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Virginia Braun: Leeville: Worth protecting, worth preserving

Virginia Braun • Updated Feb 23, 2018 at 1:00 PM

My husband, Eric, and I arrived in Tennessee in April 1974 during a tornado, towing all our possessions in a 5-by-8 U-Haul from Tucson, Arizona. We spent our first night in a motel outside Carthage, and I vividly remember how lightning flickered on and off all night long, making the sky light as day. The next morning, you could clearly see the swath the tornado had cut across the road. Eric’s office was in Carthage, but we fell in love with a log house in Leeville. Built around 1799, it consisted of two log buildings connected by a dogtrot. Legend had it that Sam Houston slept there. Just down the trace was the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s home. It wasn’t difficult to imagine what life must have been like back then.  The community eventually grew enough to support three picturesque churches, the United Methodist Church, Mount Olivet Baptist Church and Leeville Church of Christ.

The first thing my husband did when we were scoping out the house was to visit J.P. Hargis’ country store and introduce himself around. There were actually two old stores, but the one next door that belonged to Myrtle Gibson was not in operation.  There, he met Bill Stephens and Ennis Lasater, who were sitting around a potbellied stove, “swapping lies,” as was customary. They answered all of Eric’s questions and made Eric, who was obviously a stranger and a Yankee to boot, feel welcome.

We bought the house, and at the crack of dawn the next morning, we were awakened by the deafening sounds of chainsaws roaring out back. There, cutting up an enormous hardwood tree that was felled by the tornado were Bill, his two sons, Lee Allen and Richard, and Ennis. Gladys “Granny” Stephens, Bill’s wife, brought us some homemade treats, as did Fannie Mae Lasater and Nell and Mabel Stephens.  That was our official welcome to the neighborhood, and thereafter we were unofficially adopted into the Stephens family, Yankees or no Yankees. There was never a holiday dinner or a special occasion that didn’t include us, and we always ate food that was grown right from their garden.

Life in Leeville was idyllic. I used to feel that time had stood still Leeville, and that we were fortunate to experience what life was like in a different era, back when people were neighborly, kept their homes tidy and weren’t afraid of hard physical work. The women’s Home Demonstration Club played a central role in the community and still does. Granny always wore housedresses and an apron. I took a photo of her, looking embarrassed, the first time she ever wore pants. We never locked our doors. In fact, I don’t think we even had a lock. Our neighbors were always ready to extend a helping hand, tilling up a garden for us the size of a football field and giving Eric tips on what and when to plant. Granny taught me how to can, and I put up jars of tomatoes and other vegetables. Often, neighbors would wander over and sit a spell on the porch. Dogs were the characters of the neighborhood and an endless source of amusement. Bill would come over with his little black dog, Susie. Miss Kate Carney, who lived down the lane, had an old dog, Sparky, and when Sparky died, she brought home Rounder and then Rascal, two dogs who lived up to their names.

Occasionally, Eric would travel out of town for work, and each time he’d leave, Granny would invite me to stay with her. I had no qualms about staying home alone, but perhaps it wasn’t quite proper. Unlike many of the women in the community, I also worked. I was lifestyles editor at The Lebanon Democrat from 1975-79. Our weekends were often spent antiquing or attending auctions, which is how we furnished our house. On Sundays, were usually spent working around the house.  Everyone was too polite to tell me I shouldn’t be hanging my wash out on Sundays, a day of rest traditionally observed by the whole community. The entire four years we lived there, I was totally oblivious. I now know how endlessly patient and considerate my neighbors were of me.

One day, Bill invited Eric to the Leeville Cemetery to help dig the grave of a neighbor who had died. Using shovels, the men took turns digging the grave by hand.  Afterwards, Eric was told he had earned the right to be buried there. If my family didn’t already have a plot, I would have been happy to spend the rest of eternity there among our friends and neighbors. The thought of resting peacefully in Leeville was oddly comforting. Being welcome, being included, being accepted for ourselves was unlike anything we had ever experienced anywhere else. To this day, I am still close to our neighbors, although many of the older ones are gone.

Now it seems everything is about to change. Leevillle could be annexed into the city of Lebanon just to accommodate a proposed 700-home subdivision and a commercial development. I am sure a lot of spinning is going on in the historic little cemetery across the road. If approved, this would forever change the character of the community I used to know and love. Ironically, the people who might be looking to settle there would probably be newcomers like I once was, looking for a quiet place to settle. Most likely, many would be commuting to Nashville or other places that don’t have room for them. Yes, I know, times change. I can’t expect everything to remain the same. I left and moved out West, had a family and, after 40 years of marriage, lost my husband. But I’ve never forgotten Leeville. I still have roots there. I still keep in touch with my old neighbors and want to preserve the way of life I loved so much and have never encountered elsewhere.  

I hope our good neighbors in Lebanon won’t let this happen to Leeville, and the city council won’t allow our historic little community to be overrun just for someone’s profit. I know the residents of Leeville would welcome some new neighbors, just as they did my husband and me, but the prospects of welcoming 700 of them would tax anyone’s hospitality.

Virginia Braun is a former Leeville resident and lifestyles editor for The Lebanon Democrat. She currently lives in Montana.

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