The Story of Walter Hill, by Billy Pittard, July 15, 2018

Walter Hill Dam, located only seven north of downtown Murfreesboro, Tennessee

I grew up feeling that Walterhill, Tennessee was my true home: the place where my roots were deepest.  My maternal grandparents Ruth and Blackburn Batey lived at the crossroads of Jefferson Pike and Lebanon Road – which is arguably the heart of Walterhill.  I lived the first five years of my life there, and it was my second home throughout childhood.  In this area lived not only my grandparents, but also two sets of great grandparents, four sets of GG grandparents, two sets of GGG grandparents, two sets of GGGG grandparents, and three sets of GGGGG grandparents – not to mention an uncountable number of aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives. It remained the place where I felt most deeply connected until my grandmother Ruth Henderson Batey passed away at age 97 in 2008.

Remains of a wagon and an old barn on my grandparent’s farm at Walterhill.

All over my grandparents’ farm were traces of days gone by, old ways of doing things, and even evidence of past wars that affected the area.  There were arrowheads found in the fields down by the river where my grandfather and his father had grown corn. Numerous old houses, log buildings, ancient barns, and out buildings hid all manner of old-time tools and farm equipment; relics from the Civil War and World War II; and family things put in storage long ago.  It was endlessly fascinating to my young mind.

Arrowheads such as these were found in the field down by the river. Yes, that’s a stone tomahawk on the left!

Growing up around so much family, I became interested in genealogy at an early age and have continued to dig up ancestors to this day.  It’s an eternal and personal treasure hunt that makes history come alive for me.  It has also taught me that history fades away unless someone makes the effort to record it.  These are my reasons and motivations to assemble this short history of the wide spot in the road known as Walterhill, Tennessee.

Walterhill is a rural community about five miles north of Murfreesboro on US 231, known locally as Lebanon Road. It has the appearance a typical Tennessee rural farming community, but Walterhill has much more of a story than one might suspect. The story of Walterhill is surprisingly historically significant, involves famous and interesting people, and is full of many firsts such as the county’s first mill, first store, first court session, first school, and even the county’s first electrically-lit street. Walterhill came within one vote of becoming the county seat instead of the location selected at Murfreesboro.

Although there is no formal boundary for Walterhill, its heart is the crossroads of Lebanon Road and Jefferson Pike. My definition of Walterhill has its southern edge at the Alvin C. York Veteran’s Hospital and its northern edge about 5 or 6 miles north of the crossroads.

Closeup of Walterhill portion of the 1878 Beers map of Rutherford County. Look closely and just below the seam you can see the home of W. Hill, then postmaster who gave the place its name.

The East Fork of Stones River is one of Walterhill’s most prominent geographic features (the other being Mount Trashmore). The river got its name way back in 1766 from a long hunter named Uriah Stone, who was the first white person to report exploring the river. As the principal channel of drainage for Rutherford County, the river’s periodic flood stages have enriched its floodplains with deep and fertile soil. The river is constantly fed by numerous creeks and springs along its banks. The combination of a constantly-flowing river, plentiful spring water, fertile soil, and relatively flat landscape made the area very desirable for early settlers.

The first settlers in the Walterhill area arrived from about 1790 to 1810. Some of the early prominent settlers included Thomas Rucker, his brother James Rucker (my 2nd cousins 7 times removed), William Washington Searcy (my 2nd cousin 7 times removed), Dr. Samuel Pope Black (married Fanny Jane Pitts, my 2nd cousin 6 times removed), John Cummins, and John Hoover (my GGGGG grandfather).

The earliest recorded name for the area was Black’s Shop or Black’s Crossroads in reference to property owned by Dr. Samuel Pope Black at the intersection of Lebanon Road and Jefferson Pike. By the early 1820s Dr. Black owned a considerable amount of land on the west side of the Lebanon Road from Cherry Lane (across from the VA Hospital) to a point north of the intersection of Lebanon Road and Jefferson Pike. The area was sometimes called Pierce’s Mill (sometimes spelled Pearce’s Mill) in reference to the still-standing mill site on Stones River.

Walterhill got its current name when the postmaster named Walter Hill used his name as the postmark. The 1878 Beers Map of Rutherford County shows “W. Hill” living adjacent to the “store & P.O.” at the intersection of Central Valley Road and Lebanon Road. Over the years, Walter Hill has been shortened to Walterhill, but some still use the two-word version. The first post office for the area was established in 1860 at the intersection of Central Valley Road and Lebanon Road. The post office was moved in 1895 to a location just north of the Jefferson Pike intersection and remained there until it closed in 1967.

