DOROTHY DIX- TELLS OF WOODSTOCK
by Dorothy Dix
“How can one describe the place in which one
was born any more than one
could paint for a stranger the portrait of one’s own mother? So much of childish impressions, when home was grander than any storied castle, goes into the picture, so much of love and loyalty, so many tender recollections, that it all becomes blurred in a golden haze of memory in which it is impossible to distinguish between reality and fancy.
“So is Woodstock to me. The old home. The house that my grandfather built. In which my father was born and in which his gay and debonair young manhood was spent, and where my own baby feet, with those of many other little grandchildren, pettered across the floor. But before I try to tell you of it I must first sketch in a bit of background.
“In the early part of the nineteenth century my two grandfathers, Dr. Charles Meriwether and Mr. Charles Barker, deciding that Virginia had become too overcrowded and effete, determined to emigrate to the wide spaces of the West where a gentleman would have more room and privacy than he had with neighbors within a few miles of him. So mounting their horses they journeyed over the mountains and through the pleasant lands of Tennessee and Kentucky, going even so far as Missouri. On their way they had traversed fertile plain on the border line between Kentucky and Tennessee whose rolling lands covered with lush grass and whose many springs of water had caught their fancy. It had, moreover, the great advantage of being many days nearer Virginia, in those days of the covered wagon and slow transportation. So they bought several thousand acres of land, almost all of which still belongs to their descendants, and here they built their homes and established their families.
“When Dr. Meriwether’s oldest son, Charles Nicholas Minor Meriwether, had barely reached man’s estate he married Carolyn Barker, the daughter of his father’s friend and fellow-adventurer, and his father gave him as a bridal gift a lordly estate of land and fifty young Negro men. Mr. Barker presented his daughter with a dowry of slave girls and much handsome furniture and hand-woven sheets and blankets and other household gear, and thus well equipped the young couple moved to their new home.
“They called it Woodstock. I think my grandmother must have named it, for all of her life she was deeply under the influence of Walter Scott. There was not a novel of his that she did not know by heart, nor one of his characters who was not as familiar to her as her own neighbors, and one of my most cherished memories is of walking with her across the meadow at twilight when I was still so small I had to be held by the hand, built to endure the heat of suns and the while she chanted to me canto after canto of the Lady of the Lake, or Marmion.
“My grandfather selected for the site of his house a gentle knoll that sloped sweetly down to a crystal pond that on a crystal pond that on a Long Island estate would be called a lake. In those days you did not order a house as you do a peck of potatoes from the grocer’s. You built it laboriously by hand, and so was the beginning of Woodstock mansion constructed out of bricks made and burned on the place and of oak felled in remained for twenty years.
"The first unit of the house consisted of four master rooms, upstairs and down, with a wide hall between them. Back of these were a dining-room and pantries, and the kitchen, as was the custom in those days, was a Sabbath day's journey in the rear.
"Many years later my grandfather tore away all but four of the original rooms and built an ell which contained a long dining-room and across its and two other rooms which balanced in front. Above the dining room was a ballroom built for his grandchildren to dance in but, alas, the new addition had scarcely been finished before the Civil War swept all thoughts of gaiety from people's minds, and turned Woodstock into a house of mourning, for its oldest son, Captain Ned Meriweather was killed in battle.
"The new Woodstock, like the old, grew out of the soil on which it was planted. It also was made out of brick burned on the place, all of its windows and doors were made by hand out of oak that my Grandfather had selected and seasoned for years, and it s floors (they are still beautiful) were constructed of tiny boards almost square set in white lead.
"When my grandfather settled Woodstock he planted about it little oak bushes so small he could step over them, and when they were giant trees under which I used to play he would tell me how he used to trim them with his pocket knife. Such is the Woodstock that I remember in my childhood. Such it is today, for it has not outwardly changed at all. It belongs to no know school of architecture but it singularly represents the man who built it- handsome, sturdy, comfortable, generous, nothing for show or pretense, but built to stand the storms, built to endure the heat of suns and the cold of winter snows without a tremor in its structure, even as he stood foursquare against all the winds of fate.
