Historic Structures

Cragfont - General James Winchester House, Gallatin Tennessee

Date added: May 28, 2021 Categories: Tennessee House

The long hard drive up a dangerous and rocky lane from the highway to Cragfont is a fitting introduction to the atmosphere of what is to come at the end of the drive. Situated on the very top of a craggy and almost precipitous hill, Cragfont looks down on the approaching visitor with all the hauteur and dignity befitting the position of eminence so aristocratically occupied by its builder, Gen. James Winchester.

It is a large limestone house presenting to the visitor a bold, sheer facade of gray stone laid evenly, closely and to a large scale, broken only by the necessary window and door openings. Very little detail is employed, but that which is, is in excellent taste and execution. Absolute symmetry is carried out in the design, there being five window openings at the second floor and four window openings and the entrance at the first floor. Four smaller barred cellar windows also occur directly beneath the four principal windows and an even smaller window occurs on either side of the entrance steps. A complete but delicate wood cornice runs the distance of the facade returning on itself and having no projection on the end gables. The facade is further characterized by eight large iron stars, being the washers on the ends of iron rods extending through the house in the first and second floor construction for the purpose of holding the massive walls upright. Large keystone jack-arches span all the openings, and enormous moldings, sills and frames define the windows. The entrance is only accentuated by a simple transom and stone steps leading up to the door. No exterior shutters were employed but interior shutters folding into the jambs are used on the first floor. A large stone chimney occurs at each gabled end, so wide are they that each embraces two fireplaces in separated rooms. No windows pierce the gable ends. Extending to the rear of the house is a long two story wing to form a "T" plan. Two story porches occur on either side of the wing but not extending around the end and terminating against the main, or front section of the house. On the interior a typical center stair hall is flanked on the left by the large parlor extending across the entire end of the house, and on the right by the music room and another parlor. The parlor to the left is entered through a large doorway with paneled jambs, opposite which is a great mantel extending from floor to ceiling and elaborately executed in delicate woodwork. Much attention has been brought to the house by this mantel alone.. A rich chair rail extends around the room at sill height and of the same profile as the sill. Great care was exercised in this feature as the sill and apron are of marble, meeting perfectly with the rail. The windows are set in deep panel reveals out of which open the interior shutters occuring in sections divided at the meeting rail of the sash. The same details and careful workmanship of this room are also carried out in the other rooms of the first floor.

Gen. Winchester had come into Tennessee from Maryland and brought with him a poignant desire to build a home and gardens equal to those with which he was familiar in his home state. The entire program was carried out with that one thought, and the expense he resorted to in achieveing this end was commented on by Michaux, a gentleman from France, who in 1802 travelled through middle Tennessee and recorded in his writings that "the workmen employed to finish the inside were brought from Baltimore, a distance of nearly 700 miles". The General's own native individuality was expressed in the building into his house an enormous ball room, and from all accounts this was the first such luxury to be incorporated in a private home in the State. The natives of this section still tell retold stories of the magnificant balls given at Cragfont and of the lovely ladles and gentlemen dancing through the doors and onto the porches to find romance to the accompaniment of the soft light of the stars, the lovely aroma of the nearby gardens and the music of the long forgotten tunes.

Returning to the description of the house, we find that Cragfont departs from the conventional Tennessee plan after leaving the front or main section. At the rear of the central stair hall a door opens into a cross hall in the wing to the rear. This hall affords circulation between the two porches on either side of the wing. Immediately beyond this cross hall is located the dining room; back of which and slightly lower is the kitchen. Not connected by a doorway but separated by a wall is the last room of the building, the smoke house, which extends the full two stories. This location of the smoke house in the residence proper is, so far as we know, unique.

The second floor of the front section is typical of the period and except for the unusual care and workmanship, differs little from the usual. The second floor of the wing is not accessible to the second floor of the front section but is accessible by means of a small circular stair located in the wall on the first floor between the cross hall and the dining room. The room above, served by this circular stair, is the famous ball room and occupies all the space above the cross hall and dining room below. The ball room opens out onto the second floor porches on either side and affords an ideal view of the gardens and lake in the fore ground and the farm lands in the distance. Immediately back of the ball room is another room over the kitchen, the use of which we have been unable to determine. Back of this is the upper part of the smoke house, the last space in the building.

