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This page was last updated: March 10, 2011
GROWING UP AT CLOVERLANDS
(Courtesy of W.A. Meriwether, M.D.
The Forbes-Mabry House - a TV Series
"A TV Series that showcases the history & heritage of the Clarksville/Montgomery County area of TN.
The plantation house, Cloverlands, Montgomery County, TN was built by John Walton Barker for his 16-year-old bride from Virginia, Mary Minor Meriwether, about 1819 and enlarged later by the addition of east and west wings as the family grew in size. The property passed from John Walton Barker to his son, Chiles Barker, then to Chiles’ son, Peter Minor Barker who sold the property despite the wishes of John Walton Barker who is buried in the Barker family cemetery as is his son, Chiles. When my father, Henry Tutwiler Meriwether, bought Cloverlands in 1918, it was a bit rundown. The wooden porches, front and back, were rotten to the point that he said you could, if not careful, put your foot through. He took out the wooden boards and gave the porches concrete floors upon which as a child I enjoyed skating. He cut four new windows to bring light into the two dark downstairs large rooms. He cut a door from the sitting room into the east wing where I was born, a home delivery using chloroform anesthesia. My mother was 44 at the time, my father, 48. There had been no running water so my father plumbed the house himself, added bathrooms and put up a water tank over the east cistern so it could be filled by a centrifugal pump run by jacking a Model T Ford up to run the pump off a spinning wheel. There was no electricity, of course, so he installed an acetylene gas system for lighting to replace the former kerosene lamps. In 1937 when TVA brought electricity to the area he personally wired the house without outside help, using a how-to manual. All this with a background of having taught Latin and Greek at a prep school for the previous 20 years. The acreage of Cloverlands farm was down to 236 acres from the thousands of the first John Walton Barker land. The primary crop was tobacco, first a variety called dark-fired requiring curing by smoke and heat in a closed barn. Later only burley was grown which is air-cured. The farm help was in the form of the share-cropper system. During planting and harvesting time, if additional help was required, day laborers were hired with the going rate of 75 cents a day, dawn to dusk. One of the sharecropper wives did our weekly laundry and ironing for one dollar a week. Another was a cook for two dollars a month and all the food for herself and family. There were three cabins on the farm for the share-croppers. Each had a cistern for a water supply and an outhouse. Families raised almost everything needed for food except for flour, sugar and coffee. Canning and preserving took a large portion of the household time in preparation for the winter. The vegetable garden at Cloverlands was about two acres stretching from the west side of the yard to the cemetery and around it on three sides. At the edges of the garden plot in the fence rows were our asparagus beds. We sold asparagus to customers in Clarksville as we grew about an acre of it. The asparagus would be cut in the early morning during the spring growing season, weighed, wrapped in old pages from the Saturday Evening Post, then off to Clarksville, 12 miles away in our Model T, down Trenton Road, across Spring Creek, past St. Bethlehem, then on the old road that wound by Dunbar Cave to the old covered bridge over Red River. The first stop would be APSU (then Austin Peay Normal) where the cafeteria kitchen took as many pounds as we could spare from our regular customers. On to Kleeman’s Meat Market on Franklin Street where Mr. Moore, the counter man was a regular customer for a pound of white asparagus. Some customers preferred green stalks, others white. The difference was as long as the stalks were covered with earth, they remained white, but exposure to sun turned the stalks green. Most of our customers were on Madison Street starting with Mrs. M. L. Hughes (known as Mrs. Doctor Hughes), wife of our family doctor who took out my tonsils as an office procedure when I was three. Near the Hughes house lived the Dranes where once when delivering, Mrs. Drane said she had heard I could read (I was five years old at the time). She took out a Saturday Evening Post, turned to an article about politics in Ireland and asked me to read it which I did for a few paragraphs until I got to the Irish Prime Minister, Eamon de Valera, whose name I stumbled over and being embarrassed, ran back to the car. Embarrassing moments tend to stay with one forever. Then down to the Alf Killebrews near the L&N viaduct and after turning right onto Greenwood, up to Mrs. Austin Peay’s where once when I rang the doorbell, she evidently had been napping and had loosened her corset. When it dropped to the floor, I fled. Back to Madison and on to the Dunzelmann’s (Hansi Russell’s grandparents); the Elliotts and to Madison Extension to C.K. Smith’s where their granddaughter, little Evelyn Glenn lived. As an only child Ebbie seemed lonely and wanted me to come in and play. She married the first time the grandson of Gov. Austin Peay, then secondly, Buddy Hunter from Trenton. Seventy-eight years later I visited Ebbie and Buddy in that same house. We had a one-hundred-foot row of grape vines, mainly Concords. There were bushels of tomatoes in high season and raspberries, strawberries, turnips, turnip greens, mustard greens, rhubarb, salsify, carrots, peas, snap beans, beets, lettuce, sweet and Irish potatoes, Lima beans, okra, onions, celery, radishes. Corn came from the field. Wild blackberries were from the edge of the woods. Wild grapes, called fox grapes also grew in the woods as did wild plums called damsons and pawpaws, black walnuts, persimmons and hickory nuts. Wild mushrooms grew in the orchard where there were apple, cherry and more peach trees. The pecan trees furnished us with bushels of