Downtown Farragut?

A community landmark, the Jacksonian-era Martin-Russell house, is suddenly for sale

In Farragut, if a house looks antebellum, it probably wasn't there before the War. The Gulf War, I mean. Its white columns are likely to be high-quality vinyl. If a house looks modern, bet that it's older than its neo-antebellum neighbors. Still, there is an authentic Old Farragut, so old it dates back to long before anyone called it "Farragut." The most conspicuous remnant of it is near the corner of Kingston Pike and Campbell Station Road. Shaded by some big maple trees, the two-story brick house has symmetrical windows and four chimneys. It was, until very recently, a residence. This past Sunday, a couple of guys were going over the big property with metal detectors like weedeaters. They hadn't found anything worth bragging about. But they may. The house is a surviving relic of Campbell's Station which, in regional history, is something more than the origin of the name of a road, even one with interstate-exit status. In horseback days, it was a refuge for travelers, and later site of a significant Civil War skirmish.

There's some news about that house that's unsettling to some who don't have $1.8 million handy: Farragut's most historic structure is for sale. And it has no historic-zoning protection.

At the time this house was built, 1835 or a little earlier, the word "Farragut" was little known at Campbell's Station. Farragut was the name of a half-Spanish family that used to run a ferry across the river, about five miles southeast of here. They'd moved away at least a couple of decades previously, and none of them were yet famous enough to name anything for. This was just Campbell's Station, named for the traveller's stand built by David Campbell (1753-1832), veteran of the Revolutionary War. When, at age 70, he left town for the Lebanon area, he sold the station to an Irish immigrant named Samuel Martin, who built this house. Campbell's original structures have long since vanished. Martin's house remains.

Exactly how the house was used is a matter of some puzzlement. The Russell family has owned the house since the 1850s; for them, it's been a residence. But Martin ran Campbell's old station as a roadside tavern and inn, and when architects and preservationists surveyed it for National-Register status in the 1970s, they found evidence that this house once had a bar in it, and even a ballroom. George Mellen, a Kingston Pike historian best known a century ago, wasn't old enough to remember it, but he claimed Martin's main roadhouse was across Kingston Pike on the south side, a building long-gone and unremembered.

Even the age of the house isn't known with any certainty. The National Register says 1835; I'm told that's a round estimate based on its style, and it could easily be a few years older.

It would be a useful thing to nail down, partly just to provide a setting of an unplanned encounter so strange it could be the basis for an avant-garde play. In late 1834, George Featherstonhaugh, the British playwright, translator, and diplomat who was best known as a geologist, was traveling through Tennessee with his son on a surveying expedition for the U.S. government. Disappointed in Knoxville, on their way out of town the Featherstonhaughs stopped at Campbell's Station. Inside was a public room of some sort where he encountered, sitting alone at a table and smoking a long pipe, the president of the United States. Andrew Jackson's clothes were unusual enough to comment on; he wore some kind of black mourning crepe on behalf of his old friend and ally the Marquis de Lafayette—but also a white top hat.

Andrew Jackson came home to Tennessee only every two years, but on his way back to Washington, he came this way, and stopped at Samuel Martin's tavern. Though sometime political enemies, Martin and Jackson, himself the son of Irish immigrants, were friends.

The Featherstonhaughs were both covered in dirt from digging up Knoxville rocks, and they shared a laugh with the president about that fact.

"My young friend, don't be ashamed of this," Jackson told the boy. "If you were a politician, you would have dirty work upon your hands you could not so easily get rid of."

The president was in a good mood that day, even talking to a Brit, without rancor about the unpleasantness at New Orleans almost 20 years before. "He was in fine spirits," Featherstonhaugh wrote. "We left his cheerful conversation with great reluctance." Jackson insisted they visit him in Washington.

My friend Dan Feller, director of the University of Tennessee's Jackson Center, confirmed that Jackson spent a day and night at Campbell's Station in September, 1834. Old Hickory wrote at least one letter while he was there. It may be the first well-documented visit to Knox County by a sitting president.

Today the house, whatever it was in 1834, is out there, naked. If you've got $1.8 million, you can buy it and bulldoze the oldest house in Farragut and build a Hooter's and pave a big parking lot all around. And then, when it fails, abandon it. This is by-God America, land of the free.

A lot of folks would rather you wouldn't. The City of Farragut and Knox Heritage are trying to work out some sort of a deal where the land might be sold separately from the house, which would be preserved, and perhaps used. The owners, who now live in Atlanta, are said to be sympathetic. There's been discussion of a museum, etc., but I think the best and most historic use would be as a restaurant or inn or both.

This dilemma may offer a solution not just for the house, but for the community. Like the Tin Man, Farragut has always lacked a heart, but this authentic place at Kingston Pike and Campbell Station Road, shouting distance of modern Town Hall, would seem the most logical spot for one, and maybe some new pedestrian-oriented town-style development. A place to get out of the car. A Downtown Farragut. Maybe to future generations it won't seem like an oxymoron.