By Jonathan K. T. Smith
Copyright, Jonathan K. T. Smith, 1996

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Picture courtesy of Mrs. Dorothy Sybil Gunter Kinsey (born 1921), Cotton Grove community, who took this picture in 1944.


            Dr. Robert Fenner (1803-1874), one of the children of Dr. Richard Fenner and Ann (Geddy) Fenner, came to Madison County from Raleigh, North Carolina with his parents in 1823; he was married to Ann Maria Jones, July 23, 1828 and on December 1st of that year he purchased from Duncan McIver, formerly of Moore County, North Carolina, 481 acres of land, for $4329, in the deed for which was reserved 1/8 acre "so as to include the burying ground that his /McIver's/ father, mother and sisters and neighbors are buried on. . . . " (Madison County Deed Book 2, pages 306-307)

            Dr. Fenner and family moved into Jackson, having sold their 481 acre plantation called "Cotton Grove" to Hugh Bell of Jefferson Co., Kentucky, in February 1833, with the deed denoting it was the tract on which the Fenners had "late resided. " (IBID. Book 3, page 411) Bell in turn sold in May 1835 the 481 acre tract for $4500 to Samuel Bell of Louisville, Kentucky, it being the place where Dr. Robert Fenner "formerly lived called Cotton Grove." (IBID. Book 3, page 305) Bell kept the place for a brief time, selling it in July 1837 for $5000 to Morris Thomas and Patrick Maxey, being "all that farm . . . called Cotton Grove whereon Robert Fenner formerly resided. " (IBID. Book 5, page 411)

            These two men sold 478 acres of the original tract to John R. Woolfolk, for $2090, April 16, 1850. (IBID. Book 13, page 508) This was where the Woolfolk family was domiciled, in Civil District 14, when the census-taker made his rounds November 1, 1850, recording that John R. Woolfolk and his family and an older couple, who were his parents, John and Mildred (Milly) Woolfolk, lived in the same household. (1850 U.S. Census, Madison Co., page 679)

            It was on March 8, 1832 that the post office was commissioned at Cotton Grove, the name of a small village that had been established just east of the old Fenner place, with David McKnight, a brother-in-law of Dr. Robert Fenner, as postmaster. Likely the post office was simply named for Dr. Fenner's plantation. This settlement was first called Madisonville.

            John Woolfolk (c1779-1863) and his wife, Mildred Chewning Crawford


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Woolfolk (cl790-1866) had lived in Spotsylvania County, Virginia where it is likely that their children were born; the tombstone of their son, John R. Woolfolk in Riverside Cemetery in Jackson, Tennessee, gives his birth date as August 9, 1819 and his place of birth as Spotsylvania Co., Virginia. [Note: Although the more recent generations of this family name, Woolfolk, pronounce their surname as wool-folk, the older generations generally pronounced it in the traditional English sense, wool-fork. See Bennett W. Green, WORD ROOK OF VIRGINIA FOLK SPEECH (Richmond, 1899), page 16.]

            The Woolfolks were settled in east-central Madison County by 1840; the year before, a son of the elder John Woolfolk, Dr. Vivian Broadus Woolfolk (1809-1895), had bought land in the vicinity of Cotton Grove. (Madison Co. Deed Book 6, page 498) John R. Woolfolk bought land nearby in January 1845 (IBID. Book 9, page 502). John R. Woolfolk and Felix R. Hardgraves were partners in a mercantile store in Cotton Grove for some time and became indebted to several suppliers for merchandise they had ordered and received, so that this business failed and John R. Woolfolk sold the homeplace where he and his wife, Almira (who died in 1858), children and parents lived, to William C. Hutchinson, February 16, 1856, some 411 acres of the 478 acres he had purchased from Maxey and Thomas, plus two small tracts, 32 acres and 7 acres, for $6500, with the provision that Hutchinson would pay these debts for which John R. Woolfolk was responsible. (IBID. Book 18, page 554) He had sold 60 acres, "a part of the Cotton Grove tract" in October 1851 to James McDonald. (IBID. Book 15, page 246)

            John R. Woolfolk served as a county magistrate for Civil District 14 on the county court for some time and was also county surveyor for a while but he resigned from these positions in March 1860 (Madison County Court Minute Book 9, page 70); however, he ran for and was elected as sheriff of the county in March 1862 (IBID., page 678), which position he held until the collapse of civil government during the Civil War.

            By arrangement, the elder Woolfolks and the children of John R. Woolfolk continued to live on the old Cotton Grove plantation where John Woolfolk died in 1863 and Milly Woolfolk died in 1866; both were buried in the old McIver graveyard on the homeplace. John R. Woolfolk moved to Jackson where he boarded until his remarriage, in 1861, to Julia Preston when they established residence and where he died December 8, 1867 (tombstone date). The county court had approved issuing him a "certificate of character", preparatory to his being licensed to practice law, July 6, 1867.

