Last Spring Buffie Baril, founder of Lovely Franklin, wanted to show me her favorite house. We walked down 4th Avenue South from Franklin’s charming Main Street and saw the tree-lined street with historic homes meticulously preserved.
I envisioned life at the turn of the 20th century – a time before technology and screens took our attention away from the adventures that awaited us outside. When Buffie stopped in front of a pale yellow Victorian and began to tell me why it was her favorite, I was enchanted. The Campbell-Bacon house epitomized Americana with its wrap around porch, white columns, dentil crown molding, and medallions.
A few months later, we jumped at the opportunity to tell the story of Ernie and Nell Bacon’s beautiful Queen Anne cottage. Buffie and I are passionate about sharing the backstories of historic homes and the families that once lived there. We arrived for the interview on a warm September day. Ernie Bacon stepped outside to welcome us.
4th Avenue South – Discover a Slice of Americana
Seeing the front porch from the sidewalk and stepping onto it are two different experiences. It was wider than I thought. Plenty of room for an entire family to enjoy the elevated view of the neighbor’s homes, gorgeous landscaping, and occasional passerby. There was a white wicker porch swing to my right. It beckoned me to take a seat and sip some sweet tea, but there was so much more to see.
Nell Bacon was waiting for us in the front room. Her petite frame, Southern accent, and warm smile immediately made me feel at ease. As Ernie began to explain the origin of the house, I was distracted by the sparkling chandelier that hung above me. Ernie explained that the house and the chandelier were a wedding present for William Winder (W.W.) and Annie James Campbell in 1904 from her uncle and aunt, James William and Annie Briggs Harrison. The couple had no children but adopted James’ niece, Annie James, the daughter of his sister, Matilda Harrison.
James and Annie Harrison along with their niece Annie James lived in the gorgeous Queen Anne style home (below) formerly located on the corner of Main Street and 5th Avenue in the Five Points District of Franklin. Sadly, this incredible home was later torn down.
Life in downtown Franklin in the early 1900s for these newlyweds must have been exciting. The Campbells had two sons, James and Stewart, who were raised in the home on 4th Avenue South. You will learn more about them later. Interestingly, the chandelier was no longer hanging in the Campbell-Bacon home when the Bacon’s purchased it in 1993. Its journey back makes for a fascinating story.
Carnton and the Mystery of the Missing Chandelier
Stewart’s wife, Louise, had donated the chandelier to Carnton sometime after 1976, but it was placed in boxes and stored in the attic because it was not period correct. This kind gesture made sense because Stewart’s great aunt was none other than Carrie McGavock.
After Ernie and Nell Bacon bought the house, they established a friendship with Stewart and Louise. Thanks to Louise’s many phone calls and the Bacon’s generous donation to Carnton, the chandelier made its way back home. Nell even obtained Stewart’s permission to hang it in the front room, instead of the front parlor, in which it had originally hung. They had a party to celebrate the chandelier’s homecoming!
The Other Lady of the House
As I continued taking in all the beauty of the front room, with the original fireplace mantle, crown molding, high ceilings and hardwood floors, I noticed a statue of a woman holding a torch on a pedestal.
“The Lady” as Ernie and Nell have nicknamed her was also a wedding gift to William Winder and Annie James Campbell. She came all the way from New York, and sort of reminded us of a small version of Lady Liberty. However, this little lady once stood on the newel post of the main staircase. But like the missing chandelier, she was no where in sight when the Bacons moved in. Ernie and Nell were determined to bring her home.
“The lady lamp , I located in an antique shop,” Ernie explained, “The antique dealer knew that I wanted it. He had it at a ridiculous price, and he wouldn’t come down. We talked for months.”
One day, Austin Pennington, the previous owner’s grandson came by. Ernie told him, “Austin, I have a project for you.” Ernie gave him $3,000 cash and told him to go buy the lamp, and he could keep the difference. Austin came through and delivered her back home.
Owning One of the Prettiest Historic Homes in Franklin
As we continued our tour into the front parlor accompanied by Frank Sinatra’s voice crooning from hidden speakers, I noticed a painting of what appeared to be their front porch. “A lady was out painting,” Nell said, “She was on the sidewalk and I said ‘Ernie come out and give her money, and we’re going to buy that painting from her!”
