The Untold History of Harlinsdale Farm’s Hayes House and its Second Chance at Life

Often described as the jewel of Franklin, Harlinsdale Farm is rich in beauty as well as history. When visitors tour the 200-acre park, they’ll encounter a number of markers that detail significant milestones and points of interest in the property’s past. A sign mounted to a fence tells how Wirt Harlin operated one of the first Tennessee Walking Horse farms here. At the main barn, a plaque outlines the duties of the horse trainers and handlers.

Midnight Sun, the pride and joy of Harlinsdale Farm | Lovely Franklin

Another marker stands vigil over the grave of Midnight Sun, a stallion who made Harlinsdale Farm a major player in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. A fourth placard explains how the grounds also functioned as a working farm. There’s even a sign that relays how Confederate troops retreated from Nashville across this land with Union forces on their tail.

In the midst of all this history stands a white clapboard farmhouse. The paint is peeling, several windows are boarded up, and a layer of dust coats everything. A small plaque by the front door identifies it as the homestead of Harlinsdale Farm. Despite this auspicious designation, the Victorian structure, known as the Hayes House, has sat empty for years, its own story largely untold—until now.

The Hayes House holds a fascinating tale within its walls, one that is inextricably woven into that of Harlinsdale Farm and the city of Franklin as a whole. 

Lily flour package | Lovely Franklin

IT BEGAN WITH A FLOUR EMPIRE

The home was built in the late 1890s by Joshua Bates Lillie. He was the founder of the Lillie Mill Company (also known as the Franklin Flouring Mill), a leading flour manufacturer in the South. Established in 1868, the mill was the first major industry in Franklin after the Civil War and helped revive the devastated local economy. The Lillie Mill Company was the largest commercial venture in Williamson County for many years, and its “Franklin Lady” flour was a top-selling brand across the nation.

Joshua Lillie’s operation began in a factory at the end of East Main Street, but moved to First Avenue South after a fire destroyed the original location.

Lillie Mill, Home of Franklin Lady Flour | Lovely Franklin

After changing hands several times, the mill went up in flames on January 8, 1958. The fire was caused when several elevator belts got clogged and built up heat. To make matters worse, several cylinders of gas exploded during the blaze.

Lillie Mill Co. went up in flames in 1958 | Lovely Franklin

The mill was never rebuilt, but the grain elevators still stand as a lasting testament to one of Franklin’s earliest industries.

Lillie grain elevators as taken by Katie Shands | Lovely Franklin

THE FOUNDATION OF THIS STORY IS LAID

On February 13, 1889, long before the second mill burned, Joshua Bates Lillie married his third wife, Mary Farmer Lillie. She and her brother William H. Farmer owned a farm along Franklin Road.

When fire destroyed the main home on the Farmers’ property, Joshua built a new house to replace it. On October 5, 1899, an article in the Williamson County News stated construction was underway. This is the residence that would later be known as the Hayes House. 

According to the census, Joshua was living here with Mary and William in 1900. He died in the house on September 14, 1908 after a prolonged illness.

Click here to read more about the Lillie Mill Company, J.B. Lillie, and his connection to LilliHouse, another Victorian home in Franklin.

A KENTUCKY BOY LANDS IN NASHVILLE

While Joshua Lillie was building his flour empire in Franklin, William Wirt Harlin, Sr. was growing up in Kentucky.

William Wirt Harlin, Sr. | Lovely Franklin

Born in 1886, Wirt spent his childhood on a farm in Gamaliel where his father raised some of the finest saddle horses in the area. However, Wirt took a different track and left his hometown to study bookkeeping in Bowling Green. He landed a teaching job in New Jersey, but after a year, he moved to Nashville and began work with a wholesale mercantile operator. In 1923, he helped found Central Overall Manufacturing, later renamed Red Kap Garment Company. The business eventually shifted its focus from retail to the development of workwear that could withstand industrial washing. Red Kap prospered and is still in operation today.

THE HARLINS COME TO FRANKLIN

One hot July day in 1934, Wirt’s four sons convinced him to take them to Franklin. They wanted to cool down at Willow Plunge, a spring-fed swimming pool that was located next to the present-day entrance of Heath Place, a subdivision off Lewisburg Avenue.