            Hutchinson sold the Woolfolk tract about the time of the close of the Civil War and finally, March 8, 1869, James Lawler Phillips (1829-1899) bought the remaining 270 acre tract "known as the John R. Woolfolk land" for $4000. (Madison County Deed Book 26, page 593) Phillips, who had moved to this vicinity from Henderson County a few years previously, located on the Woolfolk farm where his wife, Emily Alice O'Neal Phillips died in 1873; he was remarried to Jennie Hopper (1855-1948) and they had four children, one of whom, Virginia, married Robert Edger McLeary and they made their home with her mother (the father having died in 1899) for many years; this couple acquired the homeplace and afterwards their son, Harold P. McLeary acquired it and is its present owner. (He described the house architecturely to this writer.)

            Jennie Phillips and the McLearys occupied the old residence until 1937 when they moved into a more convenient house nearby. The old Woolfolk house was demolished in 1950 and on its former site Harold McLeary's residence was built, some materials from the older dwelling being used in the new house.

            A local landmark for many years, the rural, venacular Greek Revival style dwelling that the Woolfolks built on the 481 acre plantation, about 1850, was structured to house two separate families, that of the elderly Woolfolks and John R. Woolfolk and his growing family. Travellers were also


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accommodated by them after the fashion of a tavern or hotel in the thriving little village of Cotton Grove which was described in an article written by Marie Collins Johnson in THE JACKSON SUN, March 26, 1945, "Besides the church and schoolhouse there were five or six stores, as blacksmith shop and hotel or stagecoach station, a tannery and shoemaking establishment operated by John Woolfolk and James O'Connor. . . . The story is told that during the war /Civil War/, when the citizens were warned that the Yankees were coming, Mrs. Woolfolk /Milly Woolfolk/ took one of the servants and hurried down to the woods back of the house and buried some money and the family silver under a cedar tree. Mrs. Woolfolk soon died and the servants were scattered about and no one knew of the buried treasure but the negro boy. Just a few years ago, this boy, now grown to be very old and feeble, came back to Cotton Grove. After telling this story, several of the citizens tried to help him identify the old cedar tree. But there had been such changes, both in the landscapes and the old negro's memory that it could not be located."

          The old weatherboarded house was built of yellow poplar wood, brought as folklore avers, from White Fern near Beech Bluff. By 1850 and for some years before there were planing mills convenient where timber could be cut suitably as weatherboarding planks. Most area buildings were apparently built of logs and would be for many years. The house sat about 200 feet south of the Cotton Grove Road, also called the Jackson-Lexington road and was reached therefrom by a small drive, with several cedar trees standing about, lending character to the house which was foundationed on several hewn sandrock piers, each about 18" x 24" and about 2' high.

            The house stood two-storeys tall with an attic. On the first floor were two large rooms, each about 40' x 40' with 12' ceilings. Each room had a door, with sidelights, that opened on to the front porch that extended across the front of the dwelling. Besides the front doors there were two large windows in front, one in each front room. There were two "outside" chimneys, one at each end of the house that served four fireplaces, two in downstairs rooms and two in the upstairs rooms.

            Behind the west downstairs room was located a long diningroom and adjoining, behind the east downstairs front room was a smaller bedroom; each front room had a door that opened into the diningroom. There were two windows on the west side of the diningroom and two windows in the smaller east bedroom, one on each side of a fireplace, the chimney of which was smaller than the two larger chimneys in the front of the house. The floors in the house were 6" wide yellow poplar planking, about one inch and a half thick.

            On the east end of the diningroom was an open stairway that lead into one of the two upstairs rooms (the upstairs rooms being the same dimensions of those just below them); about the sixth step up the stairway turned, similar to an "L" shape before going on to the second floor. Under this stairway a small hall lead from the diningroom into the smaller back bedroom. In the east downstairs room was another stairway that lead into the other upstairs room. The upstairs rooms were separated by a solid wall, the only approach to them being by the two sets of stairways just mentioned. The roof was originally covered with board shingles; late in its existence the roof was covered with regular asbestos shingles. The attic was reached by a stairway located in the east upstairs bedroom; it was about 20' wide and ran the entire length (about 80') of the house; there was a window at each end of the attic, about 2' x 4'.

            In antebellum times a small building was located just behind the house that served as a kitchen from which food was brought to the diningroom. It may have been built of logs. Some years after the Phillipses acquired the


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place a kitchen was added behind the diningroom at the south end of which was a pantry in which the meatbox and meal and other foodstuffs were kept. Cooking was done on an old metal cookstove (served by a small flue through which smoke left the building). In the early days water had been brought from the springs "below", east of the house, that fed into Cotton Grove Creek. Later a well (pulley-bucket combination) was dug that was much more convenient and healthier than relying on spring water although the latter was kept covered and clean. Privies were located near the house as were other outbuildings such as stable, barn, chicken-house and corn cribs.

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