March 17th, 2015
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! What better time than now to feature one of Elmwood’s Irish residents. Sarah Hardin Murphy Leath was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States at the age of 18. First, she lived with her brother, a veteran of the War of 1812, in Decatur, Alabama. Sarah married James Leath and the two moved to a 200-acre farm near Memphis. Together they had two sons, but James died when they were young so Sarah was left to take care of the boys on her own. In 1850, the president of the Protestant Widows and Orphans Asylum approached the widowed Mrs. Leath to ask for a contribution. Understanding the problems that widows and orphans face, she donated 9 acres of farmland along Raleigh Road for an orphanage. On June 3, 1856, fourteen children moved into a new building on the property, which is the present day site of Porter Leath Children’s Home. Upon Mrs. Leath’s death in 1857, another 20 acres was willed to the home to start an Orphan’s Education Fund. The next year the Tennessee Legislature chartered the institution as the Leath Orphan Asylum.
Though he wasn’t Irish, it’s important to include Dr. David Tinsley Porter in the story of the orphanage. He was a member of the Citizens’ Relief Committee during the 1873 yellow fever epidemic. After Memphis was devastated by the yellow fever epidemics of 1878 and 1879 and lost its city charter, Dr. Porter was elected president of the taxing district, the equivalent of mayor. He initiated sanitary reform and built sewers, essentially preventing future outbreaks of yellow fever without knowing how or why. He served as the president of the taxing district of Memphis from 1879 to 1891. He was also a trustee of the Leath Orphan Asylum. He died in 1898. Dr. Porter’s daughter, Mrs. Rebecca Porter Bartlett died in 1903 and left a bequest to the Asylum honoring her father. The name was changed to the Porter Leath House the following year.
The trustees of the Porter Leath House erected a monument to honor both Sarah Leath and Dr. Porter in 1984. It is located in the Turley section and is the only marker for Mrs. Leath. Dr. Porter’s grave in Miller Circle has a monument that is quite large and impressive with a life-sized likeness of Dr. Porter.
February 6th, 2015
Leroy Pope is considered to be the father of Huntsville, Alabama. Born in Virginia, Leroy moved to Petersburg, Georgia in 1790 and became a tobacco planter. In 1809 he purchased a large tract of land in Madison County, Mississippi Territory, which is now Alabama. This land included the highly sought after Big Spring. Pioneer John Hunt had already settled in the area and built a log cabin about 1805 but could not afford to purchase the land. Leroy planned a regular pattern of streets around the Big Spring and named his town Twickenham, after the home town of his distant relative Alexander Pope, the famous English poet. Because of anti-British sentiment during the time period, the town was renamed “Huntsville” to honor pioneer John Hunt. Leroy successfully petitioned the territorial legislature to select his city as the seat of Madison County’s government. He continued to be a successful planter, was active in the early government, and was named commissioner for Planters’ and Merchants’ Bank of Huntsville, Alabama’s first bank.
Leroy Pope’s son, John Pope, studied law at Yale University then practiced law in Georgia. In 1817 John married Louisa Rembert, the daughter of a wealthy planter. The two settled down and John became a planter as well. They were married for 20 years and had five children. Louisa died in 1837 and by 1840 he was living near Memphis with his children and his new wife, Elizabeth Hemphill Jones. John owned a 930 acre plantation 5 miles northeast of the city, along Raleigh Road, which he named “The Oaks.” According to the 1840 census, he owned 56 slaves. He primarily grew cotton and employed innovative yet practical methods to increase the quality and quantity of his crops. He was one of the most successful and reputable men in the cotton business. John’s success was internationally recognized when his fine bale of cotton was awarded a prize medal at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. There were a total of 10 medals awarded, one of which can be seen at the Brooks Museum of Art.
Confederate Congress prohibited the sale of cotton to the North in November 1861. John Pope’s plantation held approximately $20,000 worth of cotton when the city of Memphis fell to Union forces in June 1862. In an effort to keep his cotton from ending up in enemy hands John, like so many other planters, burned all of it. He didn’t live to see the end of the Civil War though. He died March 27, 1985. John Pope is buried in the Chapel Hill section of Elmwood, along with three of his children. His wives and other children are buried at Raleigh Cemetery. Leroy Pope, is buried at Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama.
