Woodlawn Memorial Park

by Doris Boyce.

A scene in the Forehand compound in Woodlawn Memorial Park (photo from NHN collection)

Woodlawn Memorial Park, a cemetery established in the 1930s and acquired in 1993 by Houston-based Roesch-Patton Corporation, occupies a piece of ground rich in local history. The property, which eventually became known as Melrose, was part of John Topp’s Revolutionary War Grant #461 of November 25, 1788. The original 960 acres were reduced by a sale to Michael Deadrick, first president of the old Nashville Bank. The remaining 205 acres were purchased in 1836 by a United States Senator from Louisiana, who built a mansion there. In December 1865, the property was the site of a field hospital during the Battle of Nashville. Even today a group of log cabins, a spring house, and a man-made pond can be found near the site where the Melrose mansion once stood. Present-day Woodlawn cemetery is part of the 205-acre site that once ran from what is now the Melrose shopping area on Franklin Road to Melrose Avenue between Bransford Avenue and Nolensville Road. 

Melrose Mansion, built in 1836 by Louisiana planter Alexander Barrow II, was sold six years later to John W. Saunders, who died shortly after taking possession of the property. In 1845 Saunders’ widow married Aaron V. Brown, just after his inauguration as the thirteenth governor of Tennessee. Brown, a law partner of James K. Polk (who was elected President the same year Brown became governor), had over a 24-year period served in both the Tennessee State Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.  He later served as President Buchanan’s Postmaster from 1857 until Brown’s death in 1859.     

The widow Brown suffered severe financial losses as a result of the Civil War. After her death in 1892, the property, by then only 130 acres, was sold at auction to Godfrey M. Fogg. The house would later pass into the hands of first the Sinclair and then the Bransford families. In time it became the Melrose House Restaurant, which operated in the building until the mid-1970s. Eventually two fires, in 1975 and 1979, destroyed the old mansion.  

A few years earlier, in 1966, the Forehand area of the property took its name, when George and Lillian Forehand leased the stone spring house where the Melrose Mansion’s owners kept milk, butter, and other perishables. They attached their own home to the spring house, which became the Forehands’ living room, with its three-foot thick walls and cork floor.

A plaque beside the spring points out that the Confederate works ran 200 yards south of the Melrose residence; a second marker explains that a Confederate cannon used in the Battle of Nashville was borrowed from the home of Spencer McGavock. The cannon, featured in a photograph taken at the dedication of the memorial in 1969, no longer guards the plaque. The gun’s current location is a mystery. 

One of the two log cabins on the Forehand property. (photo from NHN collection)

As the Forehand house was under construction, the family acquired two more historic structures: log cabins that had once stood on ground now covered by Percy Priest Lake. Numbered before being dismantled, the logs were transported to their present location, where they were carefully reassembled. In front of one of the cabins is a placard identifying it as “one of the oldest remaining houses from the early American era.” 

The cabins’ original owner, Tennessee pioneer Alexander Carper, came to Davidson County from Virginia and settled in the Cane Ridge community of Antioch. He married in 1825 and built his log home near Mill Creek.  Descendant William Washington “Wash” Carper and his family dedicated the buildings in 1969 to Woodlawn Memorial Park for historical preservation. 

The Forehand enclave nestles among sheltering trees on a bend of the road behind the Woodlawn funeral home. The couple created an idealistic pioneer setting there, ornamented with flowering shrubs and plants blooming in pots and hanging baskets. Cats napped on the porches, ducks swam in the lily pond, and the flag soared proudly above a colorful garden. 

Eventually graves began to encroach upon the Forehand property. After George’s death in 2001, Lillian lived there alone, surrounded by the cemetery. Armed with pistol and shotgun, and under the watchful eyes of the Berry Hill police, she kept the vandals away. Eventually Lillian, too, moved from the house. 

Memorials are created to be visited, contemplated, appreciated, and enjoyed. Today the Forehand compound features the spring and spring house of Melrose Mansion, the two Carper cabins, plaques to remind us of our Civil War past, and a tribute to Governor Aaron V. Brown.  Sadly, few Nashvillians and no newcomers are aware of the existence of this historic oasis within the well-known cemetery.   

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