living in District 12. Then in 1862, the 69-year-old widow, Martha White married a 36-year-old Shelby County resident named Robert McKenna. They were married until her death of yellow fever in October 1873. It does not appear that there was a will filed so the property went to Martha’s heirs. Then within a short time, he remarried, this time to Martha’s granddaughter, Anna Blackstone, the daughter of Louisiana. It is possible that Anna had lived with her grandmother and step-grandfather.
Due to this marriage, in July 1874 he was convicted of incest by the Bartlett Circuit Court, and in 1875, he was sentenced to five years in prison. As there was no blood relationship, the charge was later dropped but McKenna’s troubles did not end there. He and Anna had three children and two of them died in mid-September during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878. He moved his wife and their remaining child, Maud to Louisville Kentucky to escape the fever. Anna died on October 1, and McKenna returned to Shelby County and fraudulently sold his wife’s property. He claimed he acted in good faith and there was no fraud involved. At about the same time, he ran for office and was elected to the 42nd General Assembly (1880-1882) but was prevented from being seated due to his morals.
The builder of the Nelson-Kirby Farmhouse, Wilks Brooks arrived in Shelby County in 1834. Brooks (1785-1853) was born in Pitt County near Greenville. His father was William Brooks, a county commissioner and leader. His mother was Sara Hardee Brooks, daughter of a county leader. Pitt County is located in Eastern North Carolina with Greenville as the county seat.
In 1823, Wilks Brooks served a term in the House of the North Carolina General Assembly. During Brooks’ tenure on the General Assembly, Captain John Rhem petitioned the Assembly to appoint militia to control “uprising slaves.” North Carolina County courts of Bladen, Carteret, Jones, and Oslow made allegations similar to those of John Rhem to justify their military callouts. The true purpose of the Militia was supposed to prevent foreign invasion and Indian attacks.
By 1824 fear of slave insurrection and unrest in North Carolina had subsided, but rose again, after the “Nat Turner Rebellion.” On August 20, 1831, Nat Turner, a slave and a visionary preacher went to his master’s house and murdered all the members of the family with weapons such as axes. The group of slaves grew as they traveled to nearby Virginia farms and murdered as many as fifty-five whites. The military tracked and caught the rebellious slaves and Nat Turner was hung on August 30, 1831. Turner claimed that God instructed him to kill all whites associated with slavery. This event sparked fear in the slaveholders of North Carolina.
The other event in history that probably contributed to Brooks’ decision to move to Tennessee was the growth of the global cotton industry due to the invention of the cotton gin. Now farmers could produce more cotton fibers to sell and the demand for cotton from England was increasing. The only states at the time that had land suitable to grow cotton were North Carolina and Georgia. Daniel Boone reported the lush fertile lands of Tennessee. North Carolinians needed more land to become prosperous cotton planters, they needed a port to ship it from, and the Shelby County provided both. Brooks’ twin brother Joseph had moved to Tennessee in 1829.
Wilks Brooks and his son Robert arrived in what is now Germantown and East Memphis area on October 15, 1934. Wilks was forty-nine years old and Robert was fifteen years old. Upon his arrival in Memphis Brooks purchased a 640-acre tract of land thirteen miles east of Memphis and built a Greek Revival style home called Woodlawn. He used native hardwoods on the property to construct the home and homemade bricks and nails. The inside of the walls were plaster fortified with horsehair. After construction was completed, Brooks brought his family from North Carolina in December 1835.
It is very likely that the rear portion of the Nelson-Kirby House was Brook’s overseer dwelling as the same building materials and techniques were used at Woodlawn. The Nelson-Kirby Farmhouse was originally a three-room, double-pen cottage of the hand-hewn post and beam construction used in the early 19th century.
The original façade was three-bay with a center door flanked by a single, six-over-six, double-hung window with original glass sashes. The sill and floor joist pattern beneath the house verify that the rear portion of the house was constructed first, with later portions added over a span of years to complete the existing plan. The two main rooms (12×12 and 12×14) shared a masonry chimney, had an interior door between them, and exterior doors opening onto a long porch. The modest wooden mantle in the back room has a Gothic arch design and is contemporary with the c. 1838-39 construction date. The smaller room adjacent to the rear pen opens onto the porch and is almost certainly an overseer’s office. Although remodeled, the original wood floor remaining in the office is wide-planked and consistent with early 19th-century flooring. The back two rooms have simple four-panel wooden doors in shorter frames than those in the rest of the structure. The small office attached to one side of the pen only opens onto the back porch, which would be appropriate for workers to enter rather than going through the family quarters.
