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Walls of time

Since before George Washington was president, Dixon Springs' historic home, Dixona, has watched over Smith County
Story and photos by Mark E. Johnson 10/11/2011

 

Built by settler Tilman Dixon 223 years ago, “Dixona” is reputed to be the oldest home in Middle Tennessee. Located along Highway 25 at the Trousdale-Smith county line, the home was, among other firsts, the first Smith County courthouse, the area’s first tavern, and a popular overnight stop for traveling dignitaries in the 19th century.
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When Tilman Dixon carefully located and built the two-story log cabin dubbed “Dixona” near a bubbling spring in North Carolina, he had no idea the structure would end up squarely in Middle Tennessee, having never moved an inch.

It was the map that moved — not the cabin.

Dixona, reputed to be the oldest house in Middle Tennessee and the genesis of the town of Dixon Springs, was erected in 1788 — 11 years before North Carolina was halved and the western portion became America’s 16th state: Tennessee. 

“That’s a neat little fact,” says Faith Young, Dixona’s owner and resident and a customer of Smith Farmers Cooperative.  “It was the first courthouse, first tavern, first post office, the first everything around here.”

There were, in fact, many firsts associated with Dixona, which is located along Highway 25 on the Trousdale-Smith County line.  In early 1787, Maj. Tilman Dixon and Col. William Walton, both lauded Revolutionary War soldiers, arrived in the region to stake out their military land grants — the first two recorded in the area that would become Tennessee.  Issued March 14, 1786, Tilman’s grant was for 3,840 acres along newly named “Dixon Creek.”  Five years earlier, Tilman had been part of a survey team commissioned by the North Carolina Assembly to explore lands along the Cumberland River, and the soldier had taken special note of the Smith County area.

“In those days, you apparently had to be a jack-of-all-trades,” says Stephen Young, a Nashville attorney and son of Faith and her late husband, Billy.  “Tilman was not only the area’s first settler, but he served as the first postmaster, was one of the first magistrates, and was the first merchant and tavern-keeper.  We don’t know much about him personally other than he frequently wore deerskins, enjoyed playing cards, and was a decorated soldier.”

In fact, says Stephen, Tilman was noteworthy enough as a Revolutionary War soldier that he was mentioned specifically in a correspondence from George Washington.  This reputation as a leading citizen apparently followed him to his new homestead, because in the years after Dixona was built, the home became not only a regional gathering hub but also a popular overnight stop for dignitaries traveling between Knoxville and Nashville.  Included among these were Revolutionary War hero and first Tennessee Governor John Sevier and U.S. Constitution signer William Blount, who was instrumental in the creation of the state of Tennessee.

In 1797, Dixona was even visited by Louis Philippe — then French Duke of Orleans and later King of France.  He was traversing America on an itinerary laid out personally by Gen. Washington, and in his diary (published later to much commercial success), the Duke noted that his traveling party “had, at Major Dixon’s, the luxury of coffee and two beds for four.”

By the standards of the day, the cabin was roomy enough to handle a larger-than-average contingent, but family legend has it that the Frenchman rudely demanded more space.

“They say that Philippe was dissatisfied with his sleeping arrangements,” says Stephen with a laugh.  “He apparently wasn’t happy that he was rooming with Tilman’s two sons.  The story goes that Philippe said, ‘I’m a prince and need a room of my own,’ to which Tilman replied, ‘Well, my sons are princes, too, and they’ll be in there with you!’”

Despite the Duke’s misgivings, Dixona continued to emerge as the region’s center of government and commerce.  After Smith County’s creation in 1799, the county’s tribunals were held there, and it became the Smith County Court House for a time, all the while operating as a tavern as well.  During these years, Smith County encompassed a much larger area — some 135 by 100 miles — which no doubt created lots of activity for Dixona and often necessitated Gov. Sevier’s presence at the home, according to county records.

After Tilman’s death in 1816, the property began changing hands and became predominantly used as a private residence.  It passed into the family of Col. James Vaughn, who decided to enlarge it, and in 1858 added two large, identical brick wings and double porches, more than doubling the size to upwards of 4,500 square feet.  Only four years later, Federal and Confederate troops clashed just a few miles away to the west in the Battle of Hartsville, but unlike many large homes near Civil War battlefields, Dixona was apparently unaffected.

“I’ve never heard mention of the war in connection with this place,” says Faith.  “They didn’t use it for a hospital, nor did they shoot any bullet holes into it.”

Not much is known about the home after the Civil War years until it was purchased by Samuel Martin Young — Billy’s grandfather — in the early 1900s.  It has remained in the Young family ever since, and today the exposed, hand-hewed beams and logs are still strong and straight and the foundation as stable as the day it was laid.  Facing due south and shaded by towering oaks and maples, the structure’s natural air-conditioning — a gentle breeze moving through strategically opened windows — has served its many generations of inhabitants dutifully throughout some 223 years, even on the hottest of summer days.

“The house was rented to various folks in the ’20s and ’30s, up until Dad returned from World War II in the mid-1940s,” says Stephen.  “He moved back in and lived here until he passed away in 2005.”

Stephen describes his father as a “Renaissance man” who would’ve been at home with the likes of Tilman Dixon himself.

“Dad was a surveyor, hunter, and fisherman and was a state senator,” Stephen says.  “He even did great rockwork around the foundation of the house.  He loved this place and was constantly working on it, making improvements.  And, of course, Dad spent a lot of his time farming and raising cattle.”

Although historical record is spotty on the subject, it is likely that agriculture has been constant on the farm from the day Tilman moved in.  Stephen says he recalls mention of the settler raising commercial crops with, possibly, slave labor.  Remaining just behind the residence are a smokehouse and kitchen house — both of which are believed to have been built by Tilman — that were used by the Youngs until recent years to slaughter hogs and cure meats.  Now in her mid-80s, Faith still has a 50-head herd of polled Hereford cattle, the breed Billy introduced to the farm in the 1960s.

“I’m still raising cattle,” Faith says with a smile.  “I’ve got help, but I do the parts that appeal to me, which is breeding them and preparing them for sale.  I probably spend three or four hours a day dealing with them.  We also used to have corn and tobacco but stopped those some years back.  And I can remember there being 200 chickens on the place, flapping around and roosting on the porches.”

In an effort to protect the home and farm — comprising only 150 of the original 3,840 acres — Faith contracted with the Land Trust for Tennessee in 2007 to donate the property as a conservation easement, ensuring that the scenic, wildlife, and agricultural resources of the land will be permanently protected and restrictions will be placed on future development.

“Honestly, I can’t imagine being able to do this and choosing not to do it,” she says.  “I love open spaces, and I want others to be able to enjoy them, too.  [The conservation easement] will ensure that my son’s children and their descendants will be able to come here and hunt and fish and simply enjoy the place.  It just makes me happy to know that Dixona will be protected from now on.”

To arrange for a private tour of Dixona, email Faith Young at fthyoung@aol.com.  To learn more about conservation easements, visit the website of the Land Trust for Tennessee at www.landtrusttn.org.

 
 
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