March 11, 2022, Researched and Written by Barry Lamb
“The majesty and beauty of this once stately abode
The story of which has seldom been told.
Its image beyond the barrenness of the trees
Bespeaks of the gay nineties at College and Academy.“
Pleasant Priestly Mason, Murfreesboro’s foremost idealistic enterprising entrepreneur of the 19th century, was born near Lavergne in 1860 to Rutherford County sheriff and county judge, William Newton Mason, and his wife, Martha Hoover Mason. The Mason family has the distinction of having four consecutive generations of magistrates who have served in the Rutherford County Court, beginning with Reynear Hall Mason Sr. during the 1830s and ending with Benton McMillin Mason Sr. in the 1960s.
Being raised in an environment of lawmakers and law enforcers, it’s not surprising that young P. P. Mason attended law school at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee and had graduated with a law degree from that institution in June 1881. He was admitted to the Rutherford County Bar the following year and soon after became associated with Charles A. Sheafe, a former Union captain from Ohio who had moved to Murfreesboro in 1872 to begin a law practice there. He also served as the town’s attorney for ten years during the 1880s and 1890s. The year of 1882 was also significant to Mason in the arena of matrimonial concerns as he was married to Miss Richie H. Keeble during that year.
Mason had a vision for the town of Murfreesboro and possessed the courage and fortitude necessary to attempt various ventures. His first foray into the improvement of the town was the creation of his opera house. Known as the Mason Opera House, this center for the theatre and the arts was in operation from 1888 until 1891 on the upper floor of the old Fountain Mosby storehouses on the west side of the town square and provided entertainment for the local populace who had a taste for refinement.
In 1892, the Murfreesboro Street Railway system was initiated by Mason, Bromfield L. Ridley Jr., and Thomas B. Fowler. The two mile track covered much of the downtown area but the enterprise was disbanded after only one year of operation due to financial difficulties.
Simultaneously, Mason, Ridley, and Dr. Joseph E. Thompson began the Murfreesboro Water Works operation, a venture into a system of water delivery and sewerage management that apparently failed due to a lack of support from the community.
In 1895, Mason built a soap factory, but due to the influx of soap from a larger and more productive soap making enterprise in Nashville, he was priced out of business, making this financial investment a failure also.
Although these ventures ultimately failed, Mason is to be applauded for his courage and vision for the betterment of Murfreesboro.
Considering his visions of grandeur in initiating his experiential ventures, it is not surprising that the home that he had constructed at 220 East College Street was probably the largest and most exquisite house built in Murfreesboro during the 19th century. With the introduction and the writing of the story of the Mason-Ransom Mansion, this article completes the discussion of the triumvirate of impressive and historical houses that once graced the intersection of College and Academy Streets.
Built in 1894 on the southwest corner of the afore mentioned intersection on the site of the former home of Dr. Henry H. Clayton, this imposing edifice faced east and fronted Academy Street and was larger than any hotel that existed in Murfreesboro at that time. The third floor was probably large enough to house a basketball court or a massive gathering of people for social or political functions of that era.
Mason and his wife occupied the home four years before financial hardships forced the sale of the house to William A. Ransom Jr. in 1898. They moved to St. Louis, Missouri and lived there for the balance of their lives.
William A. Ransom Jr. was a man of considerable wealth, having achieved his success through energy and thrift. His introduction into the world of business began in his father’s lumber and milling operation at the old Dickinson’s Mill site on Stone’s River which the father had purchased in 1869.
Following the death of the father, Ransom became partners with his brother, James Anthony Ransom, in the firm of Ransom Brothers, a business that dealt in lumber, cotton, grain, and flour. He also owned several cotton farms in Mississippi which supplied their wholesale and retail business in Murfreesboro.
Mr. Ransom was married to Clayton Anderson in 1889. The couple had no children of their own, but became parents through the adoption of Margaret Rhea, a niece of Ransom, whose parents had died when she was very young.
As a personal aside, I digress from the narrative of this story to inform the reader of the generosity of Ransom. This writer’s great grand aunt, Rockie Belle Lorance, and her daughter, Buddie Lee, were friends of the Ransom family according to family tradition. Following the death of Rockie in 1918 to the Spanish flu, the kind benevolence of Mr. Ransom manifested itself in the life of Rockie’s daughter, by sending her to schools of higher learning in Kentucky. This act of generosity afforded the orphaned child opportunities in life that she wouldn’t have experienced otherwise, eventually marrying a man with an astute sense of business acumen, and becoming the mother of an Atlanta attorney.
Mr. Ransom continued to live at College and Academy until his death in 1922. His widow and daughter remained in the home until the death of the daughter in 1958. The place was soon afterwards razed and memories of the old place have faded into oblivion over the span of years since it’s demolition.
Dr. Rhea Seddon, the well known astronaut from Murfreesboro, is a granddaughter of Margaret Rhea. She and her father were instrumental in the preservation of a beautiful stained glass window that once graced the old home, and in the presentation of this family heirloom to the First Methodist Church where it is now displayed in a conspicuous place.