Living in Nashville, one can't help but wonder who influenced the sights and sounds all around us today.
Margaret Mitchell's romantic novel and the epic film, Gone With the Wind started a love affair with the lives of strong, ambitious women like Scarlett O'Hara. and one often wonders if such braveheart women existed in real life. Yet, right here, right under our very noses stands the proof that one such woman graced the streets of Nashville and contributes daily to the lives of multitudes who have the good fortune to pass this way.
Sometimes, the elements of our true nature are extended into the inanimate objects we create in this life...giving them life. Our homes are one example. This story is about a home built by the blood, sweat, and tears of a woman and the men who loved her...
The beginning of our story today takes us to March 15, 1817. It was around the time Mississippi was admitted as the 20th. state of the Union, Baltimore became the first U.S. City to be lit by gas, and Keats and Lord Byron were composing. It was also the beginning of a remarkable life. The lady who dreamed and built Belmont Mansion, Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham was born. She was the daughter of Oliver Bliss Hayes, a prominent Nashville Lawyer, Judge, Presbyterian minister and land speculator. He was also a cousin to President Rutherford B. Hayes.
One can only imagine the expectations placed upon a child born into such prominence, even if she was female. The history books fail to list any reference to her mother, and, as with most women of that era, Adelicia's recorded life appears to start upon the acquisition of marriage.
At age 22, Adelicia's date with destiny began when she married her first husband, Isaac Franklin. He was a wealthy businessman and plantation owner who was 28 years her senior. Living the high social life of a young debutant, albeit from a small bustling, southern city, and then journeying the thirty some odd miles to her new life on a rural farm; it still had to be a shocking cultural contrast.
Stark contrast seemed to be Adelicia's lot in life. Her life appears to have journeyed from the joy of a happy union, and the birth of a family, to the loss of all that was near and dear her heart.
Imagine, if you will, the stifling effects that kneeling beside the grave of your own child would be; then multiply that by four. Adelicia and Isaac Franklin had four children who all died before the age of seven.
Then, as if fate had not taken enough of her life, after only seven years of marriage, her husband died of a stomach virus while visiting his Louisiana plantations.
Now, imagine the sharp contrast of the realization that practically overnight; before she reached the age of thirty, this lone women, living in an era of male financial domination, became the sole owner of a fortune... She became a millionaire.
Adelicia inherited a huge estate consisting of 8700 acres of cotton plantations in Louisiana, Fairvue, their rural home, a 2000 acre farm in Tennessee, more than 50 acres of land in Texas, stock, bonds and 750 slaves.
Does that much money change ones life? Perhaps it was the burden of loss that weighed heavily on her mind, regardless, somewhat like our heroine, Miss O'Hara, Adelicia changes the momentum of her life.
Three years later she marries Colonel Joseph Alexander Smith Acklen, a lawyer from Huntsville, Alabama. And yes, ladies, having vowed that loss was not a pretty picture, the new Mrs. Acklen did insist on a pre-nuptial. Perhaps, being a lawyer, her new husband understood the relevance. With a good understanding, it appears they moved forward in a happy union and built their own summer villa, at first called Belle Monte, later to become Belmont.
Completed in 1853, Belmont was built in Italian Villa style with elaborate gardens and a water tower that still stands today.
To accommodate their abundant lifestyle there was also a greenhouse, conservatory, art gallery, gazebos, a bowling alley, a bearhouse and a zoo. At that time, there was no public zoo here in Nashville, so they graciously opened their estate to the public to enjoy the zoo. Imagine opening your home to the public? Mr. Acklen must have been a very understanding husband who enjoyed crowds, or perhaps he managed to be overseeing their Lousiania plantations on open house days...
The Acklen's spent their time at Belmont in the summer and Louisiana in the winter. With the help of her new husband, Adelicia's fortunes grew. The couple were often the toast of Nashville society and hosted elaborate parties at the mansion. It was said that Adelicia planned her soirée's during the full moon, to help light up the estate on a warm summer's eve. Many a nights journal, by Nashville elite was said to be written about the thrill of a night spent at Belmont. Even today, you can see Adelicia's bold, decisive touch still evident within the colorful stained glass windows, marvel at the grand staircase, and admire the many marble statues that grace the mansion or pay homage to her uniqueness by visiting her final resting place, a castle mausoleum.
During the Civil war, Joseph died while tending Adelicia's plantations in Louisiana. There were 2800 bales of cotton at risk of being lost to theft or destruction by the Confederate army, threatening to burn it, to keep it from Union possession.
In true Scarlett style, refusing to risk another loss, Adelicia undertook a covert trip to Louisiana with a female cousin to illegally negotiate the sale of her cotton to a broker from England; The Rothchilds. The sale was worth $960,000 to be paid in gold. The widow was soon to make the trip to Europe to collect her fortune.
Noted to be very good at manipulating men, four years later, Adelicia married Dr. William Cheatham, a prominent Nashville physician, and their wedding took place at Belmont with 2000 guests in attendance.
Whether it was time that tempered her zest for life, or all the loss so close at heart, by the 1880's, it was said that Adelicia had stopped spending time with her reclusive husband, and began spending more time in Washington with her only surviving daughter, Pauline. In 1887 she finally retired her love for the stately mansion and sold it to a land developing company, moving permanently to Washington, D.C.
Later that same year, she contracted pneumonia while on a shopping trip to New York and died in a Fifth Avenue hotel. Her body made it's last journey back to Nashville, and she was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Belmont became a girls school and then Belmont University in the 50's. Today it remains the largest house museum in Tennessee where many a young girl hosts the wedding of her dreams.
Many Belmont students and faculty claim to have seen a ghostly figure of a woman walking the halls at night or staring out a window...Perhaps it is Adelicia, looking for the next full moon, hoping to once again light up the grounds with the sights and sounds of life...as she once knew it.