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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Early October Through Columbus Day--Part II

October 17, 2013 Colder and rainy on and off. A good day to blog. 2:44PM CST Townhouse Office Nashville, Tn October 5 dawned sunny and warm and we made our way to Columbia, Tn to visit the only remaining home of the 11th President of the United States, James Knox Polk. The only remaining residence, that is, but for The White House. Greta Garmin acquired her satellites and led us a familiar path to Old Hickory Blvd to Franklin Pike which we expected her to continue to follow into Columbia but she diverted us to the East and so into Columbia only blocks from his home without taking us through the heart of the city. I like that Greta, sometimes. The homes in Brentwood continue to amaze me by their size for single families, though in comparison to Belle Meade this are shacks. Upon arrival in front of the Polk residence we were directed to the home beside it, known as the Sisters' House. It is so called because one of his elder sisters and her husband lived in it until they were expecting their ninth child. At that point, they decided the home was too small so they removed to a larger house and another of James' sisters moved in with her husband and two children. The Sisters' House has had the downstairs converted into a theatre in which a short film is shown about the Polk family history and James' early life before his marriage and eventual entry into politics. Another room houses a modest gift shop and several other rooms house a small museum with a timeline of Polk's history and some of the smaller items he possessed. It is sad to think that the Polk Place in Nashville, which was his final home and site of his final resting place, as well as the home in which he widow dwelt until her death, was torn down in 1901 in order for a hotel to be built. His grave was then moved to the Capital Building grounds. One of the portraits in the film room that particularly appealed to me was of a very handsome red-haired fellow. Turns out he was George M. Dallas, for whom the city in Texas is named and who ran with Polk as the vice - presidential candidate. I found several items and several comments particularly interesting. Loved the fun of campaigns that existed even as far back as the mid 19th century:" One for the ropes, the other for the gallows" ! Also the restraint in accepting gifts as President and First Lady: and ink pot, a cast of an extremely miniature foot, a beaded bag. In the house were a few larger gifts but, in general, when having seen the collections of more recent Presidents it is so modest. This fellow Polk was a definite man of the opinion that we had a Manifest destiny to own all the land to the Pacific Coast and eliminate any European holdings at least in the North American hemisphere and that he did. This attitude probably stemmed from the personal acquisition of land by his grandfather and father before him on behalf of the Polk family. His great-grandfather was an early settler of Mecklenburg, NC, the family having immigrated from Scotland in 1680 to Maryland. The West was very attractive to his grandfather, Ezekiel and his father, Samuel because of the available land. Through his job as surveyor, Ezekiel was able to acquire large tracts in what was to become Tennessee and he moved to it in 1790 but had to return to NC when his wife became ill. In 1803 he returned with other members of his family and, at first settled slightly south of Franklin. Samuel and his family arrived in 1806 when James was 11. At this point there were five children in the family, with James the eldest son. They established a farm north of what is now Columbia but as the area grew a new county, Maury ( pronounced Murray around here ) was organized, Columbia was designated the county seat and the first courthouse was built in 1809-1810. Samuel continued farming, bought or acquired lots in town and went into business with is eldest daughter's husband. Through all this activity it became evident that James was frail and not able to follow into the business. Before his 17th birthday his father had to take him to a specialist in Ky for major, for the time, urinary bladder surgery. It is supposed that this surgery had the unintended result by which James and his wife were unable to have children. Recognizing this lack of stamina it was decided that James would be educated as well as possible and proved to be an outstanding scholar at the University of NC at Chapel Hill. He had first honors in math and the classics and delivered the salutatory address in Latin--not particularly unusual in those days when Latin and Greek were both essential elements of a well-rounded education. Not once in his three years had James returned home and after graduation needed a week's rest before he could return home. While he was away much had happened. His eldest sister now had three children and was living in the Sisters' House next door to a new home his father had built in 1816. His second sister was now married to a doctor and lived with him and their child nearby as well. In the new home he joined his parents and seven younger siblings--two sisters and five brothers, ranging in age from a one year old to the eldest at 16! He was now 23 and stayed home for only a short time before heading off to Nashville to study law under the tutelage of a Mr. Felix Grundy, whose home would many years later after some renovation become Polk Place. During this time, James stuck his toe into politics and was chosen clerk of the State Senate, which was located in the then capital city of Murfreesboro. He was admitted to the bar in 1820 and returned to the family home in Columbia, practicing law out of a log cabin not far away. In 1823 he was elected to the State Legislature, began courting Sarah Childress, the daughter of a wealthy family and a highly educated young woman and married her on Jan 1, 1824. Then in 1825, with the support of Andrew Jackson, he ran for and was elected to the US House of Representatives. He served seven terms in Congress, and in 1835 was chosen Speaker of the House--only one ever to become President. His alliance with Andrew Jackson put him at odds with Henry Clay and led to the humorous exchanges mentioned earlier when they ran against each other for