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MTSU students, CHP staff conduct workday at historic home of former slave Matt Gardner

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Lending their hands to aid the historic Matt Gardner home were (standing, from left) Ann Hendrix, Jennifer Butt, (seated, second row) Katie Randall, Katie Merzbacher, Kristen Deathridge, (front row, from left) Antoinette van Zelm, Kira Duke and Sara Rieger. Crew chief Mike Gavin is picture in the second-story window of the home. (Photo by Caneta Hankins/CHP.)

The frame house built in 1896 by a former slave, Matt Gardner, in southern middle Tennessee recently was the focus of a “hands-on history” workday by staff and students from the Center for Historic Preservation at MTSU.

The 10-person crew spent June 4 at the Matt Gardner Homestead Museum in Elkton, which is located in Giles County, moving the house a step closer to its original appearance, reported Caneta Hankins, assistant director of the CHP.

“Removing wallpaper and modern paneling to expose the original paneling, removing aluminum windows and general cleaning were among the jobs completed,” shared Hankins, who arranged the workday on behalf of the Murfreesboro-based center with help from Mike Gavin, preservation specialist.

The Matt Gardner Homestead comprises the frame house, a well house, two later barns, and a recently reconstructed outhouse. The rehabilitation of the property is an ongoing effort by the family, their friends and the Elkton Historical Society, which provided lunch for the workers.

“The Gardner house and farm are significant for African-American architecture, agriculture and commerce,” Hankins observed. “When restored, the house will be interpreted as a museum of African-American history for the county.”

Per Hankins, the center’s staff has worked with Carla Jones, president of the historical society, and the Gardner family since 1995 when the CHP prepared the successful nomination that listed the house on the National Register of Historic Places.

Since that time, she added, staff have provided professional services and matching partnership funds for a website and brochure, as well as building assessments and guidelines for restoration, through the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, which is administered by the CHP.

Dr. Antoinette van Zelm, historian with the TCWNHA, said, “The longstanding working relationship between the Matt Gardner Homestead, the Center for Historic Preservation and the Heritage Area allows both staff and students to learn about the lifestyle of rural black Americans during that transition period in the first decades after emancipation.”

Moreover, Hankins added, “The Gardner family has been very determined in their efforts to restore this farm and to tell the story of their family and of other African Americans who have contributed to every aspect of Giles County history.”

Regarding the home’s original owner, the Rev. Gardner and his wife, Henrietta, were leaders in the black community of Giles County following their emancipation. Gardner operated store and made loans to other blacks so they could purchase their own land. He also financed the first two-room school for blacks in 1920, and then led the effort to secure Rosenwald funds to build a four-room school in 1930.

CHP staff attended the Gardner–Coleman family reunion June 19 in Franklin, Tenn., to update the gathering of more than 150 family members from across the country on the restoration and ongoing needs of the property. The event also featured the book signing of the recent Arcadia publication, "African Americans of Giles County," authored by Jones.

For more information on the CHP or its recent workday in Giles County, please contact the center directly at 615-898-2947.

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