December 19th, 2014
By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian
This past Saturday, some graduates of our Stone College classes were invited to volunteer in the cemetery. Volunteers Lisbeth Redden and Maryellen Eaves, as well as former Elmwood Historian and Stone College instructor Dale Schaefer joined me Saturday afternoon to raise the monument of Benjamin Ward Avent. His cradle marker was almost completely sunken. Only a very small piece of stone was visible but we were certain that it was part of a cradle since all the other graves in that family lot had them.
The first thing we did was use a probe to determine that it was an adult sized marker. We used plastic hand trowels to clear the thin layer of dirt just above the stone away. Then we loosened and dug out all the dirt around the perimeter of the stone. Once we’d dug deep enough to reach the base of the stone, we used a long pry bar as a lever to raise one side at a time. The stone had shifted somewhat as it sunk and settled, so we realigned it with the rest of the monuments in the family lot and made sure it was level.
Finally we filled in the dirt in and around the cradle. We rinsed and brushed the dirt from the stone, but decided not to use cleaning solution. Since all the rest of the stones in the family lot have a patina, we didn’t think this one should be bright and clean. We did however use solution to clean the inscription on the front of the marker so it would be easier to read.
We have no way of knowing for sure how long the stone had been sunken and obscured, but now it can be easily located again. Capt. Benjamin Ward Avent served in the Confederate Army, as did his father, Dr. Benjamin Ward Avent. He later owned a dry goods store in Hickory Hollow, Mississippi. One evening while he was in his store, a man entered to inform him there was a band of thieves nearby who might intend to rob the store. Avent and a small party of other men armed themselves and waited, but the thieves never showed. Though his store was not robbed, Avent decided to track down who he thought was responsible for the recent thefts in his town. A man named Reynolds had previously been driven from town for theft, so Avent went to pay him a visit. Reynolds’ wife told him that her husband was not home, but Avent forced his way in the front door. Reynolds was in fact home, and ready to attack. As Avent forced his way inside, he was shot with a double barreled shotgun in the face and chest. He wasn’t killed immediately, but made it to a friend’s home where he later died from his injuries. He now rests here at Elmwood Cemetery in the South Grove section, and his monument can once again be seen thanks to our volunteers.
December 16th, 2014
The Anderson-Coward House, located at the corner of Coward Place and East Street near Elmwood, has strong ties to the cemetery. Almost every owner of the house through its history is interred here at Elmwood. In 1842, Mrs. Mildred Moon Anderson acquired three acres of land between the Memphis and Charleston Railroad and Pigeon Roost Road, now E. H. Crump Blvd., which were two of the busiest transportation routes for the city at the time. It is unclear when the structure was originally built, as possible dates vary from 1843 to 1852.
Though it is considered to be Italianate Style, there are some architectural features that are unusual of this style. It is possible that the original structure was built around 1843 in a simplified Federal Style. Mrs. Anderson, and her husband Major Nathaniel Anderson, probably added the Italianate Style embellishments around 1851 when the style was fashionable. Their listed residence in City Directories was on Union until that building burned down in 1850, so it would make sense if they wished to update the house that would become their main residence.
The home was designed in the shape of an L with the service wing forming the extension in the rear. The rear service wing may have been added in the 1850s. The bricks used to build the house were fired on site and are faced with stucco that is scored to imitate ashlar masonry. The features that make it stand out as Italianate, such as the brackets under the roofline and the caps over the windows and door, are elegantly ornamented.
This elegant, if simple, house is fitting for a man such as Nathaniel Anderson. He and his wife moved to Memphis from Virginia in 1823 and Mr. Anderson subsequently opened the City Hotel, which was considered to be the first true hotel in Memphis. Primarily he was a successful cotton broker and banker. He served in the Mexican American War during 1846. When he returned to Memphis, he founded the Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank, serving as the first president. He was also the first president of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, then known as the Businessman’s Club. Anderson sold the home on Coward Place in 1856 due to ill health and retired to his plantation south of Memphis.
H. M. Grosvenor became the next owner of the estate. He came to Memphis around 1845 from Massachusetts, established a business in furniture sales and became quite successful throughout the 1840s and 1850s. His success is evident in the large ads he took out in newspapers and City Directories. Grosvenor’s business suffered greatly with the onset of the Civil War and was further hurt by the death of his wife in 1864. He was forced to mortgage his house in 1866 to raise money for a new business, the Southern Carpet Store.
