Sam Davis Home Offers Real Look at 1860s Farm Life

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sam davis home
photo by Lee Rennick

It is not until coming to Sam Davis Home for an event, like a wedding or an anniversary party, that many long-time residents of Smyrna set foot on the grounds of the home of “The Hero of the Confederacy,” as Davis is known. He became a legend during the Civil War when he said, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend,” before being executed for spying on Union forces at the age of 21.

A dramatic story to be sure. A young man of high moral character giving his life to save a friend from the same fate. But in today’s world, the property tells a much more nuanced story of a tough family of farmers who survived the war and worked hard on the land. It was an 800-acre farm that still produces crops on 98 of the 168 acres that are part of what the Sam Davis Memorial Association runs as the museum and manages.

Due to the family selling the house and a significant piece of the property to the State of Tennessee to create a museum right after Sam’s younger brother, Oscar, died in 1927, everything is very much as it was in Sam Davis’ day. While there was some updating to the home over time, the parlor is filled with many of the family’s original furnishings down to the carpet. It looks as if they had all just stepped away and it was frozen in time thanks to curator, John Lamb.

Lamb likes to “capture moments” using information from archival interviews with Sam’s younger sisters Ida and Andromedia. They were still alive when the home was turned into a museum to immortalize Sam in 1930.

It helps that the home has no electric lighting, no heat or air conditioning, no running water, and no indoor plumbing. The original privy still sits next to the detached kitchen and smokehouse to the left of the house. Because the house is kept in the condition it was in when the family left, a tour offers visitors the sights, sounds, and smells of an earlier time.

Because the house and grounds can be very cold in the winter, the museum is closed during the month of January.  But it will reopen in February.

“We are so lucky here,” said Jenny Lamb, Executive Director. “Many historic homes have lost many of the items that were original to the home because it was used as something else before it became a museum and the family took many items with them, or the family did extensive remodeling and modernizing. That is not the case here.”

Here, a family member was even the first employee. One of Sam Davis’ nieces, also named Andromedia, served as a tour guide for many years and she served on the board of the museum.

“The home was sold to the state,” explained Jenny Lamb, “but the Sam Davis Memorial Association, a separate 501(c)3 non-profit, was set up to run and manage the property. As long as we follow the original arrangement that was set up between the state and the association, the association continues to have control of the home, out buildings, and the land.”

Opening the home for tours, maintenance of the property, and educational activities are all part of the agreement.

Education about the home, the family and life on a farm in the 1900s is very important to the organization. Twice a year they open for living history field trips for kids. In May they offer “Down on the Farm,” and in September, “Heritage Days.” During these times they provide hands-on activities and live demonstrations of things like sewing, weaving, making yarn, making candles, cooking over a fire, and blacksmithing. Living in a “ready-made” world, it is quite eye-opening for school children.

They also offer five field trips that are available throughout the year. These include, “The Story of Cotton” which allows kids to learn about growing, picking and processing cotton through hands-on experiences; “Stepping Stone to Freedom” which addresses the life of slaves on the farm and a history of the Underground Railroad; “Bullets, Bayonets and Boredom” that addresses the life of a soldier during the Civil War with reenactors providing hands-on opportunities; “Signed, Sealed’ and Delivered” that introduces kids to the handwritten letter and its importance in the 19th century; and lastly, an immersive program in “Tennessee History.”

There are also many public events that take place throughout the year, including ghost tours in October, a Christmas Open House, and many family nights that address not just the history of the home, but also the land as a farm and arboretum. And they have adult classes that are fun and educational, including soap making, chair caning, faux grain painting and quilt making.

“We want to tell the whole story of the family and the land,” said Jenny Lamb, “while also honoring Sam Davis.”

The pandemic was hard on the museum, as on most non-profits. They are starting to recover, but there is a lot of restoration that needs to be done to the Sam Davis Home, as well as the two-story log cabin that sits at the back of the property that was the original home that Sam’s parents, Charles and Jane, lived in while the main home was being built.

“We’d love to restore it and open it to tours one day,” said Jenny Lamb, “but it will cost half a million dollars to just start the repair of the cabin, and the main house needs to be addressed first. It has not had any significant work done to it since the 1960s.”

To learn more about the Sam Davis Home Museum, go to https://www.samdavishome.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/SamDavisHome/.  They have a whole line-up of new programming planned for 2023 that should soon make its way to both sites. Programming will be kicked off with a Toddler Tuesday celebrating the Chinese New Year at 10 a.m. in January 31.