Willow Plunge in the 1930s | Lovely Franklin
Willow Plunge in the 1930s

On their way back into Nashville that afternoon, Wirt and his boys passed Myles Manor (now known as Jasmine Grove) on Franklin Road. The antebellum house had been converted into a private country club in 1930, but the home and surrounding farmland had since fallen into receivership.

Myles Manor in 1934 | Lovely Franklin
Myles Manor in 1934

Wirt and his wife, Louella, had been looking for acreage near Franklin since 1932. With four active sons who rode and showed gaited ponies, they wanted a home with more land than their Nashville residence offered.

Though Myles Manor was in rough shape, the Harlins fell in love, and Wirt decided to buy it. After a year of renovations, the family moved in.

This property would form the nucleus of Harlinsdale Farm. The house came with a barn, and Wirt filled it with gaited horses, as well as a few saddle horses.

Harlinsdale Farm's Hayes House | Lovely Franklin
Myles Manor in 1975

Wirt hired a trainer, Major Buntin, and continued to buy up parcels of adjacent land, including the farm where Joshua Lillie had built a home all those years earlier.

The mule barn at Harlinsdale Farm | Lovely Franklin

As his dream took shape, Wirt reached out to his young nephew Harlin Hayes for help. Harlin was the son of Wirt’s oldest sister and still lived back home in Gamaliel, Kentucky where he worked as a farmer. Having been exposed to his grandfather’s taste in horses, Harlin had a keen eye for livestock. In fact, his childhood nickname was “Hoss.” Wirt decided Harlin would be the perfect manager for Harlinsdale Farm.

Twenty-five-year-old Harlin accepted the job, and in late 1936, he came to Franklin with a farmhand, Philip Shirley, to begin work. Harlin’s wife, Maurie, and young daughter, Mary Etta, soon joined him. The family moved into the Victorian farmhouse that Joshua Lillie had constructed.

Around this same time, Wirt’s brother, Alex Harlin, bought Mayberry Farm, which was adjacent to Harlinsdale Farm. He and his wife, Winnie, moved into the fine home on the property. It was named Riverview and still stands across from Battle Ground Academy on Franklin Road. You can read more about Riverview here. 

Riverview in 1975 | Lovely Franklin
Riverview in 1975

With this land purchase, Harlinsdale Farm now encompassed about 300 acres. The farm bustled with activity as the horse operation got underway. New barns and extensive fencing were built, and old barns were renovated.

The first Harlinsdale Barn built in 1936 | Lovely Franklin

Also during this period, Wirt and Alex began buying a new breed of horse. In 1935, Wirt had been introduced to what would be known as the Tennessee Walking Horse. Impressed by their smooth gait, endurance, and gentle disposition, the brothers began to breed these saddle horses in addition to their gaited ones. It was the start of something great for Harlinsdale Farm.

Harlin Hayes was a quick study in this new trade. The Walking Horses shared many similarities to the gaited stock his grandfather had raised in Kentucky. It wasn’t long before Harlin had gained a solid reputation in the horse business. In fact, by the time he died in 1980, many considered him to be the best judge of walking brood mares who ever lived.

THE BIRTH OF TWO HARLINSDALE LEGENDS

On February 7, 1940, the Hayes household grew by one. Harlin and Maurie’s son, James “Jim” Hayes, was the only person in both the Harlin and Hayes families to be born on Harlinsdale Farm. In fact, Jim was born in the front room of the Hayes House.

That same year, another noteworthy birth occurred on a farm near Manchester, Tennessee. A black stud colt came into the world. Though largely unremarkable at the time, this horse, then known as “Joe Lewis Wilson,” would grow up to become the Tennessee Walking Horse of the century. The Harlin brothers’ early encounters with Joe Lewis Wilson left them unimpressed, but three years later after seeing the stallion in action, Wirt purchased him for $4,400 without even consulting Alex. 

They changed the horse’s name to Midnight Sun and assigned Harlin Hayes to be his first trainer at Harlinsdale. 

Harlin Hayes and Midnight Sun | Lovely Franklin

Later, the Harlin brothers hired Fred Walker for this position, but the training and exhibiting truly was a team effort between Fred Walker, Harlin Hayes, Mrs. Henry Davis, Winston Wiser, and Carl Lee. Midnight Sun would go on to win two World Grand Championships. Harlinsdale Farm’s most successful years are credited to this prize-winner and his lineage.