President. Before that unexpected event, however, Polk almost destroyed his political career by leaving a successful career in Washington to run for the Governorship of Tennessee, which he won for one term. He ran two more times and was defeated each time. He felt quite depressed by this but kept his eye on events in Washington and decided to seek the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1844. The Party had so many factions and could not agree on a Presidential candidate that it came as a total surprise that Polk was elected as the candidate on the 9th ballot when the original compromise choice, Silas Wright of New York, whose VP running mate was to be Polk, refused the nomination. Elected by the smallest margin of any President, Polk reduced the tariff, established an independent treasury, settled the boundary of Oregon, acquired California and New Mexico by winning the Mexican War, annexed Texas, negotiated a treaty with Britain about rights on the High Seas, established Annapolis as the Naval Academy and established the Smithsonian. He served four years, never intending to seek re-election, went home to Tennessee badly aged and weakened, contracted Cholera and died three months after leaving office. As I mentioned before Polk Place in Nashville was razed and a great-niece of Sarah Polk, whom she and James had adopted as their daughter, and the niece's daughter proposed that the Polk possessions be housed in the War Memorial being built in Nashville. Before the building was finished, however, the adopted daughter died and her daughter organized the JKP Memorial Association and with funds from various governmental and private donations the house in Columbia was purchased in 1924 and has become the museum we toured today. Its furnishings are all from the original family of Samuel Polk's time, from the Polk White House and from Polk Place. In 1937, the original Polk property housing the Sisters' House was acquired, the original foundations of the kitchen and adjourning room were found and the buildings reconstructed. The gardens are original and the fountain is the Polk fountain. Having absorbed much of this history from both the film and the museum ( where we saw a image of the original plan for the Washington monument, the cornerstone of which was laid by Polk ) we proceeded to the adjacent home. A lovely young woman named Lydia was our guide. To the left of the entrance hall is the formal parlor dominated by a beautiful mosaic Egyptian marble topped table given to Polk upon his retirement from the Presidency. It depicts the American eagle surrounded by 30 stars, representing the states of the Union in 1848. In one corner also stands the pianoforte which Sarah's father bought her and which cost the same as an acre of land! Hanging on two walls on one corner of the room, a painting of Polk when he assumed the Presidency with another painted at his retirement. They spoke more than words how those four years aged the man. Through the archway in one wall could be glimpsed the dining room. In pride of place opposite the entry from the hall, a painting of James' mother and to the right of that, a horrible painting of Sarah that Lydia and I agreed she probably never had hanging anywhere where it could be seen! Sarah's choice for White House china was a different Tennessee wildflower on each piece. Upstairs, a small room served as James' bedroom when he was a single man--a sleeping couch a bookcase and a desk-chair that I really loved. He probably shared it with the next oldest son. Next came the girl's bedroom which was light and airy as we entered. Painted white with bright green accents the case windows walls and trim are a beautiful peach. When the sun shone that peach just illuminated to whole place. Unfortunately, the sun went behind a cloud when the room was emptied and I could photograph it. Across the hall, Sarah and James' room but the portrait came after his death, hence she is in black widow's weeds which she never gave up, though, after a year, mauve and pearl gray were socially acceptable colors of a widow's garments. At the top of the stairs a portrait of Cortez, sent to Polk at the end of the Mexican War by General Pillow, who also gave Mrs Polk that heavy gold fan. A note included said that Cortez had been the first to defeat Mexico and that Polk was the second. Finally, another bedroom with a sitting area and a fire guard positioned beside one of the chairs. Ladies' make-up of the time contained wax and it would begin to melt in the warm from the flames. This shield which could be adjusted up and down protected the woman's face sitting in the chair close to the hearth. Lydia led us to the back door and we explored the kitchen area and then she rejoined us and led us rapidly through the garden to..... An adjacent Church has been purchased and renovated and serves at the Polk Presidential Hall in which exhibits are staged that relate to the period of James Polk's life. When we were there the exhibit was Keeping Time: Clocks from 1795-1850. It was during the later part of this period that American clock making was reaching its peak--a period when clocks made in New England were actually being used in our country and also being exported to Europe rather than English and French clocks being imported for American use. After exploring the various styles and periods of clocks we were free to wander the gardens at leisure. I sat in the shade on a elevated bench and just enjoyed the quiet and beauty of the surroundings as Bill strolled about looking at the various trees and shrubs. By this time it was almost 3 and we headed west toward Hohenwald and entry to the Natchez Trace--one of my favorite roads in America. We drove leisurely north, took the detour to the old Trace and stopped at a couple of memorials that were not there the last time we'd driven the Trace--one marking the Tennessee Valley Divide and another commemorating Jackson's march to and from New Orleans where he made a name for himself during the War of 1812--though the battle occurred in 1814 after the Peace Treaty had been signed in Paris--darned that mail service! Soon we were off the Trace on Tn route 100 and headed once more to Old Hickory Blvd and home--another full and interesting day gone by. Until the next installment --enjoy ! BandK

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