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Oaklands Mansion: Where Women Took the Lead

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By Lee Rennick | Photography By Erin Kosko

In 1959, a group of prominent Murfreesboro women acted when they heard that Oaklands Mansion was to be torn down to make way for low income housing. The elegant Italianate mansion had once upon a time been the focal point of a gracious plantation that encompassed 1,500 acres. These women were determined to save the structure and return it to its peak just before the Civil War broke out. They succeeded. Now the home is a museum and community gathering place that celebrates the diversity of Murfreesboro, while telling the story of the history of a home that is now a treasured landmark.

Saving Oaklands Mansion from Destruction

When the group of women who formed the Oaklands Association, LLC took ownership of the home and three tenths of an acre of the original 1,500 for $1 to turn it into a museum, it had been abandoned for many years, looted and vandalized. The City of Murfreesboro had purchased the land from the last family that lived in the home, the Jettons, in 1954 and had done nothing to it, planning to tear it down for more housing, a park and a community swimming pool. 

The ladies of the Oaklands Association began selling hot dogs on the square and having all kinds of events to start the repair of the home, first taking on replacing the roof and then windows. When they took ownership, the claw-footed bathtub that had been upstairs was in the center of the front hallway downstairs. The graceful circular staircase that wound up to the second floor in the entry hall had lost its railing and had rotted to the point of being dangerous to use. The grand pocket doors leading into the parlors had warped within the walls. And, the refined plaster walls were gouged all the way down to the wooden lathe underneath. 
Over a short two years, these ladies restored the mansion with the help of prisoners from the workhouse enough to open it to the public. In 1974, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Oaklands Has Always Really Belonged to the Ladies

When Sarah “Sallie” Hardy Murfree Maney inherited the land upon which Oaklands was built from her father after his death, it was in fact given to her husband, Dr. James Murfree. At that time, women were not allowed to own property. Her father, Colonel Hardee Murfree, for whom Murfreesboro was named, had not left a will, so his goods and possessions were divided among his living children by probate court in North Carolina, which is where he had come from originally.

After several years of probate, the Maneys probably took possession about 1813. The first structure was a one and a half story, two room brick building completed sometime between 1815 and 1820, as the Maney family is noted as living there according to 1820 census records. The bricks were made by slaves from local clay and fired on the property. 

The original part of the home eventually became what is now seen as Dr. Maney’s office and the room off the back porch that is set up currently as a mini museum with photos of what the home looked like before restoration. 

As the family wealth grew, so did the structure. A two-story addition was added to the west of the original structure in the 1820s. It was, researchers believe, of a Federalist styling. This part of the home is what is now the dining area and the hall with the curving staircase and a bedroom above.

The third section turned the original part of the home into two stories that provided space upstairs for a nursery, a boy’s bedroom, a girl’s bedroom and family dining space downstairs near the freestanding summer kitchen that was located outside. 

After Sallie Maney passed away in 1857, her daughter-in-law, Rachel Adeline Cannon Maney became mistress. She brought her own wealth to the family, being the daughter of former Tennessee Governor Newton Cannon. After this marriage, Dr. Maney passed much of the management of the estate over to his eldest living son, Lewis and his brother David.

From the fortune that Adeline brought to the marriage and Lewis’ business dealings, the couple were able to add the last section to the front of the home as it is seen now. This section was completed just before the Civil War began and they were only able to enjoy it for a year before fighting broke out. It contains the front parlor and the library downstairs, plus the two bedrooms above the front hall that were used for guests. 

The Civil War severely damaged the Maney fortune because much of it was tied up in slaves, forcing them to sell the property between the current entrance to the estate and Lytle Street for the creation of Maney’s Addition, a housing development. That move sustained them until after Lewis’ death. 

Adeline ended up having to sell Oaklands at public auction to pay her husband’s debts in 1884. It was purchased by Elizabeth Swope, a wealthy widow from Memphis. Upon her death, it was inherited by her daughter Tempe and son-in-law George Darrow. They were one of Murfreeboro’s first millionaire families. They made a few changes to the house, like putting in a door that opened between the family and public parts of the home. And, changing the name to Oak Manor.

Furnishing and Décor Unique to Victorian Times 

When the Oaklands Association was first formed, most of the furniture and décor from the home was long gone. Members of the families who had lived in the home took it with them when they left. Other pieces were sold to pay debts. 

As the museum has grown in stature and as time has gone by, many pieces original to the home have gradually returned. Now, about a third of the furnishings and décor items displayed in the home are from the Maney family.

“The original founders of Oaklands Association wanted to have the house look like it did when the last section was completed,” explained Manning. “They had all of the modernization removed. We have changed that in recent years.” While the home has a deep sense of the early 1860s, post-Civil War pieces have been added to the collection as the museum has received donations from various estates tied to the Maney, Darrow and Roberts families. 
Not having air conditioning in the 1860s, the house was built in such a manner that a breeze would blow through on warm days. Floor to ceiling windows were opened to the expansive front porch, allowing for what would now be called indoor-outdoor living. The high ceilings also helped keep the house cool. But, if it got too hot at night, everyone just moved into the hall where the breezes where the strongest. 