“There were several artists,’ Ernie elaborated, “One time a group from Leiper’s Fork selected this street to paint as a fundraiser.”
It was not hard for me to imagine why 4th Ave South, between Church Street and South Margin was selected. What artist would not be inspired by this street and especially Ernie and Nell’s house?
This home and block was in the original plat drawn out by Franklin’s founder Abram Maury in 1800. His new town of Franklin included 192 lots, which Abram sold for $10 each. Read more about Abram Maury here.
Opening the Door to the Past
As you enter the front parlor, there are two giant sets of original pocket doors. One set brings you to the front room and the other the dining room. I imagined Annie James Campbell greeting her guests in 1904 in the front parlor and closing each set of pocket doors for privacy.
The stained-glass windows on each side of the fireplace and the picture window would have lit the room with a warm glow. Perhaps they sipped tea and caught up with the happenings in each other’s lives.
“Stewart said I did one thing wrong with this house,” Nell remarked as we entered the dining room, “he said ‘We always ate at a round table’, but I already had this one. They ate every meal here. Naturally in that age, they had a cook.”
Although Stewart Campbell passed away in 2000 at the age of 92, I bet he appreciated Ernie and Nell being such good stewards of the home he was born in. The beautiful floral wallpaper and chandelier that Mildred Cowan, the previous owner, had selected remained. The transom windows above each interior door were restored and a mechanism with a long rod was added to open them easily.
A fond memory Nell recalls was a dinner party she hosted. She had found a newspaper article that described the first party that Annie James Campbell ever hosted at the house. It listed the menu and described the decorations. Nell decided to recreate the party as best she could. Her guests loved it!
Ernie and Nell Bacon Exemplify Stewardship
As I stood next to the original fireplace and looked across the table at an original stained-glass window, it was obvious to me that the Bacon’s believed it was their duty to honor the memories of the home.
“Stewart would stop by the house and ring the doorbell,” Nell told us, “And I would say ‘Stewart just come on in, you don’t need to ring the bell, this is your home!”
“Do you remember the first time you saw this house?” I asked them.
“It was not for sale,” Nell said, “It had been previously for sale a few months ahead, then our real estate person said ‘let me go ahead and ask them’ so they went in and got us together. We came into the house, and we gave them an offer that night.”
“My first impression when I walked in the front hall was it was very flamboyant.” Ernie said. Although the décor may not have been completely Ernie and Nell’s style, they saw themselves making a life in the home. “I loved that it was downtown and the front porch,” Nell recalled.
“We had never dreamed we would be somewhere for thirty years, because we had moved so much,” Ernie said.
“Ernie called one night, we had just moved in, and I said ‘Ernie I’m not moving.’ I think I told him that Franklin was it. I fell in love with it.” Nell explained.
“She said, ‘I’m not moving. I’ve got my sidewalks and street lights,” Ernie recalled.
Restoring an Old Home
“I moved in,” Nell elaborated, “and my carpenter, Jim, came and he was here three years. We would meet three days a week. Renovations don’t bother me. I take it on as a challenge.”
As we continued towards the back of the house and towards the kitchen, we passed a half bath that used to be a butler’s pantry. Nell told us that the only room that they “gutted” was the kitchen, but she tried to select a similar style.
The renovated kitchen had built-in white cabinets with glass inserts and granite counter tops with a faux tin ceiling. We then brought up the rumors of a swimming pool in the kitchen.
A Historic House with an Indoor Pool?
“Were you shocked to see a pool in the kitchen of a Victorian house?” Buffie asked.
“Yes. I had to put my granddaughter to bed in a life jacket,” Nell said and pointed to where the pool had been. “It was 6 feet deep. I would fall into the pool when I tried to raise the windows!”
“I think Mildred probably did it because Austin and his brother were here frequently,” Ernie speculated.
Mildred Cowan did in fact install the pool after she purchased the home in 1987. Ernie
and Nell had it removed and added a room off the back of the kitchen and had a hot tub installed instead. The hot tub started leaking one night and Ernie was “tired of controlling water,” so it was removed.
