Chester Martin Remembers The McConnell - Harper House On Broomtown Road

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 - by Chester Martin

As an artist, this house held a great fascination for me as a young person. I thought it looked like the very heart and soul of early America - and I still feel the same today! I was fortunate to have close ties to this old place and have been able to piece together its long history from its very origins.

There were several "Cherokee Land Lotteries" organized and carried out before Removal of the Cherokee people from the entire North Georgia region, and the lottery of 1837 seems to have been the one which opened both Chattooga and Walker Counties, Georgia, to white settlement.

Drawing was held at Milledgeville, then the state capital.

A wealthy young man named William McConnell drew the lot which ultimately provided Broomtown Road with one of its most beautiful houses and which was to figure so heavily in the later history of the area. It is pictured in its "restored" condition on page 84 of John Wilson's highly informative book titled, Railroads In And Around Chattanooga. This book of numerous photographs and fully descriptive text is highly entertaining, and will appeal to both young and old alike.

Mr. McConnell arrived, obviously, well before his new brick structure was built, improvising a one-room log cabin to live in while the new home was under construction. He and his small party lived in that space, having determined where the new house should be erected. An ample supply of suitable red clay was found nearby for the bricks - and these were hand made and fired directly on the premises. One brick near the front door gives the date, 1841, and the walls are well over one foot thick - definitely not a veneer! Too early for classification as Victorian, the old house fits better as being Early American. Interestingly, both McConnell and later owners of the house kept the original log cabin, using it as a "summer kitchen" to keep summer heat out of the main part of the house while cooking. Last time I visited, that log house was still standing!

Being a man of some wealth and influence, William McConnell desired a home that could provide a sense of elegance to his two-storied "mansion" while serving simultaneouly as a farm house. He had the builders draw up plans to include a kind of porticoed wooden front with several columns. This portico was centered on the front door area of the house, not extended for its entire house width. This portico has been restored by a more recent owner after finding the holes in the brick masonry where the original portico was attached. (See the restored "portico" front porch in the Railroad book mentioned above).

Inside the front door was a comfortably large space which led directly to an elegant stairway which had marbleized wooden risers. These were artistically done in the old European way. The banisters were of solid walnut and made a complicated U-turn at the north-facing landing. Six large rooms downstairs, and two upstairs, plus a kitchen, comprised the entire original house.

When the Civil War erupted, McConnell became concerned for the safety of his wife and two daughters, sending them to Nashville for the war's duration. There, it is said, that one daughter, of marriageable age, fell in love with a northern soldier whom she married - never to return home to Georgia.

Mr. McConnnell's house became part of living history when it saw troops from both north and south move along Broomtown Road. General Sherman's troops who had followed the crests of both Lookout and Pigeon Mountains southward after the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, had come down from those mountains at Neal's Gap, near the McConnell house, and battles ensued. Hospital space was immediately needed for all the wounded soldiers, and the spacious McConnell house was consequently  requisitioned as a hospital.

Anxiety must have run high among the wounded soldiers housed in the McConnell house as the path of war moved southward toward Atlanta. Most likely the skimpy news available to them increased that anxiety. Thoughts of "home" set in, along with total boredom. They began to write and draw on the walls - something that cooped-up men have done since the beginning of Time. I remember that house well, as it was in my family for many decades, and the inside walls were mostly intact - just as the builders had left them. No paint or wallpaper had hidden those wonderful old writings and drawings - and I understand that subsequent owners have also wished to preserve at least some of them. Looking back at my Polaroids I can see the "purity" of those old drawings, having been made by un-schooled hands, and totally un-influenced by either a Walt Disney or a Marvel comic book. Many of the wall-writings were done in ornate "bankers' script cursive" perhaps about six inches high and scrolled across half a wall, while others were much smaller and tighter, Some of these writings gave birth and death dates of cherished family members, while other writings were simply Bible verses or other quotations. One of the much-later owners whom I knew, told me he had been forced to paint one of the upstairs rooms due to a discoloration or damage. In order to save some of the best artwork he had special picture frames made to preserve the choicest examples. I never got to see this framed work unfortunately.

William McConnell was a man of both wealth and influence in the community. I have his signature here on an old deed, and his name pops up often enough to make me think he was a "mover and shaker" in his Broomtown Road community. One daughter (above) married a northern soldier, and the second daughter seems to have returned to the family home in Chattooga County with her mother following the war, as she was buried in nearby Macedonia (Methodist Church) Cemetery. Her grave was marked with a number of large fieldstones - one of which gave her name and dates. These were very difficult to see, however, because of a wooden enclosure over the grave, The inscription was at last clearly revealed when that wooden structure finally collapsed and was removed around 1970. That structure was interesting in its own right, as it was the only such addition to a grave I had ever seen. It stood about five feet high and was gabled at both ends, and made out of strong cedar slats. It resembled a tiny "board and batten" house. Roof was of the same type of slats. Whether it lacked the "boards" or the "battens" is debatable, of course, but the end effect was it was very difficult to see inside to read any name and dates. Very picturesque, I never saw another similar grave enclosure for years until in an old cemetery near Helen, Georgia. (I only include this detail to enforce the character of Mr. McConnell and the love for a daughter who died young (of sickness?) and unmarried).

Another anecdotal McConnell story tells of how some member of that family - possibly William's brother - went off to the Mexican War in 1840, never to return.

Unable now to visit courthouses where records are kept, I can only surmise that McConnell's fine house and lands were sold to my own Harper people. I could be wrong about that, but farms are usually long-term investments so that the thought of an intermediate owner is not really very probable. McConnell's farm, then, went directly to my father's uncle, Cicero Harper, brother of my grandmother. Cicero Harper soon died, at age 43, leaving the house to his wife, Jessie. Known to my dad and his siblings as "Aunt Jessie", my dad was a frequent visitor there. The Harper son, Charles, (Charlie) was the cousin nearest my dad's age. But Charlie married and left for Texas.

("Texas fever" was quite the rage around 1900 and many of my Martin people wound up there - predominantly in the vicinity of Waxahachie - where a much later kinslady (Ina Bess Lumpkins) found two of the long-lost families some 70 years later, living very near one another yet totally unaware of the other's existence! She was able to organize some very successful family reunions.)

Charlie Harper actually made three trips to Texas - each time returning due to strong cases of homesickness. On his third return home to Chattooga County it was following the death of his mother - Aunt Jessie - and he inherited all her house and grounds. Charlie and Minnie had no children and were aging, so that they lived comfortably in two downstairs rooms, with no need to alter other parts of the house. Charlie DID make one noticeable alteration: he removed the portico entrance to create a very fine porch which extended all the way across the front. The photos that accompany this story show that 2-story porch which I always found full of character, though not the original.  The old wall-drawings and inscriptions remained intact, exactly as they had been drawn by wounded Civil War soldiers. And the well, barn, smokehouse, and other out-buildings remained as they had always appeared - since the early 1840's.

Truly an historic old place, it continued in its state of preservation by a Mr. Crowe who went to extremes to insure that the house could easily be returned to a near-pristine original condition. And I am informed that the present owner is of similar intent. Its modern aspect can be found in John Wilson's book (see above). And its restored portico presumably gives it its original look of Early American elegance.

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Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.




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