My Blog

December 24, 2017

Elderly Mothers and a Legacy of Powerful Women

I just thought there would be no more blogs once Mom was gone. Not so.

This past weekend, PBS produced a beautiful one-hour program called Christmas at Belmont. All of the music students, and it looked like most of the student body, from Nashville’s Belmont University joined with country singer Sheryl Crow to sing Christmas carols for the nation.

Upon further research, it seems the school has been doing this for fifteen years on PBS. Perhaps not surprisingly, since Nashville is the home of country music, Belmont University emphasizes its music program. The magnificent Christmas music spectacular has become a tradition and the culmination of the school’s musical year.

Why should this have anything to do with my elderly mother, now listening from on high? As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, she attended Ward-Belmont when it was a private girls’ finishing school back in the 1930s. The story of the school is a fascinating study of the power of women, who, much like my mother, did not let anything stop them.

Belmont University is built on the grounds of the Belle Monte mansion originally owned by Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham (1817–1887). Forgive me, while I digress to share this story of a fascinating Southern belle, far more successful than Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett, who used her wiles to convince men of all persuasions to do her bidding.

Adelicia, daughter of a Tennessee judge, was educated at the Nashville Female Academy at a time when few women were so blessed. At 17, her first engagement ended when her fiancé died before the wedding. Evidently, the experience cured her of romantic nonsense. She waited five years before marrying a wealthy plantation owner 28 years her senior. Happiness eluded her. Within seven years, Adelicia lost all four children to diseases and her husband to a stomach virus.

Although childless and back home with her family at 29, Adelicia inherited her husband’s wealth. She learned to be a savvy business woman, supervising the operation of her Fairvue Plantation, a 2,000 acre farm in Gallatin, TN and 8,700 acres of cotton plantations at Angola in Louisiana. She sold 50,000 acres on Matagorda Bay at a profit just after Texas joined the Union.

Four years later, a bonafide millionaire, she married again. No dummy, she required her husband to sign a pre-nuptial agreement, the first for Tennessee. Using her growing wealth, she and her husband designed and built Belle Monte, a 20,000 square foot Italianate villa on a 180 acre mountain top in Nashville, land given to her by her father. Completed in 1853, it was expanded in 1859, including the water tower which is Belmont’s most famous building. During her 14 years of marriage, she had six children, four of whom survived.

Unlike many Southerners, Adelicia was not devastated by the Civil War. She had sent her husband South to supervise the Louisiana plantations while she remained in Nashville. She must have been a consummate diplomat because she convinced the Union officers who moved into her mansion to take good care of it while she moved her possessions to safety during the Battle of Nashville. They returned it to her unharmed at the end of the war.

After the death of her husband in Louisiana in 1863, Adelicia and her widowed sister-in-law hurried to Louisiana to protect her 2,800 bales of cotton. A friend of Confederate General Polk, she convinced Confederate officers not to burn the cotton but to store it safely for her.

When Union gunboats appeared on the Mississippi, she and her sister-in-law convinced Union officers to move her 2,800 bales of cotton to New Orleans. There she sold the cotton to British buyers, (the Rothschilds), for $960,000 in gold and shipped it to Liverpool on a Confederate blockade runner. At the end of the war, she sailed to Europe with her children to collect her gold and tour the Continent.

In 1867, at the age of 50, Adelicia married a Nashville physician three years her junior. Once again, she required that he sign a pre-nuptial agreement leaving her in possession of all her property. She eventually left him to move to Washington, D. C. where she died in 1887 at the age of 70. She sold Belmont just before her death to a developer who let it fall into ruin.

In 1889, Susan L. Heron and Ida E. Hood from Philadelphia, combined their funds to purchase the beautiful but abandoned buildings. The two friends remodeled the mansion and added buildings to create Belmont College for Young Women. Modeled on girls’ finishing schools in the East, the school opened in 1890 and successfully educated Southern young women for the next 23 years.

In 1913, the two founders retired, and the prestigious Ward Seminary for Young Girls merged with the finishing school to create Ward-Belmont College. The school was the first accredited junior college in the South. Within 7 years the school had an enrollment of over 1,200 young ladies from all over the South, including my mother who attended during the 1930s.

In 1951, the college was bought out by the Tennessee Baptist Convention who renamed the school Belmont College. It would later go on to become a co-educational, four-year, ecumenical, non-denominational Belmont University. Women did not drop out of the picture. Ward-Belmont continued on a 26-acre campus across town as Harpeth Hall, one of the finest preparatory schools for young women in the nation.

And now we come back to my mother. At the age of 90, she and Al, her “significant other” (they would marry two years later), happened to be in Nashville. Curious about her old school, Mom wandered onto the campus and began exploring. She entered a building which had been one of her old classrooms.

She opened a door and found a music class in progress. Mom never met a stranger and within minutes she had befriended the startled professor. She explained that she had attended the school over sixty years earlier and told about taking classes in that very building. After sharing her stories, she turned to leave.

The smiling professor took Mom by the hand and seated her in front of the class. For the next half hour, he led the students in a personal concert for their oldest alumni. The power of women never wanes.

Elderly Mothers , , ,
About Caroline Castillo Crimm
Retired Professor Emeritus from Sam Houston State University, interested in writing novels and speaking about topics such as the history of Latin American. Would like to share the AMAZING world of the 18th century in Northern New Spain, that's Spanish Texas and Mexico!
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