There was still much to see inside the house, but we took the opportunity to step outside and admire the backyard. Ernie and Nell had a lanai, covered walkway and a two car garage with a carport and apartment built after they moved in.
“I wanted the back to look as pretty as the front,” Nell told us, “I was picky.”
“The garage is a direct copy of the original stable,” said Ernie.
Two Blocks from America’s Favorite Main Street
One of the many benefits of living in the Campbell-Bacon house is its proximity to Franklin’s historic downtown Main Street. Franklin has been consistently rated one of the top cities in America.
“People ask me about living here,” Nell explained, “and I say I don’t have to worry about if my battery isn’t turning over, if I have the right coat to wear, because you walk.”
“How did you end up in Franklin?” I asked.
“Steve, our son, said you should go to Franklin,” Ernie recalled, “He has always enjoyed old towns.”
“When it came time to make a decision, it occurred to us that we had never been in Franklin on a weekend,” Ernie explained, “At that time, the Heritage Foundation had a tourist information place at the McPhail office and volunteers would rotate staffing and that particular Saturday the volunteer was Bob Poe.”
When Bob Poe realized their purpose in visiting, he took them to his home at 1059 W. Main Street. He showed them how he restored his old house. It was magnificent, which inspired the Bacons to take on the challenge of a historic home.
Owning a Home with a 120-Year Legacy
“How does it make you feel to know that your house is a favorite of many?” I asked.
“People always say that.” Nell replied, “It’s pleasant.”
Ernie chimed in, “It’s constant. People, tourists, will stop and take pictures and if we’re on the porch, we will strike a conversation up. So, it’s sort of ego-building.”
We made our way back inside and into the library that connects to a guest room downstairs. Stewart Campbell told Nell that the library was once a family room. She explained, “the boys had to use the door in the “Library” ’cause you could not mess up the front two rooms.”
Another beautiful picture of the Campbell-Bacon House hangs in the library.
“Well, we’re just so pleased with the house that if anybody gives us a picture, we save it,” Ernie said proudly.
I noticed a black and white framed photo of two little boys.
“That’s the two Campbell brothers,” Ernie explained, “This shows the boys here in the 1900s, with the porch in the background. We used this photograph to have the millwork done.”
A Surprise in the Basement
We then made our way downstairs into the basement. When the Bacons bought the house in 1993 there was a trap door to access it. They had a contractor build a staircase that matched the millwork of the main stairs.
“When we bought the house it was a dirt basement,” Ernie said, “Jim, our contractor, had the idea to dig the basement down to a common depth and put drain pumps underneath.”
A Southern Bell telephone book for Franklin, circa 1936 sits on a table beneath a hand crank wall telephone. Franklinites would recognize so many names in this book.
Ernie converted the home’s old coal bin into the wine cellar he always wanted. When Ernie used to hand out bonuses to his department heads, he would be behind the bar and pour them a drink. The room is maintained at a cool 57 degrees.
The House of Bongs
As we made our way upstairs, the grandfather clock chimed. “Our oldest great grandson called this the house of bongs,” Nell said with a smile.
We followed Nell to the second floor. She’s fit as a fiddle climbing all these stairs. I touched the newel post where “The Lady” once stood. I asked Ernie and Nell if they ever considered putting the statue back to her original location. “No,” they replied in unison. “Can you imagine going upstairs with a lady here?” Nell laughed. We laughed too,
A large painting of the Campbell-Bacon house hangs on the wall of the staircase next to a smaller painting of Nell’s childhood home. It was painted by her sister. That home was in McKenzie, Tennessee, but was sadly torn down two years ago. Nell was heartbroken that she was not told ahead of time.
As Nell gave us a tour of the upstairs, I was surprised to see some of the original keys still in the locks of the bedroom doors. It was hard to imagine that these keys had not been lost in time. This reassures me that the stewards who had the privilege of living under this roof have been dedicated to preserving it.
Successful Careers in Healthcare
“I thoroughly loved what I did. I was a hospital administrator for over forty years,” Ernie explained, “I started with non-profits and HCA (Hospital Corporation of America) hired me in the late 70s and one of my assignments was here in Nashville at Park View Hospital, which is now called Centennial.
