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An Historic Home Full of Stories Under the Trees

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Story by Lee Rennick | Photos by Erin Kosko and Lee Rennick
Historic Sam Davis Home sits behind a stacked stone wall and iron gate, past a canopy of trees and surrounded by active fields of corn, sunflowers, hay and soy beans. Once an 800-acre farm, the Sam Davis Memorial Association (SDMA), a 501(c)3 which governs the property, still farms 98 acres of the 168 acres managed by the association with rotating crops. And the home, having no electric lighting, central heat and air or running water, is a true representation of life in the mid-1800s.

“We are so fortunate that so much of the original Davis personal property was still in the home when it became a museum in 1930,” said Jenny Lamb, Historic Sam Davis Home Executive Director. “So many historic homes have had their goods go away with family members because the house is used for other things before it becomes a museum. That didn’t happen here.”
Sam Davis Legend Drives Visitors to Home After Civil War
Sam Davis was a farm boy who became a “Hero of the Confederacy” during the Civil War when he chose to die rather than give up the name of his source of information on Union troop movements when captured by General Dodge’s soldiers. Because of his actions, Sam became a legend and not too long after the end of the war, Confederate veterans and people just interested in his history started to show up at the gate to the farm and ask for a tour of the home of their hero. Sam’s family let them in and began sharing his story and showing early “tourists” the family farm.

Oscar, Sam’s younger brother, continued to open the house to visitors until his death in 1927. In 1928, the family sold the farm to the State of Tennessee to create a memorial to the young “Hero of the Confederacy” who sacrificed his young life as a point of honor. In 1930, it was opened as a museum with a tea room in a half log cabin, half clapboard building that still sits to the right of Sam’s home and is now employed as an Education Center.

“The building is filled with looms and spinning wheels that we use during our Living History Days,” explained Jenny. They have two of these events, Days on the Farm in May and Heritage Days in September. On those days they offer live demonstrations of what was demanded of those working the farm in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including making yarn from cotton and wool; sewing; weaving; forging and metal smithing; and more.

The home has long been more than just a memorial to Sam Davis, however. It has captured a way of life that is almost unimaginable to people today. Because Oscar lived in the home up until it was sold to the state, little was done to update it. There is a privy, hand pump to get water, a detached kitchen and a smoke house all still standing next to the main home. One of the old barns sits near the caretaker’s home.
Home Set Up with Captured Moments to Bring History to Life

John Lamb, Museum Curator, is excellent at setting up “captured moments” within the home that look as if the occupants had simply gotten up and walked away. He uses oral histories left by Sam’s younger sisters, Ida and Andromeda, who were still living when the home became a museum.

Upstairs off the foyer staircase, in what was Sam and Oscar’s bedroom when they were boys, John has set up things to look like the day when Sam’s mother, Jane Simmons Davis and grandmother, Elizabeth Collier Simmons, packed up his clothing after he died.

“Because of the Union occupation of the area,” explained John, “she wanted to hide his things from Union troops. Union soldiers took a lot from local residents during the war.”

His mother kept his uniform from Western Military Institute, as well as his desk from the institute. The museum has his uniform in storage to preserve it, while his desk sits in the far corner of his former bedroom, set up to look like it did the day he left home for the last time.
Other vignettes tell other stories. In his maternal grandmother’s bedroom, where a photo of the woman hangs by the fireplace, there is a table set as if she were working on some knitting. The same glasses that she wears in the vintage photo sit on the table awaiting her return to the room to complete her task.

In the parlor, a game of cards goes unfinished and after dinner brandy glasses sit waiting to be filled for the gentlemen and the ladies enjoy coffee by the fire.

“Almost all of the furnishings in the parlor to the right of the front entry are original to the family, including the carpet,” noted John. “Because the home has not been modernized, you get the sights, sounds and smells that you would have experienced 150 years ago.”

In the girl’s bedroom, it looks as if the young ladies have been playing tea party before the hearth and their clothes are set out for the day on their beds.

The bedroom of Sam’s parents, Charles Lewis Davis and his second wife, Jane, is set up for slumber. A bed warmer is set on the ready to put under the covers to make sure that the couple are comfortable when they retire.

