Walk a Mile: Whites Creek

Once a month, reporter and resident historian J.R. Lind will pick an area in the city to examine while accompanied by a photographer. With his column Walk a Mile, he’ll walk a one-mile stretch of that area, exploring the neighborhood’s history and character, its developments, its current homes and businesses, and what makes it a unique part of Nashville. If you have a suggestion for a future Walk a Mile, email editor@nashvillescene.com.

The route: North on Whites Creek Pike from the split with Buena Vista Pike to the intersection with Old Hickory Boulevard.

Cranes: 0

Abandoned scooters: 0

As the crow flies, the community of Whites Creek is six or seven miles from downtown Nashville. On a crisp October morning, the chill hints that — despite the coming afternoon heat — fall is here. There are no crows heading south to downtown, but a flock of Canada geese in their familiar V point to the city, no doubt restless to stay ahead of the cooler air and overwinter wherever it is that geese overwinter.

Whites Creek, the community, stretches through a surprisingly flat valley carved by Whites Creek, the creek. This plain carves its way south, following Whites Creek itself as it winds through northwest Nashville and into Bordeaux before it meets the Cumberland River south of County Hospital Road, just across the river from the long-closed Tennessee State Prison.

But on three sides, hills and ridges on the edge of the Highland Rim sprout up from the horizon, and at their summits too are the signs of coming autumn, as the pawpaw and the ash — among the earliest species to change colors with the season — are showing their golden fall fashion.

Looking north from where Buena Vista Pike and Whites Creek Pike angle together, forming a rather confounding intersection along with Lloyd Road, it’s obvious why many of Davidson County’s earliest settlers put down roots in Whites Creek.

For the agriculturally inclined, there are few places better in the area: It’s flat and well-drained, and lush meadows that haven’t been turned by a plow show how fecund the soil is. North Carolina handed out several 640-acre land grants along Whites Creek to Revolutionary War veterans, and so successful were those patriots at turning wilderness to commerce that many farms, though since divided, are still in the hands of their descendents. The posterity of the Knights and the Marshalls, who laid down their roots in the early 19th century, are still in the area. The Frederick Stump House, south on Buena Vista Pike, still stands and is likely the oldest extant structure in the county. The architecture of what is now a Shell station looking at the curious Y of the two pikes indicates that Whites Creekers have been trading at a store there for a long, long time.

Just north of the signs welcoming you to Historic Whites Creek is the current home of the Centre Star Masonic Lodge, which the Masons bought from St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in 1965 for the princely sum of $17,000. The building itself dates from 1935, but the Methodists, in one form or another, were worshipping on the land since the 1870s. The Centre Star Lodge’s annual barbecue, by the way, is still on for Oct. 24.

Across the pike from this plat chockablock with local history is a row of large modern brick homes, each looking more or less like the next, the houses with their front-facing garages crammed far forward on their lots.

The local elementary school, named for the Rev. Alexander Little Page Green — the minister of McKendree Methodist and a fishing expert, and instrumental in the foundation of Vanderbilt University in the 1870s — is empty this day, of course, and not just because Metro students are on fall break. Coincidentally, Green’s granddaughter Julia also lent her name to an elementary school in Green Hills. The Greens are one of just two families with more than one school in Nashville named for them. (The DuPont family has three in the Old Hickory area.)

Next door is the headquarters of the Minerva Foundation, a nonprofit that engages “in public service programs that promote and encourage high intellectual, cultural, and moral standards among people, groups and residents in the metropolitan Nashville community.” The 501c(3) group bought its property from the Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort in 2016. Prior to that it was briefly owned by the Whites Creek Church of Christ, which itself bought the property from Buford Chapel Church of Christ, which had owned the property since the 1930s — apparently a big church-building time in the Creek.

Just beyond a canyonesque ditch that requires some rudimentary boulder-scrambling to cross is yet another newish subdivision, jarring in its modernity and utter suburbanness given its rural surroundings. Cherry Grove, though, at least nods to the sensibilities of its location. The homes are spaced on relatively wide lots and wind up a single road to the lower angles of a ridgeline, making it largely unobtrusive.

Whites Creek’s big tourist draw, such as it is, is across the pike here: Fontanel, formerly the home of Barbara Mandrell and now an entertainment complex featuring an amphitheater, restaurant, inn, B&B, a connection to the greenway system and Lord knows what else. Fontanel is (sadly, probably) not named for the soft spot on a baby’s skull, but rather for the word’s original use, meaning a small fountain. There are fountains on the property (they seem mostly normal-size, honestly) and Whites Creek the creek flows straight through the middle of it. This is the creek’s nearest approach to the road that shares its name on this particular mile — the creek and the road are cheek-to-cheek farther south.

