Spend even a few hours in Franklin, and it quickly becomes clear this town has plenty of stories to tell. But while some of its tales have spawned bestselling novels like The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks, plenty of Franklin’s most famous — and infamous– residents still remain largely unknown. Here are a few of my favorite true Franklin stories that would make for a great book or movie.
[Matilda Lotz, ca. 1885]
I hope it’s only a matter of time before some bestselling author takes up the story of Matilda Lotz. Born in Franklin’s Lotz House in 1858 to master woodworker Johann Lotz and his wife, Margareta, Matilda witnessed the bloody Battle of Franklin when she was just six years old. She and her family hid in the cellar of the Carter House across the street from their home during the battle, and when they returned home 19 hours later, they couldn’t avoid stepping on bodies to get there. I can’t even imagine the trauma that experience must have caused her.
In 1869 when Matilda was 12, her father sold his house in Franklin, bought a covered wagon, and took his family on a 2,300-mile journey to San Jose, California. Once the family was established there, Matilda’s artistic talent earned her a spot at the California School of Design and then the French Academy in Paris, considered at the time to be the best art school in the world. Upon graduating, Matilda shocked her parents by announcing her plans to travel through Europe without a chaperone – That was unheard of in her day! Except for a few brief trips home, she remained overseas for the rest of her life, traveling all over Europe and to Egypt, Morocco, and other parts of Africa to paint wealthy patrons and farm animals. She was considered to be one of the best animal painters in the world.
At age 55, Matilda married an Austrian Count who was also a famous artist. After fleeing from Algeria to Hungary during World War I, she lost all of her paintings and possessions and spent the last years of her life ill and despairing because she couldn’t recover her life’s work. She died at the age of 65. Today, you can learn more about Matilda and see several of her paintings on a tour of the Lotz House.
[Tod Carter before his death, ca. 1864]
Hiding with the Lotzes in their cellar during the bloody Battle of Franklin, the Carter family had worries of their own. Their young son Tod, a captain in the Confederate army, had received special permission to come home and see his family after two years away – but when he arrived at his father’s gate and saw that preparations were underway for a battle just beyond the farm, he turned back to help in the fight. Tod mounted his horse, drew his sword, and shouted, “I am almost home! Come with me boys!” Shortly afterward, just 500 feet from the house where his family cowered in the cellar, Tod Carter was shot in the head by Union troops.
Hours later, Tod’s family emerged from the cellar and began searching for him. They found him still alive but delirious and took him inside, where a doctor extracted a bullet from his head – but it was too late. Tod died in his childhood home without ever regaining consciousness. Tod’s dramatic story humanizes one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles and helps us understand just how devastating it must have been for the families who lost loved ones during the fighting. You can learn more about Tod and his family on a tour of the Carter House.
[A.N.C. Williams (right) with sons Frederick Douglas and Ostranda Williams, ca. 1919]
Born into slavery in 1844, A.N.C. Williams taught himself to read, write, and repair shoes for soldiers while he was still enslaved. In 1863, he opened a shoe repair business in downtown Franklin. The business was successful, and WIlliams’ reputation grew enough that he was able to secure a loan to buy property on Main Street and build his own general store after the Civil War. Williams ran the store in the heart of downtown for the next 64 years and served both Black and white customers – a rarity in the post-Civil War South.
Williams played a pivotal role in the Franklin Riot in 1867. As Franklin’s Colored League marched through the downtown square in protest of speeches by two congressional candidates, violence erupted between the Colored League and white Conservatives, resulting in one death and dozens of injuries. Trusted by both sides, Williams was pivotal in calming tensions between Franklin’s Black and white residents and helping to find peaceful solutions to the conflict.
Williams also helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Cummins Street Church of Christ, as well as the Natchez Street neighborhood, Franklin’s most prominent African American community. When he died, his obituary was published on the front page of the Franklin Review-Appeal, and his funeral was held in the predominantly white Fourth Avenue Church of Christ so that there would be room for all the mourners. Williams’s general store still stands proudly on Main Street today and now houses home decor boutique Avec Moi.
[Sallie Ewing Carter, date unknown]
Sallie Ewing Carter
With such a rich history, you’d better believe Franklin has some great ghost stories, and one of the most famous involves a beautiful widow named Sallie Carter. Carter lived in the house that today is home to Shuff’s Music. When Union troops occupied Franklin in 1862, she used her charm and good looks to entice soldiers to her home, where she’d ply them with food and whiskey and convince them to share their secrets with her – secrets she passed along to the Confederate army. And Sallie’s spying apparently didn’t end with her death.
These days, many have reported seeing or hearing Sallie in her former home, including an artist who claims she saw the ghost of Sallie Carter sitting in a rocking chair in an upstairs room. When Sallie noticed the artist, she said, “I used to live in this house.” The artist, understandably, fled.
Employees at Shuff’s have also pointed out to me a handprint on one of the old window panes over the front door that they believe belonged to Sallie. They say no matter how many times they wash the window, the print always comes back.
Now that’s a haunting tale to remember! Shuff’s employees are more than happy to share more ghostly happenings in the home with you when you stop by their shop in downtown Franklin at 118 3rd Avenue North.
[Jimmy Gentry (middle) with his brother Bobby (right) and a friend, ca. 1930s. This photo is featured on the cover of Gentry’s book, An American Life.]
Franklin is currently mourning the death of Jimmy Gentry, best known these days as the owner of the popular Gentry Farm, the destination of choice in autumn for families looking for a pumpkin patch and farm activities for their kids.
But Gentry’s personal history could easily be turned into a bestselling novel or even a movie. Gentry grew up in Franklin during the Depression. When his father died, he and his brothers did what they had to do to survive, hunting, fishing, and trapping wild game in order to eat.