Harlin Hayes, Red Laws, and Midnight Sun | Lovely Franklin

Pride of Midnight was born among the last crop of Midnight Sun foals.

While Harlin trained Midnight Sun and helped establish the farm’s breeding program, his son, Jim, grew up enjoying the idyllic setting around the Hayes House. In his comprehensive history of Harlinsdale Farm, Jim writes, “As a child, Harlinsdale was my home where I roamed the fields, rode horses, fished the Harpeth and lived the country life within the shadow of downtown Franklin.”

Harlinsdale Main Show Barn | Lovely Franklin

He had no shortage of playmates either. Aside from the Hayes House, there were five other homes on the property where some of the farm laborers and their families lived. Many children grew up on the farm, and during their teen years, the boys often worked with the horses or in the fields, tending to a wide variety of crops.

1950 aerial shot of Harlinsdale Farm | Lovely Franklin
1950 aerial shot that shows Harlinsdale Farm north of Franklin

FROM THE FARM TO THE FRANKLIN AIRWAVES

After a childhood surrounded by horse breeders and farmers, Jim took a much different path: He established a successful career in radio. Perhaps it wasn’t too much of a surprise, however. After all, his father, Harlin, was the voice of the Harlinsdale sale, an annual auction that sold top yearling colts. After his dad’s passing, Jim would take over that role.

By age 16, Jim boasted an amateur radio license and was broadcasting from his bedroom at the Hayes House. In 1956, he organized the Franklin High Radio Club. As a teen, he also had a part-time job at WAGG (AM-950), a radio station in Franklin. 

Franklin High Radio Club in 1957 | Lovely Franklin
Kenneth Smithson, Jim Hayes, Barbara Short, Bobby Short, members of the Franklin High Radio Club in 1957

After graduating college with a chemistry degree (which he never used), Jim jumped right back into radio work in his hometown. He teamed up with Bob Sewell and Bill Montgomery to launch WFLT (FM-100), Franklin’s first FM station. Not long after this, Jim returned to his roots at WAGG and established Broadcast Associates, an engineering consultant company. In 1968, he partnered with Bob Sewell, Revis Hobbs, Dan Rogers, and Frank Beasley to found Franklin’s first AM-FM broadcast station, WIZO.

In 1982, Jim sold WIZO, intending to retire. However, three years later, he became a partner at WAKM (AM-950). They sold the station in 2016. He died on January 27, 2019 at the age of 78 after ongoing health problems. Often referred to as the “Father of Franklin Radio,” Jim is credited with Franklin’s presence on the airwaves. 

THE END OF AN ERA

W.W. Harlin wears roses won by Midnight Sun in 1945 | Lovely Franklin

The Hayes family continued to live in the Victorian farmhouse on Harlinsdale until Harlin died in 1980 from cancer. He had been Harlinsdale’s manager for nearly 44 years. The Tennessee Walking Horse world greatly mourned his passing with every major equine publication paying tribute to him and his accomplishments. After his death, the family moved out of the Hayes House, and the Harlins used the home as a painting studio.

In 2005, the Harlins sold their farm to the city of Franklin for use as a passive park. Two years later, the city opened the 200-acre property to the community. Since then, Harlinsdale Farm has become the site of the annual Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival, as well as horse shows at its Tractor Supply Arena. It also boasts hiking/riding trails, a fishing pond, a canoe launch, and Franklin’s largest dog park.

THE HAYES HOUSE GETS A SECOND LIFE

After Harlinsdale Farm was converted to a park, the Hayes House sat empty and largely untouched. In 2012, the city of Franklin and the state Historic Commission paid to replace the roof, gutter system, and porch. However, no funds were available to do anything more than safeguard the home from further deterioration.

All that has changed, thanks to The Friends of Franklin Parks who have made it their mission to restore the Hayes House. The Friends have raised close to the estimated cost of $750,000 and are now moving forward with the project in partnership with the city of Franklin. The Hayes House will be used to educate people about its former residents and the history of Harlinsdale Farm. It will also serve as an event venue, fine art gallery, and offices to support the park operations.  

Every step of this endeavor has been taken with the utmost consideration of the Hayes House’s past and how to best share it with the community. The Friends want the rooms to tell the home’s story, which encompasses more than 100 years. To accomplish this, they’ve taken a creative approach to the restoration. Though the goal is to bring the bones of the Hayes House back to its nineteenth-century glory, the interior will reflect various time periods. “The heyday was in the thirties and forties,” says Jay Sheridan, board president of the Friends of Franklin Parks, “and that’s what we’ll probably focus on from a design standpoint.”