pecans. Our meals were mainly vegetables and dairy products. The usual meat was chicken but not every week as we had to save many of the hens for eggs. The roosters, therefore, bore the sacrifice. Milk and butter came from the cow and when the milk soured and clabbered in a few days, cottage cheese was made and the whey given to the chickens. Our flock of geese flew away one day and never returned. Until then goose was our turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fresh pork was only in the late fall when hog killing time came with the first frost, as there was no refrigeration and the meat had to be made into sausage or hams if it was to keep. After sausage and hams were put away, homemade soap was made with lye from the boiling down of the fat of the hogs. Sheep and cattle were raised for the livestock market, requiring corn and hay to be grown as secondary crops for feed. Usually we sold hogs as a money source, more desirable than fresh meat in those days of the Great Depression which occupied most of my childhood when the price of tobacco was so low it hardly paid to raise it. Cash money was necessary for gasoline, coffee, sugar and flour, which was about all we bought from the store. Since Henry T., my brother, and I did not go to school during the height of the Depression, clothing needs and shoes were at a bare minimum. During my childhood money was always scarce, but we and the tenants lived well on what we grew. As with most houses of that era, the basic heating arrangement for Cloverlands was fireplaces. There were ten fireplaces at Cloverlands, two upstairs, two in the cellar and six on the main floor. My father put in a coal-burning furnace in the cellar during the 1920’s, an inefficient monster that was only used if company were coming for dinner requiring the use of the large dining room. Dinner, of course, was a midday meal, and evening was supper. The family ate in the kitchen as a rule which in winter was heated by the large wood-burning range. My father had put in a type of hot water system by running piping into the stove firebox and storing the heated water in a large cylindrical tank adjacent to the stove. After this we no longer had to heat bathwater in kettles on the stove and carry them to the bath tub. Full bathing was generally only once a week, but each night washing feet was a requirement as we children went barefoot much of the year. One of my childhood chores was seeing that the bathroom wood-burning stove kept a stack of wood, kindling to start with, then larger pieces cut from the windfall that was always available. The fire was started by the use of corncobs soaked in kerosene (coal oil was actually the term then used). My father kept a fifty gallon drum of kerosene on the back porch not only for our use, but also for the sharecroppers. The bedrooms, heated only by fireplaces caused you to toast on one side, chill on the other with most of the heat going up the chimney. It did make, however, interesting patterns on the ceiling after the lights were turned out and you were going to sleep. In the winter of 1929, the last of the slave quarters tumbled to the ground. Built of hand hewn, squared off logs that were chinked with wood chips and plaster, they had shingled roofs. Set on square blocks of quarried limestone, the only vestige left after ’29, was the foundation limestone blocks. These subsequently were used elsewhere as a foundation when a sharecropper house was moved to a location further away. The abandoned house had been used to store hay. As a child I used to play there, hidden from the main house by the Barker Cemetery which had grown up in brush, pecan trees with gravestones partially covered over by honeysuckle and poison ivy. In the hay I remember playing with matches, starting a small fire with two sharecropper boys my age who shared the mischief hidden from the main house by the overgrown graveyard. The main stack almost went up in flames but we managed to prevent both discovery and disaster, barely putting out the blaze. I must have been five years old at the time. Nothing left of slave days except for an outhouse located halfway between the main house and the old quarters’ site, a four-holer affair, built to last as it did well into the 40’s. Constructed of hand split hickory laths covered over with plaster, it had a solid wooden door and shingled roof and was probably used by the house slaves. The will of John Walton Barker, written prior to the war, had specified a portion of land just north of the Barker family cemetery to be reserved for slave burials. Never carried out (he died shortly after the war), the plot was later used as a vegetable garden. Since the nearest town, Clarksville, Tennessee was 12 miles away from Cloverlands, my parents, both of whom had been teachers, decided to home-school Henry T. and me. In 1927 when he was six and I was four, my mother started teaching him his letters and numbers using flash cards. In the background I was watching and caught on more quickly than he. Before the Depression we were taking the Louisville Courier Journal so I would read the comics to him. Our favorites were Mutt and Jeff, Toornerville Folks, Gasoline Alley, Moon Mullins, The Katzenjammer Kids, Little Orphan Annie, The Gumps and my personal favorite, Krazy Kat which sometimes now reminds me of the illustrator, Edward Gorey’s work. When the Depression hit and money was scarce, the Courier was dropped but the Saturday Evening Post was continued. My father would read to us the stories at bedtime when he had finished his farm duties and the evening milking. Afterwards, he would read a chapter from Dickens or Sir Walter Scott. Our home schooling consisted basically, at first, learning to read, then arithmetic. Long division and fractions never really seemed logical to me and later on in life when I was on the admission committee for a medical school, I never did see the sense in requiring calculus as a prerequisite for admission. My mother’s teaching also consisted