"In all the years of my grandfather's life the doors of Woodstock were never closed. They stood wide open and through them flowed a ceaseless stream of guest; family and friends who made interminable visits; strangers and chance acquaintances, all in need of succor found welcome there. I well recall one old man who stopped to spend the night and remained for twenty years. Another old man who lived there, a gentle old creature who was half demented and the prototype of Mr. Dick in David Cooperfield and who, like Mr. Dick, was writing a book that never would complete itself, taught us children how to read and write and made us free of a fine old classical library in which we read Fielding and Smollet and Miss Austin and set our baby teeth in the strong meat of good literature instead of being fed on the pap of children's stories.
"The state line between Knetucky and Tennessee ran through the farm, the house being only a short distance on the Kentucky side. The marriage laws in Kentucky were much more strict than they were in Tennessee and one of the amusements of my childhood was to assist, in the French sense, at the marriage of eloping couples, whose nuptials took place under a wild cherry tree about half a mile on the Tennessee side.
"By what occult sense we children scented orange blossoms in the offing, I do no know, but when we would see a youth and maiden come lickety-split down the road in a buggy that was followed by another buggy also hard driven we would shriek, "Run away!! Run away!! and breathlessly pursue them to the altar, so to speak.
"As I have said, the rolling fields of Woodstock, were bluegrass grew almost as well as it did in upper Kentucky, marked it for a stock farm, and my grandfather soon began raising race horses. He was a pioneer in importing
pedigreed animals at prices that were fabulous for that day. He and General Hardin of famous Belle Meade bought Ambassador who won the first futurity race in this country and he was at the head of their stud.
"For many years Woodstock was famous for its four-mile horses that were unbeaten on southern tracks. Among these were Faxinella, Miss Wilkins, Wagner, Village Blacksmith. Fraxinella was never beaten in a single race and had the remarkable record of having run twenty miles at one race.
"At the beginning of the war there were four young horses that had won their maiden races and shown that they were of superior mettle. One of these my grandfather gave to his son, Captain Ned Meriwether, another to General Bazil Duke, another to General Buckner, and the fourth to General Albert Sydney Johnston, and it was on this horse that the great Southern leader was killed at Shiloh. Several other horses of this same four-mile race stock were given to young cousins who took part in the famous Morgan Raid through Ohio. Common bred horses broke under the terrific strain and were discarded for other mounts, but the horses in whose veins flowed the blood of Arabians could weather the strain.
"And from that story grandfather used to point a moral to us children: "If blood is worth that much in a horse," he would say, "it is worth more in human beings. A Thoroughbred can't give up, or whine."
"The war swept across Woodstock and took with it the slaves that had tilled the fertile fields and the thoroughbreds that had been his pride and glory. Nothing was left but the famous Fraxinella, then past the quarter of a century mark- She lived to be 29. I was nursed on her fat back and my earliest recollection is of being perched on her while she grazed about the yard and of being swept off when she wandered under the low bough of a tree or a clothesline.
"In this gracious home of Woodstock there grew up a large family of children. Captain Ned Meriwether, Nancy, who was afterward Mrs. John Ferguson, Mary, who became Mrs. Robert Humphries, Caroline, who married Colonel Goodlett, all of whom were big, tall upstanding men and women of remarkable intellectual brilliancy. The most famous of these was Mrs. Goodlett, who founded the Daughters of the Confederacy and who was the patron saint of many of the notable charitable institutions of Nashville. A great-granddaughter of Nancy is Carolyn Gordon, a young woman who is making a name for herself as a writer.
"The turning wheel of fortune has taken Woodstock out of the possession of the Meriwether family. No one of that name treads its boards or sits at the head of its table, but it has passed into gentle hands who tend it with loving care and respect its traditions.
"So the old house still stands in the midst of its towering trees of those who built for time and not for a day, and for their children's children.
"And for me, it is my Old Home."
-Taken from: History of Homes and Gardens of Tennessee. The Garden Study Club of Nashville. The Parthenon Press, 1936
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