History. Preservation. Community. These are the pillars of the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County - but it was not always so. By 1967, downtown Franklin was a plethora of pool halls, secondhand shops, broken sidewalks, and metal awnings. The buildings were slipcovered in vinyl siding, covering historic transoms, and in some cases, secondary doors. When the historic Corn House was finally demolished at the corner of 5th and Bridge Street to make way for a gas station, a group of concerned citizens, determined to advocate for Franklin’s history, established the Heritage Foundation. However, saving the old rather than demolishing for the new did not happen overnight.
It Starts with One Building – One Place – At A Time
Despite our fifty-five years of success, we were not met with universal support. As Franklin began to grow, so did the opposition from some developers. Naturally, the pushback made a few downtown merchants nervous. Some merchants feared losing their business while restoration occurred. A handful of business owners were not sure if it would even be worth the investment.
Heritage Foundation used one building downtown as an example of how preservation of a historic building could be done. Once completed, change did not happen overnight. Not everyone was on board. There is always pain when we grow. But through the Heritage Foundation and community grassroots advocacy, the change is exactly what was needed to save historic Franklin. John Beasley – a fierce advocate for saving Franklin’s historic Main Street – completed the first commercial restoration in 1963! (Vintage sits today) Beasley’s example helped launch the Heritage Foundation four years later, becoming its first president.
Main Street, A Sense of Place and Preserving Streetscape
By the 1960s, Franklin’s downtown was languishing. But for the neighbors who recognized the power of place and advocated for change, the sustainability of Franklin’s Main Street was at a crossroads. Through preservation advocacy and community engagement, the Heritage Foundation partnered with the City of Franklin to promote economic revitalization and heritage tourism through Streetscape. In May 1995, Franklin was honored as one of the best downtown areas in the nation when it received one of the first five “Great American Main Street” awards ever given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Since then, accolades have included the “Best Small Town in Tennessee,” “America’s Most Romantic Main Street,” and “One of America’s Greatest Antique Destinations.”
The Franklin Theatre – Home of First Kisses
The Franklin Theatre operated from 1937 to 2007. Once it opened in the summer of 1937, it immediately became a treasured asset on Main Street, fondly known as the “Home of First Kisses.” Over the next 70 years, people in Franklin continued to visit the Theatre, but unfortunately, the doors eventually closed in 2007. Knowing our community could not let this historic building be lost, The Heritage Foundation acquired the Theatre in 2008. With the support of more than a thousand donors, the Heritage Foundation stepped in to buy and rehabilitate the historic landmark. After three years of work – and an investment of more than $8 million – the historic Franklin Theatre re-emerged better than ever. After a three-year rehabilitation, it re-opened in 2011. Now a premier venue and an anchor for downtown activity, it hosts a variety of music, drama, and films.
Civil War Battlefield Reclamation – Roper’s Knob, Carter’s Hill, and Eastern Flank Battlefield Parks
The Heritage Foundation saves the places and shares all stories of our intangible cultural heritage in Williamson County. Preservation does not just happen by accident. Preservation is deliberate.
In 1994, the Heritage Foundation raised $400,000 to purchase and preserve Roper’s Knob, the highest hill in Franklin, with the State of Tennessee. A key signal station during the Civil War, the site was listed on the National Register in 2000. The Heritage Foundation gifted its share to the city of Franklin, which preserves and interprets other sites in the city’s Civil War landscape. When HF learned it was slated for development, it was able to work with the Tennessee Department of Archaeology and formed the 1,000 Friends of Roper’s Knob to save it. This remains one of Heritage Foundation’s most successful Civil War battlefield preservation initiatives to date.
The Heritage Foundation began the preservation push in the late 1990s with the purchase of a little blue house on Cleburne Street, a home that sat on the actual site of Fountain Branch Carter’s cotton gin and later, as a local partner with Franklin’s Charge, Save the Franklin Battlefield, the Battle of Franklin Trust, the City of Franklin, and the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area to advocate for battlefield reclamation of the Eastern Flank and Carter’s Hill, two areas of the heaviest fighting during the November 30, 1864, Battle of Franklin. Today, over 150 acres of green space tells the whole story of the Battle of Franklin and the Civil War in Franklin.
