Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hauntings at The Hermitage

The Hermitage

By Chester Campbell

I got a different slant on Halloween Saturday night when my wife, Sarah, and I took our grandson to the 8th Annual Hauntings at The Hermitage. If you aren’t familiar with The Hermitage, it’s the restored 1,000-acre plantation home of Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh President. It was my first visit there in over forty years, and the place had really changed.

You arrive at an attractive, modern Visitor Center complete with Museum Store, Auditorium and Garden Gate Café. After paying for admission, you walk through the grounds to the Mansion, originally built between 1821 and 1831 and enlarged to its present size in 1834. Jackson bought the property in 1804 for $3,400 and lived in a two-story log cabin with his wife, Rachel, until building the Mansion. He was living in the cabin when he became the hero of the Battle of New Orleans.

After General Jackson’s death in 1845, following two terms as President, his adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr., took over. Junior sold the core 500 acres to the State of Tennessee in 1855. In 1889, the state turned over the Mansion and 25 acres to the Ladies’ Hermitage Association, a group modeled after the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union that bought George Washington’s estate. Over the years, the state or LHA acquired the remainder of the original plantation where Jackson grew cotton and other crops and ran various businesse enterprises.

Plopped down in the midst of a suburban residential community only twenty minutes from downtown Nashville, this is a large project. It has similarities to the Presidential Libraries and Museums dedicated to those since Herbert Hoover, but The Hermitage has no library, only a small number of documents. Jackson’s papers are at the National Archives, the Library of Congress and various university and private collections. The Papers of Andrew Jackson project at the University of Tennessee has cataloged them over the past several years and is compiling them in printed volumes.

End of history lesson. Just thought that would help set the stage.

It was getting dark when we started our Hauntings venture. There was no moon. The pathway winding through trees and lawns was lighted by lanterns placed every 100 feet or so. Somewhere back on the propery a canon fired now and then. The first thing we encountered was a group of Confederate soldiers gathered around their tents. (Historical note: the Civil War was ten years after Jackson's death, and no battles were fought around The Hermitage.) Our grandson, Justin, wore a ghoulish costume. They commented on how fierce he looked.

“We’d better let him pass,” said the sergeant.

When we strolled by a large shrub, a character who looked like he’d been spray-painted silver jumped out and screamed. We glanced back as we walked on and he stood stiff as a statue, awaiting his next victim.

We toured the mansion, where period-dressed women described how each room was used. We saw bedrooms with elaborate canopied beds, General Jackson’s office, dining rooms, sitting rooms, etc. A bluegrass ensemble played lively music next to the back porch.

After that, we headed down another lighted path to a barn where we boarded a haywagon pulled by a tractor. Sitting on bales of straw, we rode through the dark along a narrow road that wound around the farm. Every few hundred feet, ghosts and goblins jumped up from the roadside screaming like banshees.

As we passed one of them, Justin shouted, “You didn’t scare me.”

To which came the ghoulish reply, “Yes I did.”

We rode under the overhanging roof of a hay barn, where lights flashed and the demons were particularly noisy. Along the way we saw other figures beside the road that didn’t move, so we decided they were dummies.

Afterward, there were ghost stories in a candlelit cabin, pumpkin decorating in another area, and palm reading in the fortune telling tent. I skipped the latter, figuring my palms were too worn to have anything of value left to read. They should have bought one of my mystery books. Now that would have been worth reading.

Sending Justin off with a friend to do two more hayrides and visit the cemetery, Sarah and I retreated to the café for pie and coffee. The temperature had dropped considerably outside. We heard that General Jackson normally appeared along the haunting tour, but the impersonator who played the part wasn’t available that night. Too bad. I read that in his early days, the future President had a propensity for pulling pranks, cursing, and fighting. Might have made for a livelier evening.


Jean Henry Mead said...

What a wonderful experience for you, Sarah and your grandson, Chester! I can't think of a better way to teach him about history as well as provide a Halloween treat. My dad was born in an old farmhouse on the Antietam Battlefield, which I visited as a newlywed. A spookier place in the daylight I've never seen or experienced since.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Chester, I've misplaced your email address and need to discuss my Halloween article for Friday. Would you please email me at Seniorsleuth@aol.com.


Ben Small said...

Chester, that really struck me as funny. Reminded me of a restaurant on Highway 12 around the Michigan/Indiana line. Nice place set on beautiful gardens. So while you're enjoying your escargot, you gaze out the window and think you see a tree move.

Have another drink.

This happens several more times. Not a running tree, mind you, just one that's in a different place every time you look.

The guy who plays Tree has been doing his act in the restaurant's gardens for years. I think he's the owner, and his wife runs the place.

Anyway, it was a hoot. Thanks for the memory.

Chester Campbell said...

Don't think The Hermitage has any moving trees, Ben, but it wouldn't be a bad idea. Andy Jackson's nickname was Old Hickory. One thing I didn't mention was Sarah and I waited for Justin in the Visitor Center. When we were ready to leave, a goblin attired completely in black, covering face and hands as well, chased Justin out to the parking lot. From his size, I suspect it was a teenager. Justin had seen him at the cemetery and probably goaded him like he did the one on the hayride.