[Featured Image: Franklin’s Main Street, ca. 1925. Photo courtesy of Rick Warwick and the Historical Society of Williamson County.]
The turn of the calendar to 2024 is a milestone for Franklin and Williamson County: both are celebrating 225th birthdays this year. A lot has changed since 1799, when among the first new laws passed was the requirement of each resident to harvest animal pelts as part of the community pest control effort, and a wolf(!) carried a special bounty.
Having chronicled the tales of our local history for the past two decades, I learned quite a bit when researching and writing the coffee table book HISTORIC FRANKLIN: Along the Harpeth, which was released last summer. The breadth of our story is truly incredible, on so many fronts.
While Franklin was the western frontier of the nation in the late 18th century for colonists, eras of native populations had called this area home for 14,000 years or more. Archaeological evidence indicates that at times the census of Native Americans was higher than our population today. Sites such as the Glass Mounds near Westhaven (where others were excavated in the 1870s for the Smithsonian), Old Town on Old Natchez Trace, the Stone Box Indian Site off of Franklin Road, and the five mounds in Brentwood’s Primm Park are among the landmarks, all of which are worth visiting.
What’s in a Name
Abram Maury, who laid out the town of Franklin with 192 lots offered at $10 each, planned to call it Marthasville, in honor of his wife. She would hear nothing of it, insisting that it be named in honor of one of the nation’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, instead. Fun fact: Franklin is the most common city name in America, with 28 of them just edging out Clinton, Madison, and Washington with 27 each.
Early Franklin played host to an astonishing number of nationally significant figures. Andrew Jackson, Thomas Hart Benton, and Felix Grundy—soon to become United States president, senator, and attorney general, respectively — were among the residents and frequent visitors. Jackson marched troops through en route to the Battle of New Orleans via the Natchez Trace, and a rocking chair given to the McGavocks by the Jacksons sits in the living room at Carnton today. Benton’s Manifest Destiny doctrine and Grundy’s impact on the American legal system shaped the nation we love now.
A River Runs Through It
While it is uncertain where the title came from, the Harpeth River that encircles Franklin has certainly made a name for itself. It was the floods that created fertile farmland in this valley and, in drier times, provided enough flow to sustain industries such as the Lillie Mill, whose silos still stand on First Avenue. Still, the Harpeth Navigation Company that set out to dredge the river all the way to Nashville for barge traffic learned that no matter how deep they dug, the volume of water didn’t increase.
Taller than the Rest
Constructed in 1823, the Hiram Masonic Lodge No. 7 on Second Avenue was the first three-story building in the region and, by extension, the tallest building in Tennessee. It is one of the oldest Masonic Lodges still in use in the United States. Seven years after construction, in 1830, President Andrew Jackson was back in town to sign the Chickasaw Treaty there, the commencement of the ignominious Trail of Tears and the country’s Westward Expansion.
[The Maury-Darby Building currently houses the Twine Graphics retail store.]
Main Street USA
While the first courthouse at the center of the Public Square was a log cabin, by 1807, it had been replaced by a brick structure with glass windows, locking doors, and even a cupola and bell. Main Street had established itself as a center of commerce, as well. A year later, merchant John Wright announced that he had recently returned from Philadelphia with wagon loads of fine merchandise, from fancy foods and ladies’ silk gloves to dishes, tools, liquor and cigars, and a keelboat. As the result of fire and progress through two centuries, Main Street as we know it today is primarily of the late 1800s Victorian era. The Maury-Darby Building on the Square dates back to 1815 and plenty of other antebellum structures dot our historic retail district.
The Mother Church
On West Main Street just past Five Points, the skyline is punctuated by the leaning brick belfry of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Built in 1834, it stands today as the oldest Episcopal Church west of the Appalachians. While the sanctuary was badly damaged by Union troops who stabled horses inside during the Civil War occupation of Franklin, its renaissance included the addition of stained-glass windows created by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The public is welcome to stop in anytime.
The Second Battle of Franklin
The November 30, 1864, Battle of Franklin is well documented, with its 10,000 casualties in four bloody hours, but the December 12 version is lesser known. On that day, the “battle” was more of a chase, with more than 5,000 Federal swordsmen on horseback chasing the Confederates back south through the middle of town. It’s hard to even imagine being a witness to such a scene.
[The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County’s History & Culture Center, formerly the “Old, Old, Old Jail.”]
The Jail House(s)
Bridge Street could have been named Jail Street just as easily; of the seven correctional facilities that have served the county since 1800, five of them were located here. While the town’s first jail was located on Third Avenue North, just off of Bridge, the second log-cabin jail was built on the corner of Bridge and Second Avenue in 1817 and was replaced after it burned in 1858 by a brick and stone jail on that site. While that structure no longer remains, two historical penitentiaries still stand on Bridge Street. The ca. 1905 “Old, Old, Old Jail” is now the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County’s History and Culture Center, and the “Old, Old Jail”, built next door in 1941, is the organization’s headquarters. The “Old Jail” of the 1970s was removed in the early 2000s.
[Holladay Properties; digital rendering of plans for the Factory renovation currently underway.]
Franklin’s Landmark Factory
In 1929, the Allen Manufacturing Company constructed the largest industrial facility in Franklin for its day, “out in the county” on the Nashville Pike—today, that is Franklin Road and an easy walk across the Harpeth River Bridge from East Main Street. The stove maker went into receivership during the Great Depression but was bought by the Dortch Stove Company and remained a manufacturer of stoves, and later mattresses, until 1991. It was saved from demolition by local preservationist Calvin LeHew and is currently undergoing a metamorphosis into a world-class shopping, dining, and entertainment destination thanks to Holladay Properties.
[Live music fans gather at The Park at Harlinsdale Farm every fall for the Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival.]
Champion of Champions
Across the street at Harlinsdale Farm, now a 200-acre city park, the Tennessee Walking Horse industry was born. No walking horse was more famous than Midnight Sun, who won back-to-back World Grand Championships in 1945 and 1946 and became the sire of five World Grand Champions. Harlinsdale was a nationally recognized breeding facility until 2007, when the Harlin family elected to sell the land under permanent conservation easement to the city instead of a developer. The ca. 1899 Hayes House and ca. 1944 Main Barn are undergoing restoration, and the farm plays host to a number of signature events, such as the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival each September.
[The “March to Freedom” statue was first unveiled in October 2021.]
The Fuller Story
Surrounding the monument at the center of the Square known as Chip (his hat was broken during installation in 1899) are a number of new elements that tell the rest of the story of Franklin’s complicated past: humans were bought and sold at the Market House; the U.S. Army cannon that guard the four cardinal directions; the struggles of Reconstruction and inspiration of freed people’s triumphs; the Franklin race riot of July 6, 1867; and the truth of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), of which hundreds came from Williamson County. The crown jewel now sits in front of the historic County Courthouse, the bronze statue titled “March to Freedom” of a weary USCT soldier holding a rifle, looking intently toward the future, with broken shackles lying at his feet. On October 23, 2021, the statue was unveiled to hundreds who gathered to mark the moment. At its base: Freedom. Liberty. Equality.