Montgomery County Historical Society
Photo Furnished by Eleanor Williams
This page was last updated: September 18, 2010
Courtesy of: Charlotte Jolly In June, 1972, my husband and I moved into the old white house with the red roof across the Cumberland River and the narrow Cunningham Bridge. We had been there in the 1960’s when Dean Felix Woodward had entertained the APSU faculty and we had admired the house ever since. Dean Woodward called the house “Riverview” and we continued to do so until there began to be a resurgence of interest in former owners, Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon. They had called the house Benfolly. Research on the property done by Dean Woodward determined that the land was a part of a Revolutionary War grant of 2,560 acres made by North Carolina to Jacob Messick in 1787. Local tradition has it that the house was built in 1823 by Charles Green Rayburn, a riverboat captain. After his death in 1868, the farm sold to Englebert Gaisser, who along with his heirs, owned the place for sixty-two years. In 1930 Ben Tate bought the house for his brother, Allen Tate, who could not afford to buy it himself. At the time, Allen dubbed it Ben’s folly and ultimately, it came to be known as Benfolly. The house was renovated when the Tates bought it. The basement was finished and the room that is now the living room served as a living-dining room. Allen and Caroline Tate’s daughter, Nancy, drove up one summer morning in 1975 on her way to Nashville to see her father. Her parents had divorced in 1946 and remarried shortly thereafter. They divorced again in 1959 and her mother lived with her in California. She told us that there was a very long table in the room where they ate and after eating they would sit around for hours and talk, discuss and argue. ‘there were times when they would have terrible arguments, but they would soon be over them. She was a delightful person and very attractive. Her stories enabled us to “see” the house, filled with guests such as Robert Penn Warren and his wife, Malcolm Cowley and his wife, Katherine Ann Porter, etc. Nancy remembered spending hours playing dolls on the upper gallery with a childhood friend, a pleasant memory. Allen Tate died in 1979 and Caroline Gordon died in 1981. One particular group which met with the Tates at Benfolly called themselves The Fugitives. Among the group were Tate, Robert Pen Warren, Andrew Lytle and Donald Davidson. They devoted themselves to writing and discussing poetry. Sally Wood, a friend of Caroline Gordon, edited a book called The Southern Mandarins. The book is made up of letters from Caroline Gordon to Sally Woods. Caroline often writes of the difficulty of feeding a house full of guests with so little money. From the letters we learn that the most frequent guests were Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, Malcolm Cowley, Katherine Anne Porter, Sally Ann Woods and Ford Maddox Ford. When the guests were there, all rooms and typewriters would be in use. However, they would stop when Caroline’s father showed up. They would sit on the floor and listen to him, caught by his very first sentence. Andrew Lytle wrote in the epilogue of The Southern Mandarin: “As far away as New York of San Francisco, other writers spoke of Benfolly with awe and planned ot visit there as if making a pilgrimage. It was a milieu where writers influenced each other. One can think of no other creative center like it ever having existed in America.” Because they had no money, the Tates left Benfolly in 1938 and went into teaching positions which they continued to pursue for the rest of their careers. In 1946 Arch Northington purchased the place and restored the house and grounds. He enlarged the tenant house at the front of the hill for his stepson, Jack Frost, and his bride. In 1957 the house was bough by Dean Felix Woodward who lived there until his death in 1971. In 1984 Robert Penn Warren came to Austin Peay State University to read his poetry. My husband wrote to him beforehand and invited him to come to Benfolly after his reading. He replied to the letter and said he would like nothing better than to see Benfolly again, but time would not allow. We went to the reading and were able to meet and speak briefly with him which was thrill for us. We enjoyed our 20 years at Benfolly. Special memories are sitting on the gallery and listening to the sounds of the County Fair – music and screams form the Midway; watching the lights come on in the city when the leaves were off the trees; watching the snow cover the land and the city and the ever-changing seasons on the river. The day came when it was time to move to a house on one level. We sold the house to Dr. and Mrs. Stuart Bonnington in December 1992. We wish to thank Charlotte Jolly for her contribution of this personal account of this famous home.