A Jewel In Franklin: The History Of Harlinsdale Farm
That’s how Clay Harlin and Jimmy Hayes describe Harlinsdale Farm. If you ask the Franklin families who use Harlinsdale’s 200 acres as a park, picnic spot, walking trail, fishing hole, and dog playground—we’d describe it the same way. Rolling farmland, old trees, a picturesque pond, room to run around, a stately barn; it’s the quintessential Tennessee farm we all wish we’d been able to grow up on.
A Family Affair
The story of Harlinsdale Farm goes back to the vision of W. Wirt Harlin, Sr. who came to Nashville from his home in Kentucky to see what opportunities lay ahead. His father had been in the livestock business, and Wirt had spent his young adulthood farming the Kentucky soil.
His first stop was to a tailor for a hand-made suit, Jimmy wrote. Wirt was a man who knew how to make a good impression, and he landed a job with a wholesale mercantile operator. He left his growing mark in the mercantile trade to serve in World War I. When he returned, Wirt married his wife Luella, with whom he had four boys. W. W. Harlin, Jr.—Bill—was the first-born.
Wirt had a successful clothing manufacturing business with his brother, A. F. (Alex) Harlin, called Red Kap. At home, Bill remembered “every family in the neighborhood having a cow, a pony, or a horse. Horse rides became a neighborhood activity.” In 1932, amidst the Great Depression, Wirt began to look at land in Franklin. His sons were riding and showing ponies, and they needed more room. And, as Wirt’s grandson Clay says, “He still had a love for the horse business, and he did not want to leave farming.” Wirt purchased a large land tract, on which stood an old house and barn. This was the beginning of Harlinsdale Farm.
Wirt met a man named Robert Campbell, who introduced him to a gentle horse with a smooth, four-beat gait—the Tennessee Walking Horse. As Jimmy wrote, “The endurance of these horses made them much more suited to the Harlin boys than the gaited stock they were then using.”
Wirt attended his first meeting with the new Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ Association in 1935 with his two oldest sons, Bill and Tom. From that day on, Harlinsdale Farm was in the business of breeding Walking Horses.
One of the most famous names associated with Harlinsdale Farm is Harlin Hayes—the farm’s manager for 44 years. Harlin was Wirt’s nephew, who joined the operation in 1936. With his assistant Philip Shirley, 25-year-old Harlin came down to Franklin from Kentucky and never looked back. It was the beginning of a family enterprise like no other—considered by Jimmy, Harlin’s son, as “one of the greatest partnerships in history.”
Alex joined Wirt and Harlin in the business, and bought an adjacent 100 acres of land to Harlinsdale, expanding the farm to its final 300 acres. As the only buildings on the property had been dilapidated, improvements began: extensive fencing, new barns, and the first round of Walking Horses—including the stallion No Limit Allen. This was a big deal for the Walking Horse industry; Harlinsdale had paid $1500 for a yearling, acquired broodmares, and set up the blueprint for a breeding program. Shortly after, they acquired another stallion, Gold Bond.
Harlin described the beginning years in the Walking Horse industry as a level playing field: “All the breeders and trainers were still learning and formulating their breeding and training ideas.” As interest in Walking Horses increased in the late thirties, horse shows were no longer dominated by gaited classes. Harlinsdale was an active player, and in 1939, had several horses exhibited in the first Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
Growing Up On The Farm
Harlinsdale was a very successful breeding farm. Clay Harlin, Bill’s son, remembers those early days well. “In the summertime, we would go stay with my grandfather—who I admired and loved deeply—for a couple of weeks on end. My sister, brother, and I would venture around the farm. It was just a great environment to grow up in.”
Around the age of 11, Clay began taking the Interurban bus from his family’s home in Nashville to Franklin to work. “I called it working,” Clay laughs. “They tolerated me hanging around.” The breeding farm was eye-opening for young Clay, who, now in his 60s, plays a huge role in the preservation of the property. His first job was to bring hot water to the breeding barn.
He also held the role of “runner”—the guy they’d send out to get behind the mares and bring them in from the fields. “You’d be running around 15 or 30 acres to move the mares… that was quite a chore,” he says. As he got older, Clay grew into new roles: picking up hay and stacking it on the wagon (a “rite of passage,” he says), and handling yearlings to be presented in the sale ring. The farm averaged 55-60 yearlings in late June and early July. Clay would always get attached.
Harlin Hayes—his first cousin-once-removed—was a fierce leader, Clay describes. If he told you something, he’d only say it once. He was a man of few words, but—boy—those words meant business. “You had better learn your lesson,” Clay says. “If he told you how to avoid something and you got hurt, it was your fault. He’d always say, ‘Use your head for something besides growing hair or wearing a hat!’” Harlin was the resident Staff Sergeant, but it all came from a place of teaching. “You would do anything for that man,” Clay recounts.
Everyone on the farm worked long, hard hours. There were six houses on the property—including the Hayes House—which meant that many of the laborers both lived and worked at Harlinsdale. One of these was Major Buntin, who played a big role in growing the operations and became head groom (stable master).
