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The Hermitage, a presidential and haunted home
« on: Oct 23 2009 - 10:10PM »
The Hermitage, a presidential and haunted home

By Donna Marsh, October 21, 2009

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Before it became home to a president, the property now known as the Hermitage was first owned and settled by Nathaniel Hays. In 1780,  Hays claimed a 640-acre preemption land grant. While the land was heavily forested, it was rich and level with natural springs and creeks.
     The Indian wars were ongoing at the time of Hays' settling, and he was soon forced to flee to East Tennessee. He returned, however, in 1798, bringing his wife Elizabeth, their three children and two slaves with him to settle his farm. A two-story log farmhouse was built over the next two years near the "Gravelly Spring" and not far from neighboring Hunter's Hill plantation owned by Andrew Jackson.
     In 1804 Hays decided to move to Bedford County, and he sold his farm to Jackson for $3,400 on July 5 of that year. Jackson was in debt at the time, so he sold his more valuable Hunter's Hill plantation on the Cumberland River in order to purchase the property. He then immediately hired a Nashville craftsman to deck the farmhouse's interior with French wallpaper and painted trim, and men to clear the fields and build fences. Jackson and his beloved wife Rachel then moved to their new property a month later. Jackson first called his new home "Rural Retreat" but soon changed it to "Hermitage," although it is not known how that name came to be chosen.
     Jackson first began farming cotton with nine slaves, but he had increased this number to 44 by 1820 and would eventually operate the plantation with 95. As Jackson's property increased to over 1,000 acres, he would go on to supervise the construction of many outbuildings including a distillery, dairy, carriage shelter, cotton gin and press, and slave cabins. Typically, 200 acres of the land would be dedicated to growing cotton, a cash crop, with the remainder of the land being used to produce food for the plantation as well as raising racehorses, a passion for Jackson.
     The Jacksons continued to live in the log farmhouse, but a new Federal-style, two-story brick home was started in 1819. The eight-room mansion was ready for occupation in the winter of 1820-21, and the Jacksons soon moved in.
     On December 22, 1828, Jackson's beloved Rachel died, leaving a grieving man to become the seventh President of the United States on March 4, 1829. While in Washington, Jackson hired Nashville architect David Morrison to dramatically enlarge the mansion and construct a Grecian "temple & monument" for Rachel. The domed limestone tomb with a copper roof was constructed in 1831-32.
     A chimney fire seriously damaged the Hermitage on October 13, 1834, and Jackson hired Nashville architects and master builders Joseph Reiff and William C. Hume to rebuild the mansion into a stately Greek Revival-style monument.
Andrew Jackson retired from political life in 1837 and returned to the Hermitage, where he resided until his death on June 8, 1845. He was laid to rest two days later next to Rachel. At the time of his death, the plantation had grown to 1,050 acres and was being worked by 161 slaves.
     The Hermitage was inherited by Jackson's adopted son Andrew Jackson Jr., and while he did make some improvements to the property, he stopped farming the land. With no income, debts forced him to begin selling off parcels of land and mortgaging the remainder. In 1856, Andrew Jackson Jr. sold what remained of the Hermitage to the state of Tennessee for $48,000. The state first proposed using the property as a school, but lack of funds allowed the Jacksons to remain in the house as tenants until both Andrew Jackson Jr. and his wife Sarah passed away.
     Lack of money also meant that the property was allowed to slowly fall into disrepair, although occasional funds could be found for small repairs, such as those to the Jackson tomb. In an attempt to utilize the property, Tennessee politicians proposed converting it into a hospital for invalid Confederate soldiers in 1888. There was public opposition to a presidential home being altered and turned into a hospital and a group of Tennessee women formed an organization to save the Hermitage.
     In April 1889, Tennessee chartered the Ladies' Hermitage Association (LHA), a group modeled directly upon the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union who had purchased George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, ultimately preserving it and opening it as a museum in 1860. Members of the LHA lobbied Tennessee politicians to turn the Hermitage mansion over to them, while allowing a Confederate Soldier's Home to be constructed elsewhere on the property. On the last day of the legislative session, the proposal was approved. The Tennessee Confederate Soldiers' Home was completed in 1892 and was built approximately a half-mile from the Hermitage mansion.
     When the historical society first purchased the property, some of the ladies of the group decided to spend the night in the house. They brought a mattress from one of the upstairs bedrooms down to the front parlor and settled in. After midnight, they were awakened by the sounds of pots, pans and dishes being thrown around the kitchen. This was followed by what sounded like heavy chains being dragged across the front porch, but nothing was seen when they looked out the window.
     Not long after that they heard what sounded like someone riding a horse up and down the stairs. A thorough check of the mansion turned up nothing. The ladies spent a sleepless night. They decided to remain in the house another night and the same unexplained disturbances occurred. After that, the Hermitage was entrusted to a guard.
     Other haunting activities have been reported at the Hermitage as well, including the apparitions of what appear to be slaves and the sounds of disembodied voices. A photo of a full-body apparition captured in one of the bedrooms was once featured on a local news broadcast.
     LHA members began restoring the Hermitage and its outbuildings immediately after taking control of the property. Subsequently, the mansion's original furnishings and other belongings of the Jackson family were purchased.
     The Hermitage was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and today the LHA manages it and 1,120 acres, which includes the entire 1,050-acre tract that Andrew Jackson owned when he died in 1845.
     The Hermitage has operated continuously as a museum since 1889, and it is open daily for tours.