William D. Coward was a prosperous planter who mortgaged the home for $7,000 and took possession in 1867. The next year he deeded it to his son Samuel Holliday Coward, the lawyer who was the trustee for the mortgage agreement, for legal services rendered in obtaining the property. He married Ida C. Carroll in 1874 and during their ownership, extensive additions were made to the house including some infill of the L-shaped plan. By the turn of the century, Memphis had annexed what is now Midtown. The Coward and Johnston families gave in to the pressure of surrounding suburban development and slowly allowed their land to be incorporated into the city’s grid of streets. Coward Place was the old drive from Pigeon Roost Road and was once the only road on the property.
Upon the death of Ida Coward, Samuel Coward’s widow, in 1904, their only daughter Elizabeth Coward inherited the property. Elizabeth and her husband Richard O. Johnston, who became the president of Commercial & Industrial Bank, occupied the house throughout their marriage until Mrs. Johnston died in 1953. Then the property changed hands a couple of times, sitting vacant in 1955, until it was purchased by Dayton and Justine Smith in 1957. The Smiths are undoubtedly the most famously known of all the house’s owners. They operated Justine’s restaurant in a warehouse on Beale and bought the property on Coward Place with the intentions of relocating their restaurant.
The Smiths spent over a year restoring and renovating the house for the opening of the restaurant in 1958. Their goal was to renovate the house for commercial use while retaining the architectural and historical integrity of the building. Justine’s became locally famous for its New Orleans-style French food and was run by its namesake, Justine Smith, for 37 years until she retired at the age of 82. Since the restaurant closed its doors, the building has sat vacant. It was boarded up sometime around 2008 to prevent break-ins and vandalism, but the building is in serious need of repair and restoration. Hopefully someone will step in soon to give the house the attention it needs to help preserve its rich history.
Major Nathaniel Anderson and his wife Mildred Moon Anderson are buried in the Fowler section at Elmwood. H. M. Grosvenor is located in the Chapel Hill section. Samuel Holliday Coward, Ida Carroll Coward, Elizabeth Coward Johnston, and Richard Oliver Johnston are all located within the same family lot in Lenow Circle. Justine and Dayton Smith are within the Turley section.
November 13th, 2014
You may have seen in recent local news about a house that was being moved but ran into several problems. The process of relocating the Nelson-Kirby Farm House to make room for development began on October 27th. The house made a couple stops along the way due to a broken axle and a broken crankshaft on the moving truck.
The house that took 3 days to move was the Nelson-Kirby Farm House. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. The house was partly named for the Kirby family, several members of which now reside at Elmwood Cemetery. Wilks Brooks, who owned a plantation nearby, developed the house for his son.
In its history, the property operated as the area’s first polling place and post office, as well as the first place to obtain a marriage license. At the turn of the century, John Kirby owned and operated over 8,000 acres in the region and the Farm House was the headquarters for his land holdings. Kirby Parkway in East Memphis is named for John A. Kirby as well.
The house was originally located at Kirby Farms, located off Poplar Pike in Germantown, and now sits about a mile south of there. The original tract of land was so large that the new location is within the boundaries of the old farm. Though no one knows a definite date of construction of the house, the structure is more than a century old. It was probably quite simple when constructed, but due to additions by multiple owners, it now has Italianate and Queen Anne features.
Thomas A. Nelson purchased the property in 1868, a year after a Yellow Fever epidemic in Memphis. The house’s remote location provided his family with an escape from the city during times when the disease was epidemic and people thought it could be spread from person to person. John Anderson Kirby bought the farm from Nelson in 1898.
John A. Kirby was born in Virginia in 1842. He came to Memphis in 1860 to enter the wholesale grocery business. He enlisted with the “Shelby Grays,” the pro-Southern 4th Tennessee Infantry Regiment organized in Shelby County in 1861 that was part of the state’s provisional army before the Civil War officially began. Kirby fought at Belmont and Shiloh. He was captured at Missionary Ridge in November 1863 and spent the rest of the war imprisoned at Rock Island prison in Illinois. By the time the Civil War ended, he was one of the few surviving members of the Shelby Grays. After the war, John Kirby married Ann Eliza Brooks, descendent of Wilks Brooks who developed the farm and house where they would later live.
The land around the house was developed and sold off, but descendants of John Kirby have lived in the house since he bought it. John Kirby and his wife Ann Eliza are both buried in the Lenow Circle section at Elmwood.