“They didn’t live as we do now,” noted Manning. “Furniture was always being moved around by slaves depending on how the space was being used. Tables and chairs were moved so much that many pieces of furniture are on wheels.”

Walking into the front foyer, the first furniture noticed are two couches, one placed on each side of the hall. These were hidden by the family in a barn under hay during the Civil War to keep them from being taken and used for fire wood. 

“Some of the furniture in the home was made by local craftsmen,” said Manning. “N.C. Hall, a local cabinet maker, created the plantation desk located in the corner of the family dining room.” 

A number of examples of hair art can be found among the décor. With the high cost of thread, human hair was often used to create individual flowers, and then these flowers were worked together into decorative pieces, wall art and even necklaces and watch fobs for men. Very often these were made from the hair of dead relatives as a means of remembrance.

One of Oaklands’ most recent acquisitions is a bed that came from California that was supposed to have belonged to Sallie Maney. Made from dark wood, its canopy was removed and large finials were added where the headboard and footboard were cut down. Part of a bequest, it is currently placed in one of the guest bedrooms to set the scene of what it was like during an earlier time when there were many beds in one room for travelers. 

“[Pre- and immediately post-Civil War] there was a system set up for rich white home owners to open them to travelers in this network,” explained Manning. “I do not know exactly how it worked, but it was similar to how the Green Book was set up for people of color [when they were not allowed to stay in hotels between the 1930s to the early 1960s]. Homes were open to travelers the family didn’t know, as there were no hotels at the time.” For this reason, the family’s private quarters were not accessible to these travelers. While there is currently a door between the two areas, thanks to the Darrow family, originally the area where the children’s bedrooms are located on the second floor had a solid wall. Also, every room had a lock on it, and the mistress of the house had the only key. Adeline Maney had to be adept in math, management and other business skills in order to manage the large estate.

Visitors were treated well, with a private bathing room having been built off of the guest bedroom where Sallie Maney’s bed is now located. Bathing during the time of the Maneys was much more primitive than today. First the “tub” was a metal circle with a small central indentation. Water was only lukewarm, as people of that time believed that bathing in warm water caused madness. Baths took place once a week, beginning with the master of the house and then moving down the line by prestige and age, ending with the children. By the time everyone was done, the bath water was on the dirty side. Thus, the old adage, “don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” 

Several displays of bathing equipment grace the bedrooms on the second floor of the home. The bedroom once used as the master bedroom houses a bath tub, wash stand and a primitive bidet. The room also has examples of a commode and chamber pot, which served at the time as toilets.

Still More to Restore and More to Learn

Oaklands Museum is far from a static piece of history. Over the years there have been many changes to the home, the grounds and to the story that is told. 

Much restoration is still being completed. “The mirror in the front parlor is one of our best pieces,” said Manning. “It was just re-gilded in 24 karat gold thanks to a grant from Deana Young and Mike Humnicky.” 

The museum has a program to adopt an artifact needing restorations, as well as parts of the architecture. To get the home back to its original grandeur, it will need more pieces restore, wallpaper replaced, doors painted with graining and much more. For example, there are still doors that were hacked with a hatchet in the 1950s that have not been fully restored. And, walls are always cracking and needing repair.

“It is a gracious gift to have these beautiful pieces restored,” added Manning. 

Besides continuing to restore and maintain the mansion, like many museums today, Oaklands is making sure they are telling the full story of the home, so there is a lot of research continuing to be done to tell the stories of all of the families who lived there and the slaves who served the plantation. 

“We no longer wear period clothing when doing tours because it is painful for people of color,” said Manning. And, they have spent an extensive amount of time working with historians and archeologists to insure they are telling the whole story of the home. 

There are no diaries or ledgers from the time of the Maneys, so the research has been slow. However, when the home was saved in 1959, Newton Cannon Maney’s wife was still alive and she share a lot of stories with the women who saved the home. Stories they saved. And, historian Shirley Jones was able to interview Rebecca Jetton, the last person to live in Oaklands in the 1980s, when she was living in the James K. Polk Hotel downtown. 

“We are thankful for the Christy-Houston Foundation for their many contributions to the Museum, as well as the community for 60 years of support,” said Manning. 

The space is transitioning, becoming more of a community event center that also shares the rich history of Oaklands Mansion. The parklands in front of the museum are open to the public from dawn until dusk every day. Those living downtown frequently stop by to say hello to James and his staff. And, there are days when as many as five community events will take place on the campus. 

“It is important for a site like this to be a community center and not just a house,” noted Manning. “A lot of people have given their time, talents and money to restore and operate this facility, it is part of the community now.”

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