Clay heard all sorts of stories from the older men he worked with. “You were just in awe,” he says. “They’d tell you about their childhood, growing up in the country, and working mules. It was a fun life.”
Clay worked for and alongside Harlin for many years in the business. He and Rocky Jones, Harlinsdale’s stallion manager, would lead the colts in the sale ring while Harlin showed off his expert auctioneering skills. Jimmy wrote that “some have described [Harlin’s] sale speeches as a cross between a classroom, a revival meeting, and a carnival barker.” He kept a whip in one hand and would crack it to keep his buyers following his every move. Clay, who was holding the horses, dreaded those whip cracks. “We’d go sailing toward the end of the barn!”
Monty McInturff, owner of Tennessee Equine Hospital and passionate Harlinsdale preservationist, was an aspiring veterinarian at the time. He came to work at Harlinsdale at 17 or 18 years old; it was the place to be if you wanted to learn horses. Clay laughs that he “taught Monty everything he knows.” Monty remembers seeing foals in the front fields every time he drove by. But, it was about more than just Walking Horses for Monty. Harlinsdale represented quality, integrity, and a pleasure way of life. A lot of people didn’t have televisions back in the early days; they went outside, rode horses, and worked in the garden.” On Friday and Saturday nights, folks would go to the horse show—just like they gather in community for a high school football game.
“The farm represents a way of life that’s being lost and needs to be remembered,” Monty says. Harlinsdale Farm has been a cornerstone of Franklin’s culture for over three-quarters of a century. It represents the rich history of Tennessee’s agricultural roots—founded on farming. “Still today, agriculture is the number one industry in the state of Tennessee,” he says. “To me, Harlinsdale represents the foundation that our state was built on. In the early days, settlers got land grants and planted crops. They grew and raised animals. The land in Williamson County—especially in Franklin along the river where Harlinsdale sits—is some of the most fertile land in the whole state.”
The “Unremarkable” Colt
The Harlin family knew livestock. With two popular sires, they were making a name for themselves and carving out a spot in history for Harlinsdale. But, Wirt and Alex wanted one great horse to really set the farm apart. They sought the counsel of W. H. (Henry) Davis, an early advocate for the Tennessee Walking Horse and considered by many as “the most knowledgeable man in the business.”
In 1940, a black stud colt named Joe Lewis Wilson was born in Viola, Tennessee. The colt’s father, Wilson Allen, died right before his birth. Knowing that the sire’s death would make the colt valuable, Joe Lewis Wilson was purchased by a local horseman for $300. According to Jimmy’s writing, legendary Walking Horse trainer Wallace Brandon saw the black colt and remembered him as “unremarkable.”
Little did Wallace know that the colt would turn into a champion.
In 1943, Henry Davis saw Joe Lewis Wilson for the first time, thanks to trainer Winston Wiser. Davis was quoted saying, “I had never seen a more honest, true Walking Horse.” Harlinsdale purchased the horse for $4,400, renaming him Midnight Sun.
Sun’s Many Sons
Midnight Sun went on to achieve enormous success. He became the World Champion of The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in 1945 and 1946. Jimmy wrote, “When he did the running walk, Midnight Sun has been described as ‘flowing like a powerful river.’ Every step he took was calculated, deliberate, and just like the last one.” The stallion was all black—not a single white hair—with a long tail and an affinity for kids.
Midnight Sun met his personality match when Fred “Red” Laws took over the role of head groom. Red, whose father was a harness horse groom, knew exactly how to handle the black stallion. Red became Midnight’s personal handler and friend—caring for the horse with tenderness and wisdom. Their bond was undeniable. Others around them would swear that Red and Midnight could read each other’s minds. “Throughout Midnight Sun’s life, Red Laws was his greatest fan, defender, and protector. It was truly a match made in heaven,” Jimmy wrote.
By the mid-1940s, Harlinsdale’s strong breeding program turned brilliant with the addition of the champion black horse. Midnight Sun’s fame grew, and his breeding services were in high demand. Midnight Sun’s colts slowly took over the Walking Horse breed. In 22 years of breeding, Midnight Sun sired 2,000 colts. His sons went on to become legendary sires themselves, producing champions and winners with every new crop of yearlings. Today, 90% of Tennessee Walking Horses can be traced back to Midnight Sun. He has been called “The Horse of the Century,” earning Harlinsdale the title of “Mother Church of the Walking Horse World.”
Making A Change
In 1980, Harlin Hayes passed away after two bouts with cancer. His loss was devastating to the Walking Horse world, and was chronicled in every major equine publication.
Bill Harlin had grown into an accomplished horseman and took over the family operations from Wirt, who was in his 90s. Clay and Rocky were there to help. Clay describes those years as some of the family’s best, with a “stable full of stallions that were former world champions.”