Historic Homes, Historic Spaces
McLemore House: A Story of Trials and Triumph
Situated in the heart of Hard Bargain on the west side of downtown Franklin sits one of Franklin’s most remarkable historic properties, McLemore House. Currently owned by the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County, its roots are deeply intertwined with both hardship and triumph. Originally owned by former enslaved person Harvey McLemore, it stands today as a living testament to the determination and resilience of Williamson County’s freed citizens following the Civil War.
Laverne Holland, Harvey’s great, great granddaughter, was the last descendent to occupy the home. In 1997, The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, led by Executive Director Mary Pearce, partnered with Habitat for Humanity to purchase the property from Maggie Matthews’ estate. That same year, the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County was founded to continue telling the important stories of African Americans in the community. The Heritage Foundation, in a gesture of goodwill, subsequently sold the McLemore House to the newly formed society for $1, and they opened it as the African American House Museum in 2002.
Today, the McLemore House serves as a powerful reminder of the trials and triumphs Williamson County African Americans endured on the path to equality and freedom. From its early days as a haven of protection for the Harvey McLemore family to the birth of women’s entrepreneurship, the stories inherent in its walls encourage all who visit to honor the sacrifices and hardship that bore its success.
Old, Old Jail – The Lehew-Magid Big House for Historic Preservation
The Old, Old Jail is a building at 112 Bridge Street in downtown Franklin that served as Williamson County’s third jail from 1941 until 1970. From the 1970s on, it was used at various times as a highway patrol outpost, an employment office, the County archives, and book storage for the school system. It fell into disrepair and had been vacant since 2008.
Many a prisoner languished away in cells at Franklin’s Old, Old Jail. Notorious prisoners included Betty Burge, Tennessee’s first woman sentenced to the electric chair, car thief Clayton A. “Rabbit” Veach, and Willie York, who served 11 ½ years for murdering Franklin constable Clarence Reed. In 1970, singer Johnny Seay, encapsulated Willie’s life in the back hills of Franklin and criminal activities into a popular country song, “Willie’s Drunk and Nelly’s Dyin.” Etched into several walls are names of former inmates including Veach’s own personal graffiti, visible on the first-floor renovated kitchen wall.
Constructed towards the end of the New Deal Era, the Jail opened in 1942, housing men and women, black and white. Male white prisoners were held on the first floor while female prisoners were held in the basement, nearest the kitchen. Female prisoners performed “household tasks” including laundry and cooking. The second floor held African American prisoners, as well as waiting rooms.
The Jail closed its doors in 1970 and its uses varied until the county shut the doors completely in mid-1990s. In 2013, the Heritage Foundation purchased the jail and by 2016, “The LeHew Magid Big House for Historic Preservation,” was fully restored. Today, the Jail serves as the Foundation’s headquarters and is open for tours Monday through Friday.
For fifty-five years, the generosity of preservation-minded advocates enables the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County to preserve our architectural, geographical, archaeological, history, culture, and green spaces as well as share authentic content that connects the public to Williamson County’s unique place in Tennessee and the United States. Only through members and public contributions may we continue to provide resources and experiences to advocate for saving our historic and cultural resources throughout the county through our signature events, performing arts center at The Franklin Theatre, and education and public programs at Franklin Grove Estate & Gardens and the History and Culture Center of Williamson County.
The role of the Heritage Foundation is the same today as it was in 1967: to recognize what is so special about this community, value all its history and culture, and continue to advocate for its preservation of places, stories, and green space. We all have a role to play in our neighborhood. Franklin is quintessentially historic, but it also fragile. It took us years to save it, and if we are not careful, we could lose what we advocated for - preservation.
Ready, Set, Advocate!
There are many ways to get involved with the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County. We offer several membership options for students, families, and businesses as well as corporate sponsorships of various levels for our annual events. You can also attend one of the many free classes and lectures that we offer throughout the year. Additionally, our dedicated volunteers make our mission possible and allow our current and future generations of citizens and visitors to Franklin and Williamson County be inspired by our collective past.
Franklin and Williamson County is the intersection of thousands of stories. Yours. Mine. Ours. Join us and help us save places and share stories – your story – for generations to come. To learn more about ways you can become a preservation advocate, visit www.williamsonheritage.org.