Article & photos by: Judy Blackstock
Graves, wars and whiskey make Wheatlands Plantation a living history book.
On Saturday, July 19, 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. and Sunday, July 20, 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Wheatland Plantation plays host to a Civil War Living History Event that takes place during the occupation of the house by Union soldiers. You might spot Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln strolling on the lawn or hear Robert E. Lee talk on some of his battle campaigns. A staged skirmish is planned with a tent set up to demonstrate medical treatments.
A day pass for activities on the grounds is $8.00. To have a tour of the house is an additional $8.00 or $15.00 for both.
This estate is located at 2507 Boyd’s Creek Highway, which long ago was part of the Great Indian Warpath. John Sevier suggested this area to Timothy Chandler, a Revolutionary War Veteran, and Chandler bought it in 1791. By 1850 the plantation covered 3700 acres, with the majority planted in wheat. The existing house was built in 1825 after the first house burned.
Wheat whiskey and slave labor made it one of the few plantations to operate at a profit. The large three story distillery was built by William Morgan who also constructed the Federal-style home. The Ladies of Mount Vernon believe the distillery was second in size only to the one at Mount Vernon. Adding wheat sheaves to the whiskey kegs turned the white liquor to a golden amber color. It is said to have been a very smooth whiskey.
Through the years the plantation was part of some events important to American history. There was the Battle of Boyd’s Creek, which was fought over possession of the land between the Cherokees and John Sevier’s soldiers. It was the headquarters for Union officers during the Civil War. The successful Chandler distillery, reaching a yearly yield of 6000 gallons, helped the growth of Sevierville commerce.
Over a hundred years passed and the majority of the acreage was sold and the house left the hands of the Chandlers. Vacant for 9 years Wheatlands was almost lost to neglect and the possibility of commercial development. Thanks to Richard Parker and John G. Burns III, Wheatland Plantation is now being meticulously restored.
Both Parker and Burns were restorers before they retired. Outside of work they personally brought three historic homes back to life in Lexington, Kentucky where they lived for many years. The Smokies were a favorite vacation spot and when the time came, they decided there wasn’t a better spot to retire.
But old habits die hard. After discovering Wheatland Plantation John and Richard became intrigued with the rich history surrounding the house, and as Parker said, “She just cried out to be saved. We thought we had done our last restoration, but then just couldn’t allow this beauty to be destroyed.”
After buying the house and the remaining 7 acres in 2011, they began the tedious work of weeding and clearing the land by hand to make sure no history was destroyed in the restoration. The plantation is managed by Wheatland Foundation a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and insures the restoration and preservation of this National Registered HistoricSite. It has taken close to three years to bring Wheatlands back to life.
In early July I went to check out this local plantation which I had not heard of before. Both owners were at home along with two cats, a peafowl family, several ducks and Fred, a gorgeous rooster and Ethel the hen.
We went only a few steps before Richard pointed out two graves in the side yard. I should confess right now that while walking the grounds goose bumps made me shiver more than once. Two Revolutionary soldiers are buried here. John Burns said, “We are very fortunate to have many journals and records of the Chandlers so we can identify what was here.”
There are presently no headstones but they will soon be in place. It is a continuous process of discovery and restoration of those discoveries. John excused himself to get back to his yard work and Richard and I walked to his favorite spot, the kitchen garden.
Completely overgrown when they first saw it, he said they removed a foot of dirt and found beneath that a brick walkway and realized it was the location of the first garden. The day I was there he pointed out some of the native heirloom plants taking root which include castor bean and spice bush. The Master Gardeners of Sevier County have been instrumental in creating this new garden.
I later exclaimed over the beauty of a giant pecan tree, standing on a slight hill with a bench beneath its branches. Richard told the first of several stories which add mystery, ghosts and psychics into the hard fact history of Wheatland. As new owners they were told that a ghost, an older female slave, could sometimes be seen sitting on a bench under the tree, surrounded by yellow flowers. They decided to place a bench there in her honor. On separate visits three psychics described the above scene, but the site had no flowers—until springtime when buttercups bloomed.
Down the hill from the tree is the graveyard where 69 slaves are buried.
Dr. Barbara Heath, a University of Tennessee professor in Archaeology, and her team have been a great help, using penetrating radar to detect unmarked graves and building remains.
Beyond the slave cemetery is the mass grave of the 28 Cherokees killed during the Battle of Boyd’s Creek. Mr. John Chandler made an agreement with the Cherokee people that the grave would not be disturbed and it has remained intact through the centuries.
Richard pointed out where the distillery had been and Boyd’s Creek where whiskey was put on flat boats and floated all the way to New Orleans.
A faded red barn near the kitchen garden, built around 1950, covers the space that once held six cabins for slave families. Still remaining are the original smokehouse and summer kitchen.
Stepping down into the cool, unfinished basement, I saw the largest geode I have ever seen embedded in the floor. It has always been there so the house was built around it. Then I noticed some folding chairs up against the wall and asked Richard what their purpose was. He replied, “We have people interested in paranormal activity who come here to search for orbs of energy. Any presence felt so far has been very peaceful, very pastoral, nothing evil or destructive.”
The rest of the stories I will leave for Richard. Tours are given on Thursdays through Sundays from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Enjoy the many Chandler family pictures and delight in the original woodwork plus furniture of the 1800s. Listen carefully to the story of patricide which left bloodstains on the parlor floor.
Along with the tours, Wheatland Plantation is also available for weddings, reunions, lawn picnics or any special event of your choosing.
The telephone number is 865-365-1052. They can be found on Facebook and have a website, www.wheatlandplantation.org.
I came away from my visit amazed at the history which covers every inch of ground here. No ghosts or spirits needed for me. I felt the energy of the Native Americans who, 4000 years ago, walked a path now made into a highway. I imagined the hard work of slaves tending to wheat fields and worried with the Southern plantation mistress as Yankee officers slept in her home.
That is what brought about my goose bumps. Come see what this local historic site brings you!
© Judy Blackstock, 2014.