Centennial was built when I left, but I did participate in so much of the detailed planning. Through that I had the opportunity to work with and admire and know Dr. Thomas Frist Sr. (founder of HCA Healthcare). He was a great person, and mentored so many people.”
Ernie’s most memorable professional achievement was collaborating with Dr. Frist and Sarah Cannon (Minnie Pearl) in creating the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center. Read our backstory of Sarah Cannon here.
Later, Ernie elaborated, “We split off with a company called Health Trust. That was very
successful and along came Rick Scott who bought us and then bought HCA. Rick Scott, when he saw me, thought Georgia, and I couldn’t get him off that. I ran 19 hospitals in Georgia for HCA.”
The founder of Community Health Systems, Dick Ragsdale, reached out asked Ernie to help mature his management team, which he did, and then he officially retired. “That was before this terrific growth of community systems,” Ernie said, “It’s a mega thing now. When I ran it, we only had 43 hospitals.”
“HCA moved us to Nashville in 1986. We lived in Green Hills off Abbott Martin in the Burlington subdivision and loved it back then.” Ernie’s career took them from Nashville to Dalton, Georgia to Gainesville, Florida to their current home in Franklin.
“I commuted to Atlanta for two years,” Ernie explained, “It worked out, it was tough, but it
paid off. This house has been a main stay for us for 30 years.”
Nell had a very impressive career as well. She is a retired pharmacist. Nell’s pharmacy career spanned both hospital and retail. She worked at St. Joseph’s in Memphis during school. After graduation, she practiced at Erlanger Hospital and ran the pharmacy at the Moccasin Bend Psychiatric Hospital in Chattanooga. With their frequent moves, Nell performed fill-in, or temporary coverage in numerous pharmacies throughout north Georgia.
65 Years and Thriving
Ernie and Nell met in pharmacy school at the University of Tennessee. Ernie’s last name is Bacon and Nell’s last name was Crawford. Fortunately, they were seated alphabetically and fell in love and have been happily married 65 years. “We met under the chemistry hood,” Ernie said.
Ernie and Nell have two children, Lisa and Steve. Lisa is a program specialist for the gifted program for the state of Georgia. Steve is a partner in Hamilton-Young in Franklin. They have three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Making Franklin the Wonderful City it is Today
Ernie served as an Alderman for Franklin, started the Downtown Neighborhood Association, and served as Chairman for the Heritage Foundation. He was also president of The Carnton Association, Inc., a board member of Franklin’s Charge, Inc., a board member of the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association, a member of the Tennessee Historic Commission, a member of the Williamson County Historical Society, and a member of Franklin’s Civil War Commission.
“We worked hard in the 90s to promote Franklin and succeeded.” Ernie replied, “Sometimes we think, well this is what we worked for. It’s too much. But in the 90s, in spite of streetscape, downtown was struggling. We created a task force of city and county leaders. We hired a retail consultant to help us work towards the optimal mix of retail. In a large way, we achieved it. So, we’re proud of it, but we sometimes worry about what we created.”
“We like to brag that 4th Avenue South is a microcosm of America,” Ernie elaborated, “We’re multi-generational, multi-ethnicity and multi-national right here on one block.”
“We got it all!” Nell said.
Ernie and Nell have been the perfect stewards of the Campbell-Bacon house for 30 years. Michael Lee of Lee Restoration and their contractor Jim Larsen have been instrumental in the preservation of it.
Mildred Joy Cowan – a Preservationist Ahead of Her Time
When Mildred Joy Cowan, the previous owner of the Campbell-Bacon house, purchased the home in September of 1987, she embarked on a renovation that had neighbors scratching their heads. They could not understand why someone would spend so much money on an old home. Buffie and I were intrigued. We wanted to learn more about the woman who put a pool in the kitchen and was rumored to be an “exorcist”. Mildred’s daughter Anne Cain and Mildred’s grandson Austin Pennington agreed to share her fascinating story.