Development of the area from wilderness to farmland was initiated by land grants given to former soldiers and supporters for service in the American Revolution. In 1784 Isaac Shelby was granted 5,000 acres for his services, including a key role in helping defeat the British at the Battle of King’s Mountain. His grant stretched from the current VA hospital area to a point past Betty Ford Road on Jefferson Pike. Like many others who received grants, he probably never set foot on the land, but benefitted from its value by selling it. The next phase of development in the area was characterized by many transactions in the ownership of property by speculators and settlers alike.

In 1797 Thomas Rucker (1759-1843), his brother James Rucker (1758-1819), and Zachariah Dawson bought 1,806 acres that included part of the present day VA Hospital property and extended beyond Bushnell Creek. In 1801, Thomas Rucker, his brother Rev. James Rucker, and Simon Miller bought Isaac Shelby’s entire 5,000-acre Revolutionary War land grant. The Ruckers continued to buy and sell land for many years.

James Rucker’s four sons James Rucker Junior (1788-1850), Benjamin Rucker (1790-1866), Dr. William Rucker (1792-1861), and Samuel Reade Rucker (1794-1862) all became prominent citizens of the county. Each built a fine home on land their father and uncle had bought in Rutherford County. Three of those homes are standing and lived in today.

James Rucker, Jr. (1788-1850) built this house on Compton Road in 1811. My GGG grandfather Matthew Pitts (1820-1885) bought this house and farm in 1879. Both James Rucker, Jr. and Matthew Pitts are buried in the family cemetery in the Hawksridge subdivision on Compton Road.

Dr. William Rucker served as Mayor of Murfreesboro 1822-23. Samuel Reade Rucker served in the state legislature 1827-29.

Samuel Reade Rucker built this house in 1829 and has been continuously occupied by his descendants. It still stands at the intersection of Jefferson Pike and Betty Ford Road.

Thomas Rucker built the first mill in the county in 1799 by damming a spring that flowed from a cave on his property at the current VA hospital. This small mill was known as Cave Mill.

The log home Thomas Rucker built about 1803 stills stands on Central Valley Road. Today the log structure is covered with clapboard. This house is known as Pebble Hill, a name later given by Dr. Samuel P. Black. By 1809, Thomas Rucker vacated Pebble Hill and built another home nearby on his property where the VA Hospital now stands. In this second house, he lived out his days. His closest neighbor was his brother James Rucker. The location of James’ house was precisely where the main building of the Alvin C. York Veteran’s hospital stands today. Both Thomas’ and James’ houses remained standing until that property was purchased around 1937 to build the Veteran’s Hospital.

Pebble Hill, built by Tomas Rucker about 1803 was later sold to the Rooker family and remains in that family to the present day. Martin Rooker (1937-2012) was an avid historian known for his research on the origins of Bradley Academy at Walterhill. His proposal to add the house to the National Registry of Historic Places was declined due to modern updates to the house.

The remains of James Rucker’s house and the surrounding land were purchased by my GG grandfather, Garrard Dudley Crutcher shortly after the Civil War. Garrard’s daughter and her husband, my great grandparents, lived in the remains of that house which had been expanded to a more modern home.

Grave of James Rucker on the grounds of the Alvin C. York Veterans Hospital.

One of the earliest settlers and landowners to leave a lasting mark on the area was John Cummins. In 1793 he bought land that straddled Stones River. Nine years later, in 1802, built a mill on Stones River at the location of the current concrete dam visible from the Lebanon Road bridge at Walterhill. It is interesting to consider that his 1793 purchase was three years before President George Washington signed the proclamation admitting Tennessee as the 16th state of the union. Cummins’ original dam was built of earth and stone. The original dam was later reinforced by cedar logs, some of which I‘ve been told may still be visible on the south end of the current dam. As the mill passed by inheritance through three generations, it has been known as Cummins Mill, Abbott’s Mill, and Pierce’s Mill (sometimes spelled Pearce’s Mill).

This rare photo of the milldam at Walterhill shows the second version when the dam was earth and stone reinforced with cedar logs and the mill was used for grinding grain. Photo courtesy of Bill Jakes, author of Postcard History of Murfreesboro.

