Saturday, February 27, 2021

A slice of (hog) heaven at General Gideon Pillow’s plantation

Gideon Pillow was a mediocre Civil War general, but he lived large at Clifton Place plantation,
five miles from downtown Columbia, Tenn. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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On a gloomy, overcast Saturday rambling about rural Maury County (Tenn.) with two excellent local guides, my friend Jack Richards and I learned: 
  • Columbia, the county seat, is the "Mule Capital of the World." (The town is famous for its annual "Mule Day," which began before the Civil War.)
  • The difference between chitlins (yuck) and cracklings (double yuck).
  • Gideon Pillow's spacious back porch.
    Gideon Pillow was a lousy Civil War general — see Exhibit A, Fort Donelson fiasco — but the Confederate commander sure lived the high life on a lavish plantation called “Clifton Place” astride Mount Pleasant Pike, five miles southwest of downtown Columbia. (He also was high on Gideon Pillow — the Mexican War veteran/politician/lawyer/planter/slave owner displayed a full-length painting of himself in his mansion.)

    In his 1864 memoirs, Winfield Scott -- commanding general of the U.S. Army when the Civil War broke out -- described Pillow as "amiable, and possessed of some acuteness, but the only person I have ever known who was wholly indifferent in the choice between truth and falsehood, honesty and dishonesty; ever as ready to attain an end by the one as the other, and habitually boastful of acts of cleverness at the total sacrifice of moral character."

    In other words, "Old Fuss and Feathers" was not a fan.
Original knocker on mansion
front door. (Photo: Jack Richards)
Privately owned but unoccupied for decades, Clifton Place includes a 12-room mansion built in 1838 as well as the original ice house, stable, Pillow office, slave quarters, kitchen, and smokehouse. (More on the greatness of the smokehouse in a bit.) Good for us that the Yankees didn't torch Clifton Place when they had the chance. Well-known for its impressive antebellum plantations (Ashwood Hall, Rattle And Snap, Rippavilla, etc.), Maury County was the wealthiest county per capita in Tennessee at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Thankfully, Richards and I had exceptional Pillow plantation guides — Maury County Archives director Tom Price and 78-year-old Campbell Ridley, a longtime Columbia resident, farmer, quipster, and a Pillow descendant. Ridley’s grandfather, who enjoyed eating hog brains, owned Clifton Place when Campbell was a kid. The plantation remained in his family until the early 1970s. (Ridley and Price also showed us the interior of historic St. John's Church and the site of Ashwood Hall, a spectacular mansion that was destroyed in an 1874 fire.)

Clifton Place sorely needs some TLC, but what multimillionaire wouldn't be tempted to invest in a mansion that features stone steps trod upon 11th U.S. president James K. Polk, a spectacular back porch, and a front door with a swan figurine on the original knocker?

Ridley enjoyed showing us around the plantation, regaling us with stories of hog butchering and crackling creation. (Earlier, he kept at least one of his guests spellbound with tales about Mule Day and his Aunt Sarah Ann, the first Mule Day queen.) But nothing grabbed our attention like the visit behind the mansion to the smokehouse, a 2 1/2-story, brick building with peeling yellow paint on its exterior. 
A 1936 view of the mansion's interior (Historic American Buildings Survey,
Library of Congress | VIEW MORE.)
The back side of the Greek Revival-style mansion features an impressive porch.
Gideon Pillow had a short walk from his mansion to his office.
The smokehouse stands behind the mansion.
Campbell Ridley holds a wooden slat from which hogs are hung.
Salt residue coats the brick floor.

Behind smokehouse Door No. 1 Ridley showed us a wooden slat used to hoist a dead hog onto a metal rail so it could be gutted. After the hoisting, a bucket was placed below the head for the innards to fall into after after the gutting. Warning: Not intended for viewing by faint-hearted city folks.  

Behind Door No. 2 was the pigs-de-resistance (sorry): the room where the hogs were smoked and cured in this country ham “factory.” I'm told there's nothing quite like a great country ham -- it's much better than any ham at Kroger.

A massive, ancient wood block in smokehouse.
To our left in the darkened room stood a massive wooden block -- undoubtedly from the Pillow era, Price said — upon which hams were chopped. Two 19th-century "ham logs" -- logs hollowed out to form a trough for salting of the hams -- rested against the wall. Salt from decades of country ham making coated the brick floor. 

Lawd, mere words can’t do justice to the spectacular, smoky aroma lingering in the place. No wonder Pillow's privies were strategically placed in two small rooms attached to the smokehouse. Who knows how many thousands of country hams have been smoked and cured at Pillow's plantation? 

After a few minutes in the smokehouse, I was half-tempted to roll on the ground like a giddy puppy just to bring home some of that wonderful smell on my bicycle pants (don't ask) and longsleeve sweatshirt. But, seriously, there was no point in hamming it up. :)

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Ashwood Historic District.
-- Scott, Winfield, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, New York, Sheldon and Company, 1864, Vol. II


  1. Very cool John. Who owns the house now? Is it currently on the market? Definitely need someone with deep pockets to buy it and keep it up.

  2. Cool Blog John. I can smell those smoked hams all the way to Georgia. Let's eat.
    Robert Elliott

  3. When we lived in Columbia, Tennessee, we passed this beautiful mansion almost every day. That and the home of James K. Polk on the square, were the highlights of my days. My granddaddy used to go to Mule Day from Northern Alabama. We loved living in Columbia. Three of our daughters were born there, so we will always have a tie to that place.

  4. Thanks for this, he was my 3x Great grandfather. Not proud of his life or family achievements built on slavery, but an interesting piece of history

    1. Fionna: I'd love to chat with you sometime. Am doing something deeper on Pillow for something beyond just a blog post... best John Banks


    This is a very informative blog. From my research I have discovered that I am also a relative of the Pillow family from Maury County Tennessee.