When Buffie and I arrived at Barlow Builders, Austin’ Pennington’s luxury custom home building company, we were escorted to a sophisticated conference room. Austin began by telling us that his father’s side of the family is seven or eight generations Franklin and his mother’s side is seven generations Nashville. His maternal grandmother, Mildred Joy, was the granddaughter of Thomas Chaplin Joy. He was the founder of the oldest floral company in America, Joy Floral Company, which was established in 1877. Tom Joy Elementary school in Nashville is named after him.
A Cadillac and a Pool
“We never did anything historically in our family that was ever of small size or stature,” Austin explained, “My grandmother bought probably the most prominent home in Belle Meade. When she got divorced from my grandfather, she moved to this little town called Franklin.”
Anne recalled being scared as she drove to Franklin for the first time from her parent’s home in Belle Meade to her future husband’s house in downtown Franklin.
“Where is this Franklin? I’ve driven and driven and can’t find it,” Anne recalled, “It was Hillsboro Road in the dark. When I finally found Franklin, it was just a dream. It was such a hometown feel.”
Anne married Dwight Pennington and moved to Franklin. They had two sons, Austin and Trevor.
“My mother hated to cook and she was married to my father for thirty-six years,” Anne told us, “And after thirty-six years, she just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Mildred was expected to have a hot plate ready for her husband every evening. He was also very controlling. She was given an allowance. Anne remembered her mother said, ‘I don’t care if I never cook again. All I ever wanted from your father was a Cadillac and a pool’.
Anne suggested Mildred get a divorce. She took Anne’s advice and got an attorney. After the divorce was final, she finally had her own money. “And a lot of it,” Austin remarked.
“One of the first things we did when she got her money was go to Crest Cadillac,” Anne recalled, “We picked out the most gorgeous Cadillac on the show room floor and we drove out in this beautiful Cadillac, and we went to Franklin.”
Anne told her about a gray house for sale at 224 4th Ave South that needed work. Mildred bought it and spent almost two years renovating it and painted the exterior yellow. Anne bought the Eggleston House at 203 3rd Avenue North and began a complete renovation as well.
“Ms. Trabue lived next door to my mother and she was just in shock,” Anne recalled, “My husband was a home builder. We had everything at our disposal, and there was no plan because you didn’t know what you were going to uncover next. She didn’t spare a dime. And then my mother’s idea ‘Why don’t we knock off the back of the house and put one of those swim pools?” “We probably lost a million dollars or two into that house,” Austin speculated.
Mildred’s million-dollar renovation of the Campbell-Bacon house did not make financial sense. The cost of restoring an old house can be insurmountable. That’s why there are so many homes throughout the country that are in need of restoration and in danger of being demolished.
“No one ever put real money into a home, let alone two homes in downtown Franklin ever,” Austin said, “There’s a long line of preservation in our family.”
Austin’s ancestors, the Joys helped save Cheekwood mansion in Nashville.
Austin Pennington Shares About Preservation
“I’m a giant preservationist for 100 different reasons,” Austin explained, “but with that being said, it’s very hard to say, I’m going to spend $5 million to make one house livable again, if a million dollars can rebuild a school or can rehabilitate 100 people somewhere else. It’s why Queen Elizabeth had to decommission the Britannia. It just costs so much to keep it up that you just couldn’t justify the PR anymore. One ship, one person, versus £60 million a year could do so much more. We’re in this era where it’s not popular to restore things because the cost and frankly, people’s idea of preservation history is what they can see on their phone.”
“It’s unfortunate that the local people don’t have the means to preserve Franklin the way it is today. The fortunate part is people moving here do have the means to preserve it. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is, that everything that Franklin was is no longer and what it’s becoming is yet to be seen, but it’s not the same feel. It’s like an empty movie set when the characters are gone. The next movie you’ll have a totally different writer and director, and it will feel totally different but it’s the same set. Everybody comes in and it’s just a different cast of characters and a different mindset.”
“A lot of my first memories are of this house,” Austin said, “I remember the pool had to be set with a big giant crane. For me being a young kid and watching how things were really built, deconstructed when you pull away all the dirt and see what’s underneath the house was really cool. I don’t think many people can say that they’ve really seen that.”