Leaving the house we find only fragmentary remains and indications of the luxuriant gardens that flourished to the right of the house and lay between the lake to the back and the almost sheer slope to the front. Letters, stories and a few physical remains indicate that the garden was to the right of the house and was reached by a main walk taking off at right angles to the rear wing, the walk appears to have passed beds of perennials, sweet herbs, etc. and led to a tea-house which composed the principal point of interest. Beyond the tea-house and continuing in the same direction the main walk extended to beds of strawberries, raspberries, etc. Another major walk intersected the main walk at right angles to and at the point of the tea-house and led to the lake at the rear and to the rose gardens and terraces to tne front. The gardens of Cragfont were reputed to be the most pretentious of that time in the State and did credit to Winchester's aim of building a setting comparable to those he had witnessed in his home State, The remainder of the grounds around the house on all sides were treated with large trees and a center walk to the door was lined with cedars. To the rear and reached by another walk was located the traditional family cemetery.

While it can be seen by the photographs that Cragfont has lost, by neglect, its atmosphere of granduer, and while cows graze lazily over the spot where once bloomed the lovliness of its gardens, and while the lake has been drained and now yawns an open hollow, and while the remains of Gen. Winchester lie under a granite monument in the weed-grown cemetery, the place is still inspiring to all who visit the site and who stand and gaze at the magnitude and strength of the austere structure, and revel in the courage and determination necessary to hack out of the primeval forest the space necessary and erect thereon so lasting a monument to the virtues that created it.

The following facts relative to Gen. Winchester were taken from "Tennessee, The Volunteer State" by John Trotwood Moore:

He was born Feb. 6th, 1752 in Carroll County, Maryland, near Westminister, a town laid off by his father, William Winchester. It seems only natural that the son of William Winchester be a man to originate and plan great developments, and he did, as will be told later in this account.

In 1776 he enlisted in the Revolutionary War as a private in the Third Maryland Regiment, a part of Washington's Army, and was commissioned a lieutenant in May 1778 for bravery. He was wounded and taken prisoner while assisting in covering Washington's retreat at the battle of Long island and was held captive on a prison boat for a year after which he was exchanged and rejoined his regiment in the South under General Nathaniel Greene, with whom he served to the end of the Revolutionary War. During this service under General Greene he took part in several battles and was at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. After the war he was commissioned captain in 1782. Soon after the war he came into Sumner County, took up his residence near Bledsoe Station, acquiring extensive lands and building his famous stone mansion which he called "Cragfont".

In 1787 he was appointed by Governor Caswell of North Carolina "A Captain of the Horse in Sumner County", and in 1788 was appointed lieutenant colonel by Governor Samuel Johnston of North Carolina to command a regiment of militia in Sumner County. In 1789 he was appointed by Governor Daniel Smith "An Inspector to the Brigade of the Militia of Mero District". He was a delegate to the North Carolina Convention which refused to ratify the Constitution of the united States. Married Susan Black of Sumner County. In 1790, after much local activity, was appointed by Governor William Blount "Lieutenant Colonel, Commandant of the Regiment of Militia of Sumner", and also was made Justice of the Peace.

He was very active in quelling Indian riots and disturbances until 1794 when he centered practically all of his activities in private business and in partnership with William Cage. This partnership lasted until the latter's death. He was appointed in 1794 by President Washington a member of the Legislative Council of the Southwest territory and was in 1796, at the birth of the State of Tennessee, the first Speaker of the Senate. Prior to his becoming Speaker of the Senate in 1796, he was appointed in 1795 Brigidier General of Mero District and re-appointed in 1796 by Governor Sevier of Tennessee. He held this position of Brigidier General until the War of 1812, the second war with England, when he was appointed, on April 8th, by President Madison a Brigidier General in the United States Army. He was unfortunate in this war in being defeated in the battle of the River Taisin and was captured and confined in a Quebec prison until 1814, when he was released, He returned home and was received with the utmost respect and confidence by his fellow citizens. The war, however, was not over and he was ordered to New Orleans and was stationed at Mobile where he commanded a large district.

After the war was over he resigned and returned to Cragfont where he lived until 1819 when he was appointed commissioner to determine and mark the southern boundary of West Tennessee. He was one of the founders of Memphis and it is said gave the town its name. Its early development was his last important work. He died at Cragfont on July 26th, 1826.