Chris Schofner, The Daily News Journal, April 25, 1999
After 41 years, Thomas Swain and recently wedded wife are moving – moving from one of the more historic sites in Murfreesboro to a farm on the Bedford County side of Beech Grove.
The home they leave is steeped in rich history and ownerships by names like Hill, Haynes and Mattox – among the more illustrious of these was ‘the Widow James’, a Confederate mother who lost her son in the Civil War and for whom the structure became known as the James House.
The home is located just outside the commercial district on Manson Pike, east of Thompson Lane, on part of the 400 acres currently being considered for the city’s proposed commerce center and office park.
John Willig is vice president of Carter & Associates, the development company overseeing the commerce center project.
Though it’s still too early for specific plans, Willig said, preserving the rich history that has been important to the development of Murfreesboro Rutherford County will be important part of the process.
“We’re viewing the James House as an important historical resource,” Willig said. “It’s our intent to preserve it in a way that fits. My objective is to see what we can do to capitalize on these cultural aspects.”
Specifics about the home’s history are sketchy, past owner Swain said, but he’s uncovered some details from legends, fold tales and old stories. The city has granted him two years for relocation.
“I really know very little,” Swain said modestly.
“Around the time of the Civil War,” he continued, “evidently she was called the ‘widow’ James. This was referred to on the military maps as the Widow James House. I’ve read that her son was in the Civil War and was killed just off the corner of this place. Supposedly (Confederate) Gen. Leonidas Polk used this for a headquarters.”
To have such a rich history, the James House has had surprisingly few owners, Swain said, but a break in the record prevented specifics.
Swain knows of two versions.
“I’ve heard two schools of thought on it,” Swain said. “We do know there was a structure here during the Civil War. Someone, I think it was an amateur historian, told me that the original building burned after the War and another was built in its place.
“Another fellow looked at the logs and said, no, those logs show it was definitely built before the Civil War,” he continued. “I would say the house was built at least before 1850 – that’s my best guess. Just about everybody who has lived here has added something on.”
“The earliest owner after the Civil War that I know of,” Swain added, “was a family by the name of Hill – they owned it from 1875 up to the early part of the 1900s. There were some Snells that lived here in the 1920s but I don’t think they owned it. There was a Haynes family that bought it in the middle ’20s and they did extensive renovations.”
The original part of the house, the front two-story section, was a log structure like many from the period and had a dogtrot or middle breezeway separating halves of the building. Subsequent renovations, specifically but the Haynes family, applied weatherboard to the outside over the logs and still later remodeling enclosed the breezeway to bring the structure indoors.
“When the Haynes bought it in the middle ’20’s,” he said, ‘They brought it on back some. They covered up the logs, put in hardwood floors and did over renovations … they spent so much money on it, and then the depression came along, they lost it in the early 30’s.
“The Mattox family bought it in the early ’30s,” he added, “then we bought it from the Mattox family in 1958. We’ve done quite a bit of restoration to it – we added this den and the upstairs was not finished … old rough board ceilings without paper.
“They were still cooking with a wood stove,” Swain said. “There was plumbing in the house but they didn’t have hot water. There wasn’t any heat except for grates. We had to do some fairly extensive renovations. There’s a hand-dug well to the side of the house … I think that dates to the early history of the house.”
Swain said what little history he has been able to pick up comes from a title search he began in recent years but stopped when the holes in the record thwarted his efforts.
“I got really interested in tracing the history one year,” Swain said, “so I went to the Courthouse and traced the owners back but got back in the late 1800s and some of the tax books had records missing … just gave me a blank. I couldn’t go any further because of that. They don’t appear to have been a lot of owners in that time.
“The Hill family appears to have owned it from 1875 to the early 1900’s – probably 25 or 30 years,” he continued. “The Haynes family owned it about ten years. then the Mattox family owned it about 25 years. I wasn’t able to find out when the James family left here and the Hill family bought it. I was able to find out that a son was killed out here somewhere close.”
If the home is on the National Register of Historic Places it’s news to him, Swain said. Possibly the structure is on another type of historical list.
The owner said, to his knowledge, farmland that accompanies the house has always been approximately the same size.
“There was never much over 80 acres,” he said. “I think it’s always been pretty close to that. I gave my kids (David and Lucy) two acres apiece and sold two acres off the corner – I think about eight acres have been sold off. The rest is pretty much intact.”
Swain had always been interest in farming, he said, and had grown up on the family farm down the road in what was then rural Rutherford County. when a neighboring farm was put up for sale in 1958, he and his wife Frances bought it.
Farming has always been an important part of Swain’s life, he said.
“I was born and raised on the next place out on the right,” he pointed out. “Farming is in my blood and whenever I married, this farm became available and I was able to buy it. I farmed all the years I was working at the VA … just a small operation … mainly beef cattle. i always wanted to farm and it was nice being here close to the homeplace too,” he continued.
Swain is now retired from the Veterans Administration as a vocational rehabilitation therapist, he said. He also spent six years on the Rutherford County Board of Education during the late ’80’s.