The millwright for Cummins Mill was John Hoover (my GGGGG grandfather) who was related to John Cummins by marriage. John Hoover established a home and large farm just north of the crossroads at Walterhill and raised his family there. His home is still standing and occupied on Jefferson Pike.

This house is believed to have been the home of John Hoover (1777 – 1845), millwright of the first mill on Stones River at Walterhill. The house stands on the east side of Jefferson Pike a short distance north of the Lebanon Road intersection.

In 1803 William Nash established the county’s first trade store near Cummins Mill. Nash was also Justice of the Peace for the original court in the county. The store was described by John C. Spence in Annals of Rutherford County as a log cabin with a dirt floor. Transactions were primarily bartering in hides, pelts, and venison. His goods were described as ”a three-gallon jug filled with ‘mountain dew,’ a fiew pounds of (gun) powder, flints, tow (wadding for gunshot), a few bars of lead, some pounds of twist tobacco, pint and half-pint flanks (?), and a fiew other minor articles.” Nash later moved his store to Jefferson as that town began to develop.

In 1803 the Tennessee Legislature authorized the formation of the new county of Rutherford. Prior to the formation of Rutherford County, the Walterhill area had been part of Wilson, Sumner, and Davidson counties.

Also in 1803, five miles northwest of Walterhill, Jefferson was the first town to be laid out in the county. Jefferson was located at the confluence of the East and West forks of Stones River. This location had the advantage of being navigable most of the year all the way to the Cumberland River, which connected it to Nashville, and on to the Mississippi River and beyond. Upstream from Jefferson, both forks of Stones River were too shallow for navigation in anything other than small craft. It is interesting to note that the town of Jefferson was named for Thomas Jefferson who was president at the time the town was founded.

On January 3, 1804, the Rutherford County court held its historic first meeting at Thomas Rucker’s Pebble Hill house in Walterhill.

Walterhill served as a major pathway for the earliest growth of Rutherford County. Many of the early settlers came through Davidson County by traveling upstream on Stones River, with some staying in the area and others moving further south. When Rutherford County was formed, some of the earliest acts of the new government were to commission roads to be built, and the first recorded such act was a road leading to Walterhill. Several more of the county’s earliest roads specify Walterhill as their terminus – Cummins Mill to be exact.

It took a long time for roads to be established in this part of the country. Andrew Jackson used to pick the best of the primitive roads to make his way from his home at The Hermitage to Washington, D.C. In his carriage (which is on display today at The Hermitage) he would travel southeast down the Nashville to Murfreesboro Turnpike (one of the first improved roads in the area) and then cut through Leanna on Central Valley Road to Lebanon road (now US 231) at Walterhill. From there he would proceed to Murfreesboro and then on to McMinnville and then to Knoxville and on to Washington, D.C.

When Thomas Rucker and his brother James and James’ daughter and four young sons first moved to Tennessee they bought property at Clover Bottom near the home of Andrew Jackson, and family bonds were formed with the Jacksons. James Rucker’s daughter Elizabeth married Severn Donelson, the brother of Rachel Donelson Jackson, Andrew Jackson’s wife. Severn and Elizabeth gave birth to twin boys but for unclear reasons, they decided to give one of the twins to the Jacksons to raise as their own. The child’s name was changed to Andrew Jackson Junior. The child’s natural grandfather James Rucker lived at Walterhill.

Due to family ties, James Rucker’s son Benjamin Rucker (1790-1866) formed a strong friendship with Andrew Jackson. Benjamin was known to host the Jacksons at his home on Betty Ford Road. So close was their friendship that Benjamin and the Jacksons maintained identical gardens. Each would acquire two of any new garden plants so that they could share with each other.

I lived in Benjamin’s house for a good portion of my childhood and saw remains of his long-ago-ruined garden rise from the ground each spring.

The house known as “Maple Shade” was built in 1832 by Benjamin Rucker, son of James Rucker. This is how the house appears in the 1970’s when I lived there with my parents. My high school friends will certainly remember the great parties we had in the basement!

In 1805, Jefferson was chosen as “the seat of justice” (county seat) for the newly-formed Rutherford County. By 1811, citizens began to demand a more centrally located county seat. The Tennessee Legislature appointed a committee of seven men to select a new location for Rutherford’s county seat. After eliminating two of the four proposed sites, the committee was torn between Rucker property at Walterhill, and property owned by Capt. William Lytle on the west fork of Stones River. Heated negotiations eventually produced a vote of four to three in favor of the Lytle location, which is where the city of Murfreesboro now stands.