“I would tie a rope around the banister and swing from the front of the house and kick off the walls,” Austin recalled, “My grandmother called me a “little pill” because I was always climbing on everything and was always in trouble.”
The Ghostbuster – “No Charge and No Guarantee”
“Mother was interested in the spiritual world and UFOs,” Anne said, “She was an ordained priest at the Church of Antioch.”
According to Austin, there was a house at the corner of Hillsboro and Old Hickory Boulevard and the home owners reached out to Mildred for help.
“They told her, ‘We’ve got an Indian who rides in the back on a horse’. She came by and did a prayer and the Indian never came back again,” Austin said.
From that point on Mildred was known as the premier Ghostbuster of Nashville. She was known to say, “No Charge and No Guarantee”.
The End of An Era
“She’s always bucked the trend. She’s always been this interesting person,” Austin said. “My grandmother had a great time in Franklin, but she was a Nashville girl at heart. She moved back to Belle Meade area.”
After living at 224 4th Avenue South for six years, Mildred sold the house to Ernie and Nell Bacon in 1993 for $337,500. She eventually married an antique dealer named Roupen Gulbenk.
“She spent her later years travelling back and forth to England to study haunted houses and country gardens,” Anne said, “She considered herself a faith healer. She was also a fabulous floral designer, and I learned so much from her. We were inseparable.”
“We were going on a trip to England for probably two or three weeks,” Austin said, “and her energy was pretty bad a week or two beforehand. Well, it turned out she had a hole in heart.”
A couple of days before the trip her energy levels dropped again and she went to the hospital. The doctor told her she could not leave the hospital, but she insisted she was still going and that she would die in England. She was in the process of checking herself out when she physically could not do it. Mildred passed away the next day on July 6, 2008.
The Campbell Family Legacy
Now let’s honor the original family and builder of this house, the Campbell family. In the early 1900s, you could select a design for your future home from a magazine ad. The Campbells selected Design No. 879, a Queen Anne Victorian cottage in Keith’s Magazine on Home Building.
The home was a wedding present for William Winder (W.W.) and Annie James Campbell in 1904 from her uncle and aunt, James William and Annie Briggs Harrison who raised her in the former Harrison House in downtown Franklin.
James W. Harrison was a prominent businessman who founded the Williamson County Banking and Trust Company. The bank was largely responsible for the construction of several city landmarks, including the Historic Franklin Presbyterian Church.
Annie married William Winder Campbell and had two sons, James and Stewart. W.W.’s father was Patrick Campbell, a teacher in Franklin. His mother was Louise McGavock Winder Campbell. She was the daughter of Van Winder and Martha McGavock and the sister of Carrie Winder McGavock of Carnton. Patrick taught in a private school for the children at Ducros, the Winder plantation in Louisiana. Upon his return to Franklin he brought his bride Louise Winder and continued to teach.
Lillian Campbell Stewart, the first and only female Mayor of Franklin, is the daughter of James Campbell and Stewart Campbell’s niece. This is Lillian with a photo of her grandmother Matilda. Read our exclusive story on the Harrison House here.
William Winder Campbell ran Bennett & Campbell hardware store on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Main Street in downtown Franklin. Walter Bennett was his partner, and he lived in the Bennett House of 4th Avenue North. The store later became Bennett Hardware until 1963. This popular corner is now home to 55 South, Kilwins, and Jondie. You can still see the “Harrison” name on the top of each building.
The Tennessee Female College Connection to the Campbell-Bacon House
Before the Campbell-Bacon house was built, most of 4th Avenue South between Church Street and Margin was the campus for the Tennessee Female College. The entrance to the college was located where the Campbell-Bacon house is today.
The original building was built In 1857 and offered secondary education to young women. Sadly, the first building burned down.
The second building of the Tennessee Female College (shown above) was built in 1887 and torn down in 1916 to build houses on the campus which extended from 4th to 5th Avenue and South Margin.
You can view a marker honoring the college near the sidewalk just a few houses down from the Campbell-Bacon house on 4th Avenue South. Stay tuned for a feature on historic schools of Franklin.
Thank you as always to Rick Warwick for allowing us access to his collection of historic photos. We also appreciate Trenton Lee Photography and his beautiful photography of the home.
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