Now the shoulder of the road narrows precipitously, sticking perambulists between the devil of speeding traffic and the deep-green sea of Whites Creek’s consistently capacious ditch system. Sidewalks are at a premium in rural Davidson County, though Metro’s sidewalk regulations mean there are some near the new subdivisions — they often simply stub into nothingness.

The traffic whizzes by to the right and to the left, and the browning corn stalks lean easily with the wind. Unseen critters, their actual size inflated by the loud crunching on the dry undergrowth, flit and hop and crawl in the fields. One, a nearly neon-green snake, met its maker on the shoulder of the road, coincidentally right next to a cheap plastic lighter with the same coloration. It’s not a comforting omen.

But between the repeated clinchings of teeth that reflexively occur whenever another southbound truck passes, there is wild beauty here. Coneflowers, chokeberries and the like grow undaunted between corn and pavement. The moon in its earliest wane after fullness is still visible in the otherwise unmarked sky. An untended barbed-wire fence is occasionally visible in the untended brambles. G.K. Chesterton’s old white post — once, of course, a new white post — is flopped across the ditch, no doubt a convenient fixed link for the unseeables still making their noise in the flora. The gate to this sometimes-fence is still standing, though its functionality long ago fell victim to nature. The rare dusky-purple “NO TRESPASSING” sign is nailed to a nearby tree. The corn finally ends against a row of old-growth trees.

After the corn gives way, the land opens up again and two stately white Colonials face Whites Creek Pike, with stables and a silo behind. The older — behind an aging rail fence with green shutters providing splashes of color — was built in 1910. One-hundred-and-six years later, its neighbor went up, its most eye-catching feature a large circular porch on the front-right corner. The land was, for decades, the home of the Thompson family, owners of the Country Maid Dairy. 

Just beyond, tucked under the well-manicured shade trees of yet another subdivision, is a short wrought-iron fence, a sign in front saying that what’s enclosed is cared for by a group of local gardeners. But the patch isn’t a community garden. (The expansive Whites Creek Community Garden is just south of the Shell station.) It’s the Casey family cemetery, with graves dating to the mid-19th century. Mildred Casey, who died in 1854, is described eternally as the “Consort of William Richards.” Given that she didn’t take his surname, the mind boggles at the implication. Was she a live-in of this Richards? Who can know? 

What passes as downtown Whites Creek is nestled into the crossroads of Whites Creek Pike and Old Hickory Boulevard. First is a post office, charming in its minusculity, the numerous P.O. boxes lining most of the available wall space, the exterior of the building semi-covered in that odd beige brick that the federal government was enamored with for much of the mid-20th century. Next door is a branch of First Horizon Bank (née First Tennessee), which is only notable in its irony — across the street perhaps America’s most famous bank robbers finally met the law.

The historical marker tells the story of what once went down at what is now a store selling various vintage and collectible items. Jesse and Frank James settled in Nashville in 1875, and according to what you hear, they lived or hid out in every house in the city. Ask any homeowner in East or North Nashville with so much as a brick dating from Reconstruction and they’ll insist Jesse holed up in their basement for six months. The brothers were actually fairly chill for a while. Frank seemed to take to farming (which he did in Whites Creek), but Jesse was cantankerous. He’d write letters to the editor of the local newspaper insisting he oughta be treated as a hero for all the trouble he’d caused the Yankees. Well, Jesse went back to train holdups and bank robberies, and authorities both here and in Missouri figured that the gang would make their way back to Middle Tennessee at some point. 

On March 25, 1881, James-Younger Gang member Bill Ryan (using the name Tim Hill) went into W.L. Earthman’s grocery store and saloon. Like many folks, Ryan got mouthy when he drank and started bragging about all his exploits — so Earthman (a retired constable) and other saloon patrons wrestled Bill/Tim and hauled him down to Nashville. Earthman got a handsome reward (with which he built a home), and Frank and Jesse decided they’d skedaddle out of the city.

With the notorious thieves now elsewhere, locals felt comfortable enough to open the Whites Creek Bank and Trust across the street from Earthman’s in 1911. (Coincidentally, the current First Horizon property is still owned by Whites Creek Bank and Trust, though it long ago merged into First Horizon’s predecessors.) It also served as a post office. In the 1920s, a general store went up where, most recently, the much-missed Cajun joint Ri’chard’s Cafe operated. The Centre Star Masons, which were founded in 1870, met here as well. 

But for the generic subdivisions that are sprouting like goldenrod, a walk through Whites Creek is a calm reminder that Davidson County — for all its bluster and bigheadedness and busyness and business — is home to pockets of pastoral peace, rural enclaves seemingly out of place and out of time.

And often they’re just a few miles as the goose flies.

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