Brooks died in 1853 and his will ordered the 143.5 acres on which the Nelson-Kirby Building stood sold and the property passed through several owners. The building appears on a Civil War map commissioned by Ulysses S. Grant. Thomas A. Nelson (1819–1887), a prominent Memphis businessman acquired the property in 1869. He enlarged the vernacular structure to its current size. Many of the elements in the Nelson Kirby House are Italianate including doorplates and knobs, the built-in cabinet in the dining room, and the height of many of the doors and windows. It is probable that he replaced the original board and batten siding with the shiplap siding found on the structure today.
Nelson presumably bought the property as a rural refuge from the yellow fever epidemics that periodically swept the city. In 1856, he moved from his native Alabama to Memphis, where he became a cotton merchant and president of the Bank of West Tennessee. Nelson supported the Confederacy during the war, and in reprisal for a Confederate raid in 1863 Federal authorities expelled him and other Southern sympathizers from Memphis and confiscated his property. Nelson later sued for damages over the seizure and in 1871, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor. After the war, he founded Memphis Oil, a cottonseed oil extraction company (1868), and the Southern Life Insurance Company (1870).
John L. Ebbing acquired the house in 1890, enlarged it, and added Victorian Stick-style embellishments to the exterior, including the bay window, porch, and decorative truss work before selling it to the family of the present owner, Walter Wills. The interior plaster walls were replaced with the bead board currently there today.
In 1898, John A. Kirby (1842-1929) purchased the property. Seventeen-year-old Kirby, a Virginia native was not married and had no children when he arrived in Memphis in 1860. His family remained in Virginia. Kirby enlisted in the Shelby Grays (Co. A, 4th Tennessee Infantry) in May 1861. He fought at Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, and later in the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, and Chickamauga. Kirby was wounded and captured on November 25, 1863, during the Battle of Missionary Ridge and imprisoned in hell at Rock Island Prison. The prison was located on a government-owned island in the Mississippi River between Davenport, IA, and Rock Island/Moline Illinois on twelve acres of this swampy island.
Construction began on the prison in mid-1863 and was not yet completed in December 1863 when the first prisoners arrived. Among them was John Kirby, one of the 468 Confederate prisoners captured in battles at Chattanooga, Tennessee. Over 5,000 total captured soldiers would swell the population of Rock Island Prison in that month alone.
Temperatures when Kirby arrived in December 1863 were below Zero degrees F. and sanitation was deplorable due to the overcrowding. Disease broke out swiftly, including a smallpox epidemic, which killed hundreds of prisoners in the first few months of the prison’s existence. The prison graveyard was next to the prison. In the spring of 1864, the bodies of dead prisoners were moved, a hospital was built, and sewers were installed. These measures improved health conditions tremendously and ended the smallpox epidemic.
In June 1864, the federal government ordered rations cut at Rock Island, in response to the treatment of Union prisoners at Andersonville. Malnutrition and scurvy resulted from these orders contributing to the death toll of Confederate prisoners at Rock Island Prison but Kirby was educated and received better treatment in return for his clerical abilities. There were over 12,000 total prisoners imprisoned at Rock Island during the Civil War and recorded deaths numbered almost 2000, almost one-sixth of the population incarcerated there.
On May 21, 1865, he was paroled after signing an oath of allegiance to the United States of America, which remains in the Kirby family’s possession today. John Kirby returned to Germantown and continued working in the grocery business. He married Eliza Brooks in 1870, the granddaughter of Wilks Brooks who built the original part of the house before the family sold it to settle Mr. Brook’s estate in the 1850s. A very successful businessperson and farmer, John Kirby lived in the old farmhouse until his death at the age of eighty-eight.
The Kirby and Brooks descendants continue to own the Nelson-Kirby House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. To ensure its continued preservation, in 2014 family moved the house and outbuildings from their original location a mile north on Poplar Pike to this location.