The Stone Park of E.T. Wickham

There aren’t any guideposts at E.T. Wickham’s sculpture park. No historical markers or signs to tell the story behind the broken-down concrete sculptures that line a couple of rural roads just outside of Palmyra, Tennessee. But E.T. Wickham’s ancestors still live close by, and if you’re lucky you might run into one of them.

Enoch Tanner Wickham isn’t as well-known as fellow Southern folk artists like Howard Finster and Eddie Owens Martin. He has no equivalent of a Paradise Garden or Pasaquan to protect his work, which—although created around the same time period as Finster’s paintings and Martin’s psychedelic compound—hasn’t survived nearly as well. At the original site along Buck Jones Road, a few statues still stand, most of them headless and graffitied and defaced. Wickham’s descendants moved most of the remaining sculptures to Oak Ridge Road and put them behind an wire fence, which though making for not-so-great photos, makes sense.

The years—and the vandals—haven’t been kind to Wickham’s sculptures. When I first found out about them online it was the original statues I saw: standing tall and complete and brightly painted in vintage photos. Wickham made his sculptures throughout the 1950s and ’60s, using concrete, hardware store paint, and whatever wire and metal pieces he could find. His subjects ranged from folk heroes of the past (Daniel Boone, Sitting Bull, Sam Davis, Alvin York . . . ) to heroes of the day, such as the recently assassinated Kennedy brothers. Even Wickham himself makes a cameo appearance, riding on an almost demonic-looking bull. In its time the bull’s eyes were electrified with red light bulbs, but the vandals took those long ago, leaving bits of spray paint in their place. And the E.T. Wickham sculpture, like most of the other ones, is now headless.

Headed to the Wild and Woley West, Remember Me Boys while I am Gone.

E.T. Wickham’s inscription into the base of his own statue reads like an epitaph, and if I didn’t know better I might have thought that the bull-and-rider was his gravestone, but it’s not. That’s around the corner and down in a hollow, in the family cemetery. When we went there we ran into one of E.T. Wickham’s grandsons, mowing the grass around the headstones. He stopped and told us stories about carrying buckets of water from the spring for his grandpa to mix into concrete. And how Wickham used to live with his wife Annie in the old family log home across from the cemetery, but one day upped and moved to a little house in the woods. The family still doesn’t know why.

Wickham’s statues were something of a tourist attraction in his time, but after his death in 1970 they began to decay. Paint chipped away, vandals came with spray paint and sometimes hammers, with intentions to destroy or maybe just take home pieces of the sculptures. No one really knew what to do with them. No one really knew who owned them either, at least according to essays I’ve read.  Wickham apparently willed the sculptures to the Catholic Church, which, naturally, wasn’t very interested. For a while, the Tennessee State Museum seemed interested enough to protect and restore the site, but their plans didn’t work out. The statues were eventually sold back to the family, who are currently doing their best to make up for all the years of neglect. There is a website dedicated to Wickham and his work, and supposedly there’s a little museum in one of the homes, but we only found out about it after our trip out to Palmyra. It does sound like a pretty good reason to go back.

Posted in History, Tennessee | 14 Responses

Hey Rooster General Store

When I wrote about some of my favorite places in Nashville for The Simple Things magazine I knew I had to include Hey Rooster General Store. There was no question about it at all. Courtney Webb’s shop, housed in a mid-century building along Gallatin, is a warm ode to Nashville and its creative spirit.

At Hey Rooster you can find everything from food goods, to handmade jewelry, to home decor and pottery. There are regional publications too, including the always beautiful Home & Hill magazine (another big supporter of local makers) and  the Nashville-themed Wildsam Field Guide. Upstairs, Hey Rooster hosts craft classes and the occasional pop-up shop. If you go right now you can catch Fiber:Shop, dedicated to the textile arts. Disclosure: I’m selling my hanging air plant baskets there for our shop Auraria, but you can also find clothing by local designers Jamie And The Jones and Elizabeth Suzann, weavings by Shutters & Shuttles, a Sally England macrame wall-hanging, and more.

When I first moved to Nashville I was amazed at all the creativity going around. My sister Lauren and I had a booth last year at the Porter Flea and couldn’t believe how many jewelry designers, woodworkers, and artists there were. Nashville’s a great city for makers right now, thanks in no small part to independent shops like Hey Rooster.

Posted in Shop, Tennessee | 94 Responses

Nashville Favorites

History: One of the reasons I wanted to move to Nashville was because it’s so good at preserving its history. I wanted to see the plantations, the Civil War battlefields, all the little meat-and-threes that are still going strong. What I hadn’t betted on was that I’d fall for its country music history. Walks down Broadway and stops into Ernest Tubb’s has got me listening to all the old country songs I can get my hands on: tuning into Willie’s Roadhouse on SiriusXM, putting on Dolly/Loretta/Johnny Cash stations on Pandora. I still have a lot of catching up to do.

