The “Black Widow” of Hazel Green

She “was a beautiful and charming woman, with auburn hair, dark brown eyes and fair complexion. She was well educated, an aristocrat and had in her veins the blue blood of men who had followed in the steps of Lord Baltimore…” Sounds pretty good, right? Well, reader beware. All that glitters isn’t gold.

The above quotation was taken from a 1933 Huntsville Times article written about a lady known by many names. For now, we’ll just use her maiden name, Elizabeth Dale. Elizabeth was the daughter of Adam Dale, who, at the age of just fourteen, volunteered to fight the Redcoats during the American Revolution and later helped Andy Jackson raise an army to fight the Brits in the War of 1812.

Adam Dale was an early settler of Middle Tennessee. He was one of the first inhabitants of what is now modern-day Dekalb County—then Smith County. There, he built and owned a successful mill before selling his holdings and moving to Maury County a wealthy man.

Adam Dale

Miss Dale, as the author of the 1933 article continued, “loved fine clothes, fine horses, fine furnishings and all of the conveniences made possible by the considerable wealth of her family.” She moved to Columbia with her parents, her husband Rev. Samuel G. Gibbons in tow. In 1816, just a few years after their marriage, Rev. Gibbons filed a will in Smith County that promised his new bride his entire estate, save a $100 bequeath to his sister and a shotgun to his nephew. He was only twenty-three when he wrote the will.

Fourteen years later, the good Reverend died near Centerville in Hickman County, Tennessee. His will had never been updated. The union did not produce children and his wife, Elizabeth, inherited all of his worldly goods, an estate that included slaves and other property. They were married for nearly eighteen years. It would be Elizabeth’s longest relationship.

In October 1831, she took a second husband, Phillip Flanagan. He died five months later in March of 1832.

November 6, 1833, Elizabeth took her third husband, William Alexander Jeffries. Jeffries was a widower who owned a sizeable plantation in Hazel Green, Alabama where he had built a four-room log cabin atop an Indian mound after finding that the best place to look over his land holdings. Legend says Mr. Jeffries had met Elizabeth during her short marriage to Mr. Flanagan and, once he learned Flanagan had passed, Jeffries came to Maury County to court the widow.

This marriage lasted for nearly five years before William Jeffries died in 1838. The union produced two children, one boy and a girl. His aging—yet, still lovely—widow inherited his entire estate. The once-wealthy widow became even wealthier.

And wealthier, still. She soon married again in May 1839 to Robert A. High. As a member of the Alabama House of Representatives, he was included in William Garrett’s Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama. Garrett wrote of High, “He had acquired a large property.” This, probably more than anything else, attracted the widow to him. High gave no second thought to marrying a woman who had outlived three husbands, as he, too, had been married a few times. Garrett continued in his description of High:

At the time he served in the Capitol, he was a dashing widower, seeking his fourth wife. His head was a little bald, which he took great pains to conceal… At all events, he filled a large space in society at Tuscaloosa, and succeeded in marrying before his term of service expired—an ample compensation, it is hoped, for his subsequent defeat as a legislator.

Venture to say that it was little compensation, as the former legislator was dead within two years of saying “I do.” Husband number four died on February 16, 1841.  

Four is enough for most folks, but Elizabeth was not finished with matrimony just yet. She took her fifth husband, Absalom Brown, on March 16, 1846. Brown was a wealthy merchant. His wealth, along with her existing assets, allowed Elizabeth to build the house she always wanted atop her Indian mound in Hazel Green, Alabama.

For simplicity, “Elizabeth Dale,” date unknown.

An enslaved master builder and a crew of others worked for over a year to complete the home. The finished product was an impressive four-on-four home built to overlook the road to Hazel Green. It was furnished with the best furniture her husbands’ money could buy. The gardens surrounding the home were also impressive, with varieties of flowers and shrubs.

Absalom Brown did not enjoy the home for very long, though. He died in 1847, leaving behind a young daughter and, of course, the almost-perpetual widow.

Brown’s death was long remembered in the community for many reasons, the first being the nature of his burial. After his death, his body began to swell. Fearing what might happen if they left him in the parlor, the widow made the decision to bury him that night. This is when the rumor mill really started churning. What was she trying to hide by burying her husband at night? Many speculated she had poisoned her poor husband and that’s why the body reacted as it did. The nighttime funeral was her way of covering up the evidence, they thought.