“In Sam’s parent’s bedroom is the handmade family cradle,” said John. “Sam was probably the first one to use it.”
Home Was a Place of Celebration and It Still Is Today
These scenes from the life of the Davis family remind us that children were born here, weddings were celebrated here and there have been many other events on the property.
Last summer, under the tall trees that make the property a registered arboretum, a group of Oscar Davis’ descendants came from Florida for a family reunion.

“There were more than 50 descendants from one of Oscar’s sons that came for the reunion,” said Jenny. “There were three or four generations. It has been 20 years since the last reunion, so many of the younger generation had not been here before.”

Davis family members have also gotten married on the property. Lenora Davis Beverly was married on the property in the 1950s and another family member had a wedding at the home in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It is a tradition that local brides are following.

“We do not have indoor facilities, but we have a lot of weddings out on the grounds,” said Jenny. “We have had some under the trees on the banks of the creek that runs through the property, where they are surrounded by meadow…When I meet with brides, I say ‘let’s walk the grounds’ because so many brides in the last few years have wanted to be married under the trees.”

Other brides have had smaller weddings on the veranda around the visitor’s center and some older brides having a second marriage have used the small reception area inside the visitor’s center.
The Creek House, which was built in the 1950s to replace the outgrown tea room as a visitor’s center and small museum, often serves as a place for the bridal party to change and have some refreshments, as there is a kitchen in the space. The wedding rental can also include opening the house and museum. These spaces give guests something to do while wedding photos are being taken.

“We have lots of weddings in the late spring, summer and fall,” said Jenny. “Last fall they were absolutely beautiful as the leaves were so vibrant.”

There are also a lot of brides who choose to have bridal photos taken on the property before their wedding day. There is a fee for this service and arrangements must be made in advance.
Grounds Tell More Smyrna History
“Sam Davis Home is such a unique place,” said John. “There are so many stories it tells. The Creek House was made of bricks from the original Smyrna Presbyterian Church that were made in the 19th century. This church gave the Town of Smyrna its name.”

Also on the grounds is the original home that Sam’s father lived in as the current home was being built. It was moved from Almaville Road where it was going to be torn down to make way for development. It was moved to the property in two pieces and currently sits at the back of the property. While there is a capital campaign under way to raise funds for the project, the home is in massive disrepair and it will cost half a million dollars just to begin the repairs.

“We’d love to restore it and open it to visitors,” said Jenny, “but there are so many other things that need to be done. The current house has not had an update since the 1960s and it needs a lot of work.”

In the 1960s, Sarah King headed the preservation work. She chose all of the wallpaper that is now in the home. While it is not a recreation of what had been in the house when it was turned over to the state, it is all reproductions of paper that would have been used in the 1860s.
“The entire home was wallpapered when turned over to the state,” said John. But now, some of the rooms are painted in solid colors.
Preservation is a Vital Function of the Sam Davis Memorial Association
Preservation of the home and many of the family’s household goods are a significant part of the mission of the organization. Clothing and other textiles, as well as household goods, are kept in storage and rotated into the museum that is located in the visitor’s center.

One large project was the repair of a carriage that was found in a barn. It is the only one left from the Davis family that is still intact. It now sits proudly at the entrance to the museum. Also located in the museum are pieces of clothing that Sam’s sister Andromeda sewed for her children, as well as a quilt that she made by hand.

“The family had money, so they could buy things ready-made,” explained Jenny, “but Andromeda had been taught by her grandmother how to sew and she did. Her maternal grandmother acted as a sort of Nanny to the girls.”

The museum owns a lot of items from Andromeda’s family. Both she and her sister Ida felt that donating items to the museum was more meaningful than passing them down to family. By donating them to the museum, they preserved a lot of history that would have otherwise been lost. Besides clothing there are old quilts, tables, dressers, beds and even an old sewing machine.

The Davis family didn’t just donate goods to the museum, however. Sam’s niece, also named Andromeda, was the museum’s first employee in 1930. And for many years the family was actively involved with the museum. They believed strongly in the nonprofit's mission, “Through museum exhibits, the historic home, preserved farmland and quality education programs, the SDMA imparts to its visitors the importance of learning about their past and its relevance to their present.”

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