Harber’s History: Idler’s Retreat served as gathering of famed writers

Susan Harber, Daily News Journal, November 29, 2015

Idler’s Retreat, a rare jewel on Oak Street, is situated in the Front Street Historic District in Smyrna.  This beautiful home is also known as the Dillon-Tucker-Cheney House or “Cold Chimneys.”  After the installation of central heating into the home in 1957, this landmark adopted the name Idler’s Retreat.

Joseph Dillon, a wealthy attorney, Smyrna merchant and Unionist legislator for Rutherford County, built the brick house in 1865. (Photo: Submitted)

Joseph Dillon, a wealthy attorney, Smyrna merchant and Unionist legislator for Rutherford County, built the brick house in 1865.  (Photo: Submitted)

Joseph Dillon, a wealthy attorney, Smyrna merchant and Unionist legislator for Rutherford County, built the brick house in 1865.  He was a progressive businessman and had a brother who ran a general store in Smyrna.  Dillon, a supporter of the Northern cause, departed Smyrna soon after the Civil War.

Dillon’s original construction of the house was in the Greek Revival style with four, two-story columns, a front portico, as well as Italianate architecture with a low roof and porch.  The interior had a freestanding, circular staircase with walnut rails.  After Dillon vacated Smyrna, the house was purchased in 1882 by John F. Tucker, whose father, Major Silas Tucker, donated the original land for the town of Smyrna.  The sprawling Tucker plantation covered much of our modern-day city.  The house remained with the Tucker lineage until inhabited by the elegant Cheney family.

The well-known and respected proprietor of this home was Brainard “Lon” Cheney, a prolific novelist from Lumber City, Ga.  Brainard was a school principal in Georgia, a police reporter for the Nashville Banner, a speechwriter for Gov. Frank Clement, playwright and a critically acclaimed author of four novels, including “Devils’ Elbow” and “River Rogue.”  He was known for intriguing content on dark, tragic characters, full of betrayal and social transformation.  Brainard also wrote novels that supported the preservation of land and natural resources.  His wonderful journals are housed in the Vanderbilt archives today.

Brainard’s wife, Frances Neel Cheney, grand-niece of Sam Davis, inherited Idler’s Retreat from her aunt Lizzie Davis Tucker in the 1920s. Lizzie Davis, who lived in this house in her later years, was Sam Davis’ sister and married John Tucker’s brother Leonidas.  Sam and Lizzy Davis’ father, Charles, had owned the house at one time.  Frances Neel was a reference librarian at Peabody College when she met the dashing Brainard Cheney, who attended Vanderbilt in 1920.  The marriage of Frances and Brainard in 1928 was the beginning of a dynasty in literary circles, with Idler’s Retreat serving as the mainstay for entertaining intellectual company.  Frances, an avid reader, later worked as a professor at Peabody in Nashville.  In 1951, she spent two years as a professor at the Japan Library School.  Her contributions to literature lent incredible strength to Brainard’s writings.

The famed Fugitive Poets and Agrarian writers from the Vanderbilt English department were frequent visitors and warmly greeted by Frances, a lavish hostess.  She was renowned as an excellent cook and tended a spectacular flower garden.  Local residents Paul and Joy Johns were friends to the Cheneys and respected their brilliance and warm hospitality.  Flannery O’Connor, a famed Southern author of short stories, was also a regular guest, as well as distinguished writers Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon.  The doors also remained wide open for numerous little-known poets and writers.  In O’Connor’s memoirs, she recalls visiting the Cheney home in 1953 with a host of writers from the “Southern Renaissance” movement. Brainard introduced these friends to his massive library and read aloud the stories “The River” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Brainard died in 1990 at the age of 89, and Frances died in 1996, also at the age of 89.  The special home was later listed in Smyrna as a hotel and a sports facility.  Idler’s Retreat was added to the National Historic Places in 2004.  This inviting home will always be remembered as a haven to scores of brilliant minds, who convened together to make this world a better place.  George Bernard Shaw once stated, “A learned man is an idler who kills time by study.”  Idler’s Retreat was the personification of study and enlightenment.

Contact Susan Harber at [email protected].

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