In other words, the county seat hopped over Walterhill from Jefferson five miles to the north to five miles to the south in Murfreesboro, and in the process almost became the count seat itself. Only one vote cast differently by committee members could have produced a very different future for Walterhill, our county, and our state.

In 1806, the Tennessee legislature passed a resolution to establish an “academy” in each county of the state. Five trustees were selected to establish Bradley Academy in Rutherford County. The former home of Thomas Rucker at Pebble Hill was selected as the original location for the academy. The trustees selected an experienced teacher and newcomer to the area, Dr. Samuel Pope Black (1775-1857) to serve as headmaster. An article dated Dec. 15, 1809 in the Democratic Clarion stated that the academy would open on December 17, 1809, that the school could accommodate 40 or 50 students, and that the headmaster would be Samuel P. Black. This was the first school in Rutherford County.

Bradley Academy moved to new quarters in Murfreesboro in 1811. Dr. Black remained headmaster for 26 years. The school’s curriculum included English, grammar, Latin, Greek, arithmetic, mathematics, geography, natural and moral philosophy, astronomy, logic, belles-lettres, and other branches of literature. Dr. Black’s most famous students included James K. Polk who became Governor of Tennessee and 11th President of the United States, and John Bell who became a member of the US House of Representatives, US Senate, US Secretary of War, and a US presidential candidate in 1860.

Two of Bradley Academy’s most famous students: 11th President of the United States, James K. Polk (left), and U.S. presidential candidate, John Bell (right).

Dr. Samuel P. Black married Fanny Jane Pitts in 1805. (She is my second cousin, six times removed.) The Blacks raised three sons and four daughters. Two of his daughters married doctors. Eliza married Dr. John Robertson Wilson, and Fanny Jane married Dr. Walter Preston Coleman. The Black’s son Thomas Crutcher Black became a doctor and was a founding member of the Rutherford County Medical Society.

By 1822 Dr. Samuel Black acquired considerable property including a house now known as Evergreen about a half mile south of Central Valley Road on Lebanon Road. This was where he lived out his days and this house remained the home of his descendants for the next 130 years. The Black family cemetery sits a couple hundred feet north of Evergreen very close to the edge of Lebanon Road and is surrounded by an ornate iron fence. It is the final resting place of Dr. Black and many of his family members. Evergreen still stands and has been beautifully restored.

Evergreen became the home of Dr. Samuel P. Black and his family in 1822. It was extensively enlarged and modified to the appearance in this photo by his son, Dr. Thomas Crutcher Black after he acquired the property in 1850. A separate doctor’s office structure stands adjacent to the house. Photo courtesy of Mr. Read Ridley, present owner of the house.

In 1822 while Murfreesboro was the Tennessee state capital, the courthouse burned, so the state legislature appointed a commission to supervise the erection of a new courthouse. This commission included John Hoover, his neighbor Samuel P. Black, David Wendell, John S. Jetton, and Benjamin McCullough. The courthouse building erected under this commission was used until the present structure was built in 1859.

During this early period of settlement, roads were almost non-existent, but a well-traveled trail was developing from Nashville to Murfreesboro passing through Jefferson and Walterhill. By 1815, the trail had been improved to “road” status and became the main route between Murfreesboro and Nashville.

Walterhill grew and prospered in its first half-century. The wilderness was cleared for farming, mills were established for sawing lumber and milling grains, homes were built and expanded to accommodate families that grew and prospered. Corn, cotton, and tobacco fueled the economy. Against the odds, native sons defeated the British at New Orleans earning Tennessee the nickname Volunteer State. Andrew Jackson became a national hero, and seventh President of the United States. James K. Polk followed Jackson to Washington as eleventh President of the United States and doubled the size of the Unites States by annexing Texas, the Oregon territory, and the Mexican Cession of territory containing California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and more. To the folks in Walterhill, it must have seemed as if anything was possible and there was no better place to be.

But an angry north wind would soon blow across the land and many decades would pass before the area would fully recover – if ever.

Part II of this history of Walterhill is in development and will be posted soon. My thanks go to James Richardson, Bill Jakes, Read Ridley, the Rutherford County Historical Society – especially Ernie Johns and Susan Daniel, and the great number of family and friends who helped with and inspired this story.

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