But, the industry went through some harsh growing pains. In 1990, the issue of soring—inflicting pain on a horse’s leg or hoof so that they pick up their legs faster and higher in performance—came into the spotlight. Trainers would boycott their own shows. Clay had become the Senior Vice President over the trade industry, and was called up by someone at the Tennessean to comment on the issue. He described it with the analogy of NASCAR: If one driver does something illegal that gives him the edge, the other drivers would need to figure out how he’s doing it if they want to be competitive. Simply put: “The trainers and owners of the horses were really the problem—they wanted to win at any cost.”
Clay’s statement came out on the front page of the newspaper the next day. Overnight, things went south. “I was threatened, our business was threatened, and I was blackballed from the industry,” he says. He doesn’t regret it. “I was telling the truth. I was on that Executive Board for long enough to know that it was the one thing that was keeping us from getting bigger. But, it was not natural. It is very, very hard on the horses.”
A tender-hearted horse lover, Clay had to make a hard decision. “Over time, exposure breeds tolerance. I could not consciously endorse something that I knew was wrong.” It had been a decision years in the making. His intention was not to disparage any of the good men and women in the industry, Clay says—wonderful spouses, parents, and deacons in their churches—but this training method was an issue that, for a long time, needed to be addressed.
Harlinsdale was the first to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right. We need to change.’ Monty, the farm’s veterinarian for many years, says that we have to learn from the history. “Walking Horses have had some really bad things happen, but it isn’t the horses’ fault. Walking Horses are great horses. There’s no better walk.”
In 2004, the Harlin family made a tough decision to sell the original 200-acre property. The farm had become an albatross, as Clay describes. “It was physically hard and expensive to operate that caliber of a facility and make money with the horses. There were years when our yearlings could bring in as much as $50,000 apiece, but they lost value. It was not profitable.”
The city of Franklin was coming up all around Harlinsdale. While the breeding barn had been outside city limits in the early days, it was now nearly downtown. The farm was grandfathered in to allow animal husbandry for a long period of time, but it was an ongoing issue. Harlinsdale was courted by developers to potentially become a subdivision—but it was in the flood plains. The Harlin family came to an agreement with the City of Franklin, who purchased the park for nearly half of its value.
The goal was to champion the farm’s seasoned history while creating a space for the public to appreciate the beauty of the land. In 2007, Harlinsdale opened as a passive park for the community, with the promise of maintaining horse activity. “That was the deal!” Clay says. “It was hard for me at first. It was hard for my kids—the farm was their playground. I can remember driving down to work every day and thinking that it was the most beautiful view I had ever seen. I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Preserving The History
Harlinsdale is our city’s central green space as Franklin continues to grow. Monty and Clay are both parts of Friends of Franklin Parks, a nonprofit organization working to advocate for, raise money, and preserve old structures like Harlinsdale’s main barn and the Hayes House. “I’m thankful we’re preserving it,” Monty says, “Because if it was up to the land planners and developers, there wouldn’t be any of this left. To me, the farm represents a deeper-rooted history than the Civil War. The war was just a few years. Farm life has been our whole foundation.”
Harlinsdale is one of three most-photographed spots in our city, next to Main Street and Carnton. Monty describes it as a “jewel” that we need to appreciate. “Everyone that comes to Franklin needs to visit Harlinsdale and feel the open space. They need to see the pictures of the old horses that have lived there and learn the story of the horse—Tennessee’s own story.” His dream is that, one day, Harlinsdale would house a museum that could educate guests.
“The Harlins cherished their industry and cherished their community,” Monty says. “They were successful because they put in the hard work. Harlinsdale has taught me that good things happen when you work hard, and it’s important to reinvest in those around you.”
Giving Back To The Farm
Through Friends of Franklin Parks, there are always opportunities to give back to the park, which hosts beloved annual events like Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, Franklin Polo Academy matches (including Twilight Polo), Raise The Roofs, and Family Day.
Twice a year, Friends of Franklin Parks hosts a volunteer day, solely dedicated to beautifying spaces like Harlinsdale. Clay’s plea? “Come help us paint fences!”
You can also get involved with sponsorship: The Hayes’ House, where Harlin Hayes lived and Jimmy Hayes was born, is being preserved “one square foot at a time,” Executive Director Torrey Barnhill says. Friends can “sponsor” a square foot of the home for $200. To date, more than $100,000 has been raised towards the $700,000 goal.
The best way to get involved with the Park at Harlinsdale Farm and its rich history is to explore the property. You’ll find an inscription from Tom Harlin in the concrete by the main barn, dated a day before Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. You’ll find the K-9 Korral Dog Park—a four-acre, fenced-in area for your pup to run freely. You’ll find walking trails, soft turf, and equestrian trails (open Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday). Harlinsdale has two stops on the 16-stop Historic Parks Self-Guided Audio Cell Phone Tour. Learn more about the farm’s history related to the Battle of Franklin during the Civil War by following the steps detailed on the two signs and calling in to listen.
With every turn at Harlinsdale, you’ll find a piece of history worth preserving and celebrating.
Want to explore more of Franklin’s history? Try the Midnight Sun Scavenger Hunt!