Friday, November 13, 2020

Worlds apart: How slaves, masters lived on a Tennessee farm

Two slave cabins remarkably survive a short distance (left) from  the circa-1840s
Owen-Primm antebellum farmhouse. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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On a gentle rise near a busy road in Brentwood, Tenn., the once-stately Owen-Primm antebellum farmhouse barely clings to life. Meanwhile, roughly 35 yards away stand two remarkable survivors: log slave cabins that a local developer plans to restore.  

Well-worn, stone steps lead to the humble interior of one of the slave quarters, which is packed with 21st-century clutter -- an exercise bike, a badminton racquet, part of a chicken coop. On the wall hangs a large, ancient horseshoe; a piece of a 19th-century ironing board lay on original wood flooring. Hand-chiseled blocks of stone form a fireplace, and a single-drawer table rests against a wall.

An old horseshoe hangs on
an interior wall of the
slave cabin.
Eight to 10 enslaved people may have lived in each of these cabins. Some of them undoubtedly slept in a cramped second floor, where standing was never an option. Who were they? Maybe someday we'll know their names.

Now abandoned, the dilapidated Greek Revival-style house at 8318 Moore's Lane, about 15 miles south of Nashville, was home to a succession of Primms, a family among the earliest to settle in the area. In 1845, slaveholder Thomas Perkins Primm is believed to have greatly expanded a log cabin built four decades earlier, probably by physician Jabez Owen.   

But many questions remain about the history of the house that time, nature and neglect have conspired to ravage. (Dairy farmer Charlie Primm, who died in 2011, is the last direct Primm family member to own the property.) Paint peels from each of the four, massive Doric columns at the entryway. On a small porch, weeds sprout from cracks in concrete near a pair of old rocking chairs. A decrepit shutter hangs precariously next to a sash window missing one of its 12 panes.

The expansive interior suffers, too. On the first floor, Inetta Gaines and Ashley McAnulty of the Brentwood Historic Commission, well-meaning developer Jerrold Pedigo and I gingerly stepped around gaping holes in the flooring. In a musty living room, near carpets that lay haphazardly on the floor, rests a 19th-century mahogany veneer couch. A 150-plus-year-old chest of drawers stands in the entry hall; nearby, a patch of  floral wallpaper -- probably original to the house -- offers a brief respite from the gloom. 

We didn't dare visit the varmint-plagued second floor, so our brief exploration ended in the dingy (and moldy) cabin basement, where a flashlight revealed a massive spider web. The visit was especially meaningful for Gaines, the only Black member of the 12-person Brentwood Historic Commission.  

The slave cabins will live on for others to appreciate, but sadly there may be no saving the farmhouse, owned by another developer. It's probably too far gone to restore without a substantial investment of time and money.  

MORE: Read Owen-Primm house National Register of Historic Places form 

Each log slave cabin is believed to have housed eight to 10 people.
The slave quarters shared this chimney.
The original vertical board door leads to a meager interior.
A handmade chain on the slave cabin door. Was it made by a slave?
Well-worn steps at a cabin entrance. 
An ancient fireplace amid modern clutter.
A single-drawer, wooden table, perhaps a long-ago hand-me-down used by the enslaved. 
A chunk of a period ironing board rests on the slave cabin's original flooring.
The Owen-Primm antebellum farmhouse dates to about 1845. 
A decrepit shutter hangs precariously by a window missing a pane.
Weeds, peeling paint on Doric columns and an old rocking chair at an entryway.
One of two towering brick chimneys. 
A once-impressive living room.
A close-up of the fireplace. 
A 19th-century couch, perhaps original to the house.
Original floral wallpaper exposed inside the Owen-Primm House. 
A sturdy original door. 
Windows include the original, 19th-century "wavy" glass panes.
A doorbell from a long-ago era.
A message from long ago.

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  1. Thank you for this reminder of our history in the south. It is so sad that this piece of history cannot be saved.

  2. Well Done & Appreciated. Well documented records and images of these fading relics should be a priority.

  3. G'Day John,

    Excellent as usual.

    Rob FNQ,Au

  4. Wow!! Amazing house and to have the slave quarters still standing and be able to restore them for everyone to see!!

    I was just at Perryville in March and was at the tree. I was curious to know how old the house is and why it is on the property?

  5. Anonymous1:44 PM

    Seems to me that the main house is also worth saving.