Roadside: The Loveless Cafe sits right at the beginning (or end, depending on which way you’re going) of the Natchez Trace, and for over 50 years it’s been an iconic roadside stop. What once was a modest cafe/motel is now a bustling tourist site, complete with that same cafe, food shops, and a music venue. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the biscuits.  They’re worth the wait. (and there will be a wait)

Food:  Nashville is increasingly gaining notoriety as a foodie’s town, but good vegan meals can be still hard to come by here. That’s why we keep on returning to The Wild Cow. It’s a vegetarian restaurant with plenty of options for vegans, along with a constant supply of cakes and cookies and brownies from Khan’s Desserts.

Sleep:  Disclaimer: I’ve never actually stayed at a Nashville hotel, but if I did I would definitely go to the Hermitage Hotel. At over a hundred years old, it’s easily one of Nashville’s oldest, and you can still eat dinner at the Capitol Grille or grab a drink at the Oak Bar. Both played big roles in Nashville’s social scene in the early part of the last century. Orchestras played and couples danced at the Capitol Grille, while the Oak Bar was something of a men’s club. Today women are welcome at the bar as well, and they can even get a peek into the old men’s bathroom. Which may seem like a strange thing to do until you actually see the bathroom—all black and green tile and art deco lines, it’s like something out of a ’30s musical.

Shop: Hey Rooster General Store is housed in a charming little mid-century building in East Nashville, and it’s a one stop shop for the best in local handmade goods and foods. I’m constantly amazed by all the creative people here in Nashville. Local makers create everything from jewelry to pottery, to cutting boards to candy bars, and you can find a lot of it here.

Museums: When it comes to museums I tend to like house museums best, and Nashville has some good ones. The Hermitage, home of  the controversial president Andrew Jackson, is beautiful and thorough, and doesn’t shy away from some of the darker moments of Jackson’s presidency. And I have a soft spot in my heart for Belle Meade. It’s the first plantation I went to in Tennessee, shortly after my parents moved here, and I have great memories of touring the house and walking around the beautifully kept-up grounds. I couldn’t believe how beautiful those great big magnolia trees were, and I still can’t.

Parks: Our brother-in-law sang Percy Warner Park’s praises long before we moved here, and it only took one hike for us to understand why. Percy Warner, along with the adjacent Edwin Warner Park, covers thousands of acres of hills and forest. There are trails for biking, hiking, and horseback riding, and even though the park is (deservedly) popular and always filled with visitors, it’s still possible to feel completely isolated and so much further from the heart of the of the city than you really are.

Posted in Favorites, Tennessee | 48 Responses

A South Carolina Museum Trapped in Time

The Story of Thornwell Orphanage, a short history written in 1924, portrays the the children’s home in “the beautiful little town of Clinton,” South Carolina as a peaceful spot, with attractive granite buildings and trees with “arms outstretched toward heaven.”  Each building is described in detail, from dormitories to the president’s home, to one located just down the way

Some sixty feet beyond, but farther removed from the street line, stands a two-story building of concrete blocks. The following inscription is seen over the door: ‘Thornwell Museum.  Memorial T. M. Jones.’ . . .  On entering the building numerous cabinets are seen. They are filled with rare specimens, shells from the seashore, rocks from the mountain sides, ores from the bowels of the earth, reptiles from the waste places, antlers from the wild forests, animals from the far away jungles, birds of rare and beautiful plumage, curios from the mission fields of non-Christian lands, and many other interesting and instructive things. And this is the museum.1

William Plumer Jacobs was founding museums long before he founded Thornwell. As a teenager, he made his own “mimic museum,” complete with all the books he could collect, some coins, and “autographs: all of which are valueless.”2 Over time his focus shifted towards the Presbyterian church and to the plight of orphans, especially following the Civil War. He started up Thornwell children’s home in 1875, later going on to found nearby Presbyterian College, both of which are still operating today. With a talent for raising funds, he was able to expand Thornwell fairly quickly. New buildings and cottages started springing up, and soon enough Jacobs was able to give Thornwell its own library and the museum he’d always wanted to create.

In its day the museum was impressive. It was done up in the Victorian style, with glass cases holding the specimens: stuffed birds and taxidermic animals, many of them donated to Jacobs from the Smithsonian. There were souvenirs and artifacts from missions trips to all of those “non-Christian lands.” Wooden sandals from China and woven baskets from Africa. At nearby Nellie Scott Library, Jacobs filled the shelves with theologic works and literary classics alike, along with a large collection of Civil War histories.

After Jacobs’ death in 1917, enthusiasm for the museum faded out. The building was eventually razed to make way for a new dormitory, and Jacobs’ collection was moved to the Nellie Scott Library, where it still can be found today. When my sister (who works for Thornwell) unlocked the building and took us inside we saw Jacobs’ glass cabinets and books under a layer of dust. Animal specimens, tagged by the Smithsonian and dating back to the 19th century, were sometimes rat-chewed and moth-eaten. Some of the books on the upper level were gnawed through by worms, and some, done in by age, would fall apart in your hands if you took them off the old shelves.

Some of Jacobs’ collection has been lost to time, but there are still plenty of things that have managed to survive in good condition. When I was there I wished that I had the permission (and all the time in the world) to sit and read the Civil War volumes and the local history books, because I know I’ll probably never come across anything like them again. William Plumer Jacobs had been collecting for most of his life, and his eye was good.

Posted in History, Museums, South Carolina | 15 Responses