John A. Kirby
November 13, 2014
By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian
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.