As a young man, Gentry enlisted in the army and served with the 42nd Infantry Division in World War II, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and then marching across Europe, where his unit happened upon a prison camp that had been abandoned by the Germans – a sight they weren’t expecting. It was the Dachau concentration camp, and it was filled with malnourished Jews as well as hundreds of bodies piled up in boxcars and beside gas chambers. Until they came across the concentration camp, the soldiers had no idea the camps even existed. They were horrified to discover that civilians had been murdered because of their heritage and religion. Along with the other soldiers in his division, Gentry liberated the camp. He didn’t speak about what he’d seen until several decades later when he met one of the camp’s survivors, and the two reminisced about their experiences. Gentry found the experience to be healing and later wrote and published a book about his life that included his wartime experiences.
After the war, Gentry married his high school sweetheart and settled into life as a high school coach and owner of the farm his great grandfather originally bought back in 1848. When I interviewed Jimmy Gentry back in the early 2000s, he was busy trying – and often succeeding– to buy back his 1868 house’s original furnishings from distant family members. He was also running a day camp each summer to teach kids the old-fashioned skills he enjoyed back in his youth, like fishing, learning about plants and animals, and playing outside. Jimmy Gentry died in April of 2022 at the age of 96. Gentry Farm is still run by the Gentry family and is open to the public each autumn.
[Ruth Gaylor’s previous home and Franklin’s Green Book House located on 253 Natchez St.]
An Academy Award-winning film led local preservationists to this next story, which was hiding in plain sight in the heart of Franklin’s Natchez Street community. Written about a Jim Crow-era guide book that listed homes across the United States where traveling African Americans could stop for food, shelter, and other services, Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2019. When preservationists here in Franklin looked up local showtimes for the movie, they discovered to their surprise, that one of the homes from the original Green Book was located at 253 Natchez Street. The house had belonged to a Franklin woman named Ruth Gaylor and was known as ‘Mrs. E.B. Gaylor’s Guest House’ from 1956 to 1961. Genealogist Paulette Johnson even managed to find a copy of the book, listing the local address. It turned out that Gaylor had once owned the home with her husband, Ephraim. She added a spare bedroom with a separate entrance and listed the house in the Green Book under her name.
The preservationists soon discovered that the house was still standing but was slated to be torn down by the church next door. After appealing to the church, they managed to save the home and erect a historical marker in the front yard titled Franklin’s Green Book Entry. ‘At the time,’ the marker reads, ‘there were thousands of “sundown towns” where African Americans were legally barred from spending the night there at all. This book provided a guide to hotels and restaurants that would accept their business, often ones established especially for the black customer.’
Today, Williamson County’s African American Heritage Society, in partnership with Shorter Chapel and MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation, is working on plans to restore the home to its former glory. And this particular story is about to get its due — Local historian Thelma Battle has a book in the works that will share even more about Ruth Gaylor’s Green Book guest house.
[Jimmy Maupin’s handwriting, as seen today on the wall at Gray’s on Main]
Ruth Gaylor proves the story of ‘ordinary’ citizens can sometimes end up being extraordinary – Such is also the case for Jimmy Maupin. From 1961 until 1975, Maupin was an employee at Gray Drug Company on Franklin’s Main Street – You can still see the iconic pharmacy sign outside the building today, which now houses the popular restaurant Gray’s on Main.
While Maupin was employed at the pharmacy, he kept a timeline of his life on an upstairs wall, charting important events like his children’s birthdays, family vacations, the purchase of a new car, and the day a man walked on the moon.
When new owners began renovating the building in 2012, Maupin was 89 and nearing death. He sent a family member to ask the owners to leave Maupin’s diary on the wall. They agreed to the unusual request, and Maupin was able to die in peace. Today, you can still see his timeline on the upstairs wall, in the back stairwell. There’s something so poignant about reading the milestones in an ordinary husband and father’s life, and I can definitely see a Hallmark movie script in this story somewhere!
[The Old, Old Jail (112 Bridge St.), Williamson County’s third jail from 1941 until 1970 and, presumably, the jail from which Rabbit Veach escaped police custody. Today, the Old, Old Jail is home to the Lehew Magid Big House for Historic Preservation.]
Clayton ‘Rabbit’ Veach
Perhaps Williamson County’s most notorious resident was Clayton ‘Rabbit’ Veach, a prolific car thief and escape artist who managed to escape from police custody so many times that he became a local icon.
Why did Rabbit Veach steal so many cars? Reporter Bill Kovach may have found the answer – Veach told him that back in the 1950s, he’d witnessed the drowning death of his brother when the two were teenagers. Veach said he’d been getting in trouble ever since, sometimes hoping as he stole cars that an officer would shoot and kill him.
Although Veach stole countless cars and made many dramatic escapes over a 25-year period, he was so charismatic and good-natured that his antics often amused the public, and ‘Run, Rabbit!’ was a popular refrain. His rap sheet was long, but Veach was never violent, and when caught, he always paid his court and attorney fees in full. Veach made at least seven escapes from police custody and even more attempts – At one point, he got his head stuck in a small window of his jail cell and had to be removed by the fire department! Another time, he made what looked like a gun from milk cartons and black shoe polish and used it to escape his cell when a guard brought him breakfast the next morning.
In 1978, Veach went on trial a final time, accused of being a career criminal. Facing a life sentence, he made yet another escape by walking right out of the courtroom when the jury left to deliberate! The next time he was caught, Veach was sentenced to life in prison, and when paroled, he decided his decades-long crime spree was finally over. Veach lived peaceably in a Nashville apartment until his death in 2016.
Historical Photos Courtesy of Rick Warwick and the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County.