Monthly Archives: October 2014
Does this ever happen to you?
You’re touring an epic cathedral, driving across a well-designed bridge or watching the ballet and you feel conflicted. You’re in awe of the grandeur, impressed by good design and beauty. At the same time, your heart feels heavy because you’re aware of a cost to the human body and spirit involved in the making.
It’s no surprise I felt conflicted, strange really, when I recently toured a well-preserved tobacco plantation mansion from the early 1800s while visiting Tennessee.
Cragfont mansion, named because it was built on a rocky bluff, is about an hour from Nashville and only a little off the beaten path in a place called Castalian Springs. This two-story 19-room mansion was an administrative centre for a profitable tobacco plantation, and a home to James and Susan Winchester and their 14 children.
The plantation’s engine was the labour of more than 100 African-American slaves who lived in row quarters on the property.
After the Civil War and with and the emancipation of slaves, the family was forced to sell Cragfont in 1867. It changed hands several times until the State of Tennessee bought it in 1958.
Today, the Cragfont mansion is restored and open as a museum to everyone. The grounds are also available as a venue for fund-raising picnics and weddings, and hundreds of music videos and scenes for movies are filmed there because of the beautiful landscape.
The slave quarters did not survive and were never reconstructed.
Our generous and welcoming tour guide, caretaker to the mansion for more than 32 years, offers us an extensive guided-tour of the mansion. We’re invited to wander the grounds, which include a lake, gazebo, carriage house, gardens and the family cemetery.
The experience got me thinking about plantation stories.
The story we hear of Cragfont is mostly about biography and greatness. The greatness of the plantation owners and the greatness of the mansion itself.
Winchester was an officer in the Revolutionary War, a Brigadier General in the War of 1812 credited with co-founding the city of Memphis. Cragfont, we are told, was the centre of Tennessee society and known as “The Grandeur on the Frontier.” Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, and John Overton all stayed as guests.
We learn about the mansion’s special architectural details. Most of the homes in Tennessee at the time were log cabins. This home is built of gray rough finished limestone, poplar, walnut, cherry and ash all cut from the surrounding forest. Its T-shaped design is a noted feature, as are the seven iron stars, anchor plates for iron rods extending from the front to rear to strengthen the structure.
The house features original stenciling on the parlor walls and is furnished with authentic American Federal antiques. Other original features include stippling on the stair risers and the oldest doll house in North America. The second floor of the mansion features a ballroom – the first in Tennessee.
Except for a mention about the “slave wall” – a stone wall made of rocks dug by slaves in preparing the ground for planting – and some information about Dave, an enslaved potter who made urns, the story of slavery is given a back seat.
I have to say none of the information got me thinking very deeply. In fact, I almost left the museum without thinking about slavery at all. Instead I felt lulled into an admiration for craftsmanship and design.
Those gorgeous soapstone windowsills! That beautifully preserved wooden mantel! Those antiques!
There was no real invitation to consider the forced labour of more than 100 African-American slaves that kept the home running smoothly and the plantation making enough profit to provide wealth and grandeur.
Yet a plantation like Cragfont could be an enlightening ingredient for good civic discussions. For starter, change the plantation story from one of loss to one of gain. Don’t focus on how a plantation suffered after the emancipation of its workforce. Highlight how the end of the slavery-based plantation system meant the freedom of 4 million people.
What about the use of plantation sites as venues for events? Some ask why people are still having plantation weddings at plantations slaves built. Isn’t that kind of insensitive and strange?
Others see plantation sites as more than a pretty backdrop but sacred spaces where healing and connection could happen. I read about a woman, a descendant of slaves, who planned to hold a reunion with other descendants at a plantation site where ancestors had worked and lived.
Even stupid questions tourists ask at plantation museums can become tools to better understand race and history. The web series, Ask a Slave, was born of an actress’s experience portraying an actual slave for nearly two years while she worked as a character actor at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home. The video series reveals shocking layers of ignorance of slavery yet invites laughter and encourages discussion about plantations and their part in America’s past.
One last thing, I wasn’t surprised to learn Cragfont is haunted.
Caretakers through the years have reported objects moved, candles lit, full-bodied apparitions seen and beds found unmade in the morning after things have been tidied and closed-up for the night. Firsthand accounts abound.
Country music entertainer Conway Twitty is said to have experienced the ghosts of Cragfont. Twitty was known for his interest in ghosts and the paranormal and he asked to spend some time alone in the home. After a couple of hours he left, saying things were thrown at him and whatever was in the mansion didn’t want him there.
Our tour guide told us he no longer wears his prescription glasses in the house because they’ve been damaged so often and it’s too expensive to keep buying new ones.
Sure enough, before he started our tour of Cragfont he removed his glasses and left them on a table.
I recently had the pleasure of spending a week in Tennessee, a guest at the home of my friend, Christy and her husband, Miguel. It’s wonderful to re-connect with a dear friend and do touristy things. And extra wonderful when that friend is an avid and knowledgeable collector of the most interesting objets d’art.
Some collectors squirrel away their items out of sight. Others love to collect but lack the impulse or energy to organize and thoughtfully arrange their collections. So instead they become clutter on a shelf. Continue reading