of spelling, grammar, later the diagramming of sentences and afterwards we were on our own. There was never any set time for lessons as my parents had the many duties required of running a farm so children’s lessons were given only when there was a little time between chores. Most of my early education was from omnivorous reading. Some of my favorites were The G.A. Henty adventure series starting with “The Lion of Saint Mark” about the sea wars between Venice and Genoa, and the Tom Brown series, “Tom Brown’s School Days” and “Tom Brown at Oxford” and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden; T.E. Lawrence’s “Revolt in the Desert” and all of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels. Before I was ten I had read everything there was in the house. Not by any means was my reading confined to the classics as the boys’ adventure series such as the Tom Swift books borrowed from Cousin Octavia Meriwether Northington and the knockoff Don Sturdy series were consumed. Since my mother belonged to two book clubs, she had current books available which I read as well as those sent by the writer and literary critic, Malcolm Cowley after he finished reviewing them for “The New Republic” magazine. When I was ten my parents decided I was ready for high school at Clarksville but I was refused admission as being too young and spent the next year in grammar school and afterwards was accepted into Clarksville High. I thought I would show the admissions teacher, Miss Lucy Bailey who had refused me the first time that I really had been ready and led my class of 200 academically for the next four years. I was due to graduate in 1938 as valedictorian but my parents decided at age 15 I was too young for college. Besides, tuition money was scarce as the Depression had not lifted so I spent a fifth high school year, graduating in 1939 as salutatorian, with school superintendent C.H. Moore’s daughter, Jo, as valedictorian. She surpassed me by a tenth of a point. Remembering the 1930’s Malcolm Cowley in his book, “The Dream of the Golden Mountains”, devotes a chapter to his time at Cloverlands entitled, “The Meriwether Connection”. Cowley had wanted to take a leave of absence from his New York editorship to find a quiet place to finish his semi-autobiographical work, “Exiles Return”. He was friends with the poet, Allen Tate and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon and they suggested Cloverlands as Caroline was our cousin who was raised nearby. Still in the heart of the Depression (1933) any income was appreciated so he was accepted as a “paying guest” at twenty dollars a month and was settled in the east wing which consisted of two bedrooms and a bath. He used one of the bedrooms as his writing room and my father made a sturdy table for his typewriter. I remember his arrival in a rumble-seated roadster from which he unloaded his baggage including a gallon jug of whiskey, somewhat to the dismay of my teetotaler parents. He turned out to be a model guest, eating with the family and enjoying fresh produce from the farm. He would write in the mornings and in the afternoons would fish for bass in the pond in front of Cloverlands or go swimming in West Fork Creek with Caroline and Allen Tate who were staying nearby at Merimont Farm where Caroline Gordon’s grandmother, Caroline Ferguson Meriwether, lived. My brother and I often would go with them, riding in the rumble seat. Once in the 80’s, Ann Waldron, author of “Close Connections” (stories of the Meriwether/Barker families) called my mother, who was in her nineties, for any background information on Caroline Gordon. I don’t think my mother ever had much fondness for Caroline. She told Ann that Caroline used to skinny dip with Malcolm Cowley in West Fork. I wonder if that was really true. Malcolm’s friend, Robert Penn Warren, born and raised in Guthrie, KY, when returning for a visit, would come by Cloverlands to spend some time with him. Malcolm taught my brother and me to fly fish and bought us a 22 rifle, much to the distress of our parents. Over the following years he kept in touch with my parents, sending them books that had been sent to him to review at his editorial desk. This was our brush with the literary world. Remembering the flood or 1937—as Clarksville’s 2010 flood has recently made national news—I was a junior in Clarksville High when the schools closed for a month. The waterworks were flooded and water had to be trucked into Clarksville from Nashville over the only road still open—out Madison Street. We were isolated at Cloverlands because the water was over the roads, particularly at Spring Creek and Red River. It was not a sudden deluge as in 2010, but a constant slow rain for the whole month of January. The water table rose and rose until ponds began to flow together and form lakes and higher ground became islands. We had catfish in the in the ponds that we had never had before. Normally our fields at Cloverlands were drained by sinkholes but when the water table rises after incessant rain the drain holes fill up. The sinkholes led into channels that have been cut, over the eras, into the limestone and have emerged as springs. It was probably such a spring—a large one—that caused Dr. Charles Nicholas Meriwether, the KY/TN Meriwether progenitor, to set roots down on the state border. This was the same spring water piped into Guthrie, KY, which served as the main water source for that little railroad town for many years. Remnants of the pump house can still be seen. And probably the spring and cave served as home to Native Americans, for down around the mouth of the cave can be found flint chippings which they used to make tools and weapons, evidenced by my brother, Henry and me. Tempus fugit! W. A. Meriwether, a retired pathologist as well as a retired army officer and university professor, now lives with his wife, Candida, in San Antonio, TX. They are parents of six children, all professionals, some in medicine, some in engineering, others, business.