A Woman Challenged: The Life of Granny White

by Doris Boyce.

Born in 1743, Lucinda Wilson became the second wife of Zachariah White about 1760 and helped raise his children, along with a brood of her own. Zachariah wanted land badly enough to risk his scalp. He joined James Robertson and headed overland to North Carolina’s Cumberland territory to help establish the settlement of French Lick, where the city of Nashville now stands.

Granny White Grave Marker (from The Historical Marker Database; photo by Michael Manning)

Zachariah was a militiaman, a farmer, and a part-time teacher. He opened the first school at French Lick in the spring of 1781, but he was killed at the Battle of the Bluffs later that year, leaving Lucinda, called Lucy, and his heirs so poor they could not afford the surveyor’s fee required for eligibility to receive the 640-acre grant North Carolina awarded to families of men killed defending the settlement.

Seventeen years later, in 1801, 58-year-old Lucy was informed by the courts of Surrey County in the Tidewater district of North Carolina that she was too old and too poor to take on the responsibility of her two orphaned grandsons, Thomas and Willis, ages 8 and 9. The judge, who would not have granted custody to a woman in any case, ruled that the boys must be bound over to a tradesman in order to keep them out of the poorhouse.

But Lucy would not be told “No” again, certainly not by North Carolina! She loaded her spinning wheel and household goods onto an oxcart pulled by a yellow longhorn steer and left in the middle of the night, along with Thomas, Willis, and an elderly slave called Uncle Zachary. Traveling only about three miles a day, they walked 800-900 miles through Indian territory and the rugged Carolina mountains, leading the oxcart toward the Cumberland settlements where Lucy had three adult children and a number of step-children. Along the way they made several stopovers, staying long enough in each place to make a little money and become more self-sufficient. In Roane County, Tennessee, at a place called Meredith, she put up a ginger cake stand where she sold baked goods to travelers.

The small, white-haired Lucy was 60 years old when she arrived in Nashville in 1803. She set up another ginger cake stand, along with a tar pit or kiln for greasing wagon axles. With the money she made from her various enterprises, she purchased 50 acres that consisted of the facing slopes of a pair of adjoining hills. Her land was located along an old buffalo path that had been the first road built going south from Nashville to Franklin. One of Lucy’s hillsides had to be dug away to create space to build a log house. The other hill was planted in grapevines, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens. The land was so steep that apples rolled downhill into the fence and pumpkins had to be staked to the hillside.

By 1812 Lucy had opened an inn that attracted travelers from the Natchez Trace, four miles to the west. She soon became known for her excellent cooking and the whiskey that she made herself. Guests of the inn praised her for the finest brandy and applejack, the best pancakes, and the cleanest beds. She charged 12 1/2 cents a night for a room and 50 cents a night to board horses. Lucy was innkeeper, housekeeper, and cook, and somehow found time to weave the bed linens and the family’s wearing apparel. When more guest rooms became necessary, she added new wings, a room at a time.

Lucy’s grandsons called her “Granny,” and soon the customers did, too. Still remembered today as Granny White, she was 73 years old when she died in 1816, possessed of considerable wealth, along with slaves, horses, and cattle. Grandson Thomas had died in an accident as a youth, so Willis inherited the property, but the tavern was not open to paying guests after Granny’s death. Willis and his wife Winifred moved to Nashville so their ten children could go to school, but the couple returned to the inn in their old age, after the children were gone.

The inn was half-rotted by late 1864, when the Battle of Nashville took place all around it. Everett Beasley acquired the lands in 1930 and in 1942 replicated the log tavern at the same location with logs from a frontier inn in Dickson County. After 30 years, however, the old logs began to sag just as Granny’s originals had. In 1983 Robert Neil and Vander Linder conveyed the logs to Cheatham County, where they constructed a log house that still stands today.

One hundred sixty-five years after Granny’s death the property was developed into 43 residences called The Inns of Granny White. Her fenced gravesite is near the entrance. To get there from Nashville, you will take the same route the buffalo did, along the street toward Franklin, now named Granny White Pike.

Granny did not accept the social wisdom of her day. She did not let being a woman, being old, or being poor defeat her. After an apparently hopeless beginning, she became a self-reliant individual, an entrepreneur. She ignored the hurdles in her path by flaunting the law, engaging in commerce, making and selling liquor, and taking strangers into her home. She accepted the challenge of frontier life and did what she had to do.