An exception to that is the kitchen, which will be a throwback to the 1950s. It’s a nod to Mary Etta Hayes Neiland (Jim Hayes’s older sister). After growing up in the Hayes House, she attended the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and majored in home economics. Upon graduating, Mary Etta returned home for the summer, and the kitchen was redone around that same time. 

Jim Hayes’s former bedroom will celebrate his radio career. Memorabilia will be on display to educate visitors about Jim’s incredible impact on Franklin’s broadcasting history.

INVEST IN PRESERVING FRANKLIN’S HISTORY

According to Torrey Barnhill, executive director of the Friends of Franklin Parks, they are selling square footage to those interested in contributing to the project. “We can all ‘invest’ in a piece of the Hayes House. The ‘deed’ doesn’t come with any special privileges but the pride of knowing that we played a role in bringing it back to life.” If you’re interested in being a sponsor, contact Torrey at torrey@friendsoffranklinparks.org.

We’d like to extend a special thanks to Trenton Lee Photography and Jay Sheridan for his incredible shots and Rick Warwick for allowing us access to the Williamson County Historical Society’s photography collection.

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2 Comments

  1. I went to school with Jim (Jimmy) Hayes. He was 1 yr behind me so we never were “best buds” or anything close to that, but as I recall everyone including teachers had a lot of respect for Jimmy and his radio pursuits. Local radio at the time was new to all of us and only Jimmy and a couple of others showed much, if any interest in it, but we knew Jimmy was extremely interested, and although we had a very limited understanding of the potential, we knew Jimmy was pursuing it without measure and had a respect for his endeavor and hard work.

    BTW, My two older sisters were in classes with Mary Etta. Mary Etta was a very pretty young lady and very popular as well.

    The summer before I turned 12 years old that September, I and two more of my classmates got jobs at Harlinsdale Farm doing anything and everything that needed doing on the farm. That included cleaning stables, washing horses, chopping corn, baling hay and putting it in the old barn loft, etc. Every Tuesday afternoon was breeding day and we helped with that if we were not engaged in other activities. Sometime we only got to watch which probably is the beginning of my obsession with sex. I don’t remember ever seeing anything but pictures of Midnight Sun but his son, Midnight Glory, unless I am mistaken also a World Champion was at the time standing stud. We never got to ride him but I have washed him. We worked from 6am until 6pm and longer if something needed to be finished before we left. At the time I lived on Adams street almost across from where Gist Street dead ends into Adams Street. I walked out there and back everyday, 6 days a week. There was an old black man, Uncle Dave that also worked on the farm who lived further out on Columbia Ave on Fairground Street. I made effort to time my walk so I could walk with him as often as I could. I came to love him as I did my grandfather, Maybe the sweetest man I ever knew.

    We had a rule on the farm. I never saw it written anywhere and neither do I recall anyone ever verbalizing it. But the 1st one of us kids that got to the farm in the morning got to drive the Farmall H tractor all day, The H was used to pull the hay wagon or the disk or moving the irrigation system among other things. I remember disking that field in front of the white horse barn for days before I got it finished. They also at the time had a Farmall M tractor but Mr Hayes and the “straw boss” (can’t remember his name) didn’t want any of us to use that tractor. Needless to say, riding on the tractor was much less work and much more enjoyable work than anything else to be done on the farm. Consequently, most days I would get to work at 5:30 or earlier and stay way past 6pm to hide the tractor so that even if the other boys got there before I did the next day I might still get there before they found the tractor. So I probably worked 80 hours a week, maybe more for $2 a day or $12 a week, cash money, no withholding. The next summer I stepped up my game and got another job riding a combine for Clyde Lynch, Louise Lynch’s husband. You’ve probably heard of her. Clyde did custom combining and paid me $15 dollars a week to ride the combine. We didn’t go to work nearly as early as I did at Harlinsdale the year before, and usually quit about the same time, but the work was a lot harder. But, at $15 per week, I was a rich man.

    I have a funny story about Mr. Alex Harlin that I heard repeated more than once while i worked there but you would not be able to use it even if I told it to you.

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