Despite all of the rumors and speculation surrounding the widow, Willis Routt was not deterred. He married Elizabeth in 1848. As fate would have it, he died three years later in 1851, leaving Elizabeth a six-time widow. Lips continued to flap around North Alabama as everyone speculated on the nature of Willis Routt’s death.

To make matters worse, Elizabeth’s father had died in the home just a few months before Willis Routt. The widow’s parents had moved into Elizabeth’s home around 1850. When Adam Dale died in October 1851, he was buried with Elizabeth’s husbands in the ever-growing family cemetery. Elizabeth’s mother went back to Columbia. As the years went on and the rumors surrounding “the Widow of Hazel Green” continued to spread, Mrs. Dale imposed upon her son-in-law, Nathan Vaught, to go and retrieve her late husband’s remains.

Nathan Vaught, long-remembered as Maury County’s “Master Builder,” was also a founder of Rose Hill Cemetery. Established in 1853, this was to be the new home of Adam Dale’s remains. This, too, created a buzz, as when the body was disinterred, Vaught discovered it was petrified and dark—sure signs, many thought, that poor old Dad had met the same fate as Elizabeth’s husbands… poison!

Even with all of the rumors, another man came courting. His name was D. H. Bingham, a school teacher from Meridanville. Even though near sixty years of age, Elizabeth was said to still be beautiful and Bingham was very much smitten. The two might have married, too, had it not been for a neighbor named Abner Tate.

Some say the fight began over Elizabeth’s livestock getting loose and ruining Tate’s crops. Others believe that Tate had wanted to marry the widow himself but had been rejected. Whatever the case, Tate set out to ruin Elizabeth and he didn’t have to work very hard to do it—he just repeated what everyone else had already been saying about her. Shortly thereafter, Tate was shot and wounded by one of his slaves. The generally accepted story was that Elizabeth paid one of her own slaves to kill Abner Tate, and this slave subcontracted one of Tate’s slaves to do the deed.

Being only slightly wounded, Tate continued his harassment of the widow.  Elizabeth countered by having her courter, D. H. Bingham, level claims of murder against Tate. (Supposedly, he had killed a traveler from Kentucky on his property and had the body burned in the fireplace to dispose of the evidence.) Tate retaliated by writing a pamphlet titled, Defense of Abner Tate Against Charges of Murder Preferred by D. H. Bingham.

In this small book, he struck out at the widow with a vengence, writing her “bridal chamber was a charnel house.” As if that were not enough, he continued about Elizabeth, writing “around whose marriage couch six grinning skeletons were already hung.” Elizabeth filed a $50,000 defamation suit against Tate.

Elizabeth Dale-Gibbons-Flanagan-Jeffries-High-Brown-Routt had already lost in the court of public opinion. Rumors continued to spread about the widow. One famous story is that she kept six pegs by her front door and hanging from each peg was a hat belonging to one of her husbands.

Before a decision could be made by the courts, Elizabeth sold her Hazel Green plantation and moved to Mississippi. She would later drop her defamation suit against Tate. There is no documentation that she ever married again. She died in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1866.

Despite her death in 1866, her story lives on. Generations of children in North Alabama were told ghost stories about the home in Hazel Green, Alabama where so many husbands died by poisoning.  Some have even gone as far as to call Elizabeth Routt a witch.

Was she an evil, husband-killing witch or the victim of cruel misfortune? That truth went with her to the grave in Mississippi. But, her legend still lives on.

In 1982, songwriters Jim McBride and Stewart Harris got together to write, and, as they were brainstorming for inspiration, the two started swapping ghost stories from their childhoods. McBride remembered hearing the story of the Black Widow of Hazel Green, although he mistakenly thought the widow’s name was Rose. After sharing this story with Harris, the two penned the song Rose in Paradise which Waylon Jennings released in 1987 and took all the way to the top of the Country Music charts, lending a pop-culture tie to this story with strong Maury County ties.

Today, in Columbia’s Rose Hill Cemetery, two graves that pre-date the cemetery’s founding stand just within a few yards of each other—that of Adam Dale, Elizabeth’s father who died in 1851, and Rev. Samuel G. Gibbons, her first husband, who passed