by Richard R. Neil.
The Mud Tavern community grew out of two events in the early settlement of Middle Tennessee. First, sometime before 1784, Major John Buchanan built a “station,” or fortified home, on the east bank of Mill Creek just downstream from where Elm Hill Pike today crosses the creek. This is thought to be the first permanent dwelling in the Mud Tavern area. Buchanan lived in his “station” house until his death in 1832.
Buchanan’s Station became famous in early Middle Tennessee history when, during the Chickamauga Wars, it was attacked on the evening of September 30, 1792, by a large party of Cherokee, Shawnee, and Muskogee warriors. The attack was successfully repelled by the small band of men and women who had gathered for safety at the station amid signs that the Chickamauga group was in the area. More important for this article is that the station’s defenders included James Mulherrin and Sampson Williams – two men who had migrated with Buchanan in 1780 from South Carolina to Tennessee – as well as James Todd, Samuel McMurray, and others who had received land grants in the immediate vicinity. The presence of so many neighboring settlers suggests that Buchanan station was already the civic center for a developing community of people that would come to be known as Mud Tavern.
The second founding event is as legendary as it is historic. Sometime near the beginning of the 19th century a tavern opened on Elm Hill Pike near what is today the intersection of the Elm Hill and McGavock Pikes. It was said to have been built of mud and cedar, hence the name “Mud Tavern.” There are no records to show who first owned the inn, but Richard Smith purchased property at this site in 1810, and court decisions in 1816 in 1832 seem to suggest that it was indeed Smith who operated a tavern there. Although there are no ruins to mark its location or documents to prove its existence, stories of the old tavern persist. It is said that Andrew Jackson often stopped there on his way to and from Nashville and that he stayed there for two nights as he prepared for his fateful 1806 duel with Charles Dickinson. In the end, however, the best proof of the inn’s existence and its significance is that the surrounding community chose to call itself Mud Tavern, and so it appears on Davidson County maps into the 21st century.
In 1821 the Rev. Richard Dabbs came from Charlotte County, Virginia, to become founding pastor of the First Baptist Church of Nashville. He purchased 347 acres in the Mud Tavern community and built his home on hills overlooking the Mill Creek Valley. Rev. Dabbs died just two years after assuming leadership of First Baptist Church, but by that time his family had become well established in the area. In the years just before the Civil War, his grandsons expanded the original purchase to more than six hundred acres. The war and its aftermath reduced the fortunes of the Dabbs family, but they continued to play a role in the Mud Tavern community and beyond. John W. T. Dabbs, M.D., was a beloved physician in the Nashville area during the early part of the 20th century. His son, John W.T. Dabbs Jr., Ph. D, gained an international reputation for his work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the nuclear ramifications of extremely low temperatures. Descendants of the Rev. Richard Dabbs were still living on his Mud Tavern farm in 1955, when the airport authority purchased the land in order to extend runways to accommodate jet air traffic.
The expansion of southern railroads after the Civil War played a major role in the area’s recovery. The community appeared on the map in 1869 when the Tennessee and Pacific Railroad established a route called the Lebanon Junction and showed Mud Tavern as one of several flag-stop stations along the way. An 1871 Davidson County map – “from actual surveys made by order of the county court” – clearly marks Mud Tavern as a separate and distinct community with the railroad running through it.
The railroad station had a two-fold and somewhat ironic effect on Mud Tavern residents. It provided their community with a geographic center of activity: within a fairly short time the area around the station had acquired a post office, a school, and a general store run for many years by Wallace Gleaves. The railroad also gave local citizens access to jobs, schools, and services beyond the immediate community. In 1877 the T&P was purchased by the Nashville, Chattanooga, and Saint Louis Railway, to open up travel an even larger world. Sometime in the 1920s, however, the general store acquired gasoline pumps to service the automobiles and trucks that were beginning to displace the railroads. By 1934 passenger traffic on the Lebanon Junction had declined precipitously, and the NC&SL petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon it. The last train stopped at Mud Tavern in 1935. Among those who boarded was longtime resident Will Page, who later told an interviewer, “I took the last trip on the train about two years ago on the thirteenth of July.” It was the end of an era.
From the earliest days, Mud Tavern was primarily a rural, farming community within six or seven miles of downtown Nashville. Farmers took their produce to market by wagon, train, and truck until well into the 1950s. Some of the community’s most enduring institutions supported and influenced its agricultural way of life. Early in the 20th century, Peabody College established Knapp School of Country Life on acreage that included the old Buchanan Station. Along with other practices, the school introduced alfalfa as a hay crop among local farmers. The present-day Purity Dairies had its origins in Mud Tavern on the Miles Ezell farm. For many years Oscar L. Farris, agent for the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, lived on a hill overlooking the site of the old Mud Tavern inn. Farris and his wife Mary helped farm families of the community adapt as agricultural technology began to change rapidly during the 20th century.
In 1911 the community acquired an institution that would become emblematic of its way of life. The Davidson County Board of Education deeded to Jacob Young the old Mud Tavern school, which sat a few yards west of the crossroads where the Mud Tavern inn had been located. Young in turn gave the clapboarded building and one acre of land to the Mud Tavern community to be used for “the good of the community,” and it was received by H. S. Allen, D. W. Thompson, James Hite, Leopold Strasser, Thomas Whitworth, and Thomas Page, who were elected trustees. That one-room school became the meeting place of the Elm Hill Community Club. Over the years it was the site of many ice cream socials, community fairs, a free circulation library, worship services, baseball games, 4-H club and Home Demonstration meetings . . . in short, all of the activities associated with a lively rural society.
After 1935 the urban ethos of Nashville, which was never far away, slowly but inevitably encroached upon Mud Tavern’s bucolic existence with its siren call of more lucrative jobs and public demands for new roads, commercial development, and residential subdivisions. The airport expanded in 1955, and by the early 1960s Briley Parkway and Interstate 40 had been built through the area, obliterating many of the old farms. Still, as late as 1990 the Elm Hill Community Club building could still be seen hidden in a bramble patch and surrounded by taller commercial buildings, a symbol of an earlier way of life that was gone but not forgotten. Today a group of former Mud Tavern residents meets twice a year to share stories and memories of the area.
In one of Wendell Berry’s short stories, an old man reminisces about his life on his family’s farm: “He is thinking of the membership of the fields that he has belonged to all his life, and will belong to while he breathes, and afterward. He is thinking of the living ones of that membership – at work today in the fields that the dead were at work in before them. ‘I am blessed,’ he thinks. ‘I am blessed.’” Those whose families lived in the Mud Tavern community count themselves blessed to belong to its membership.
This article was originally published in the January 2010 edition of The Nashville Retrospect. We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here. Photograph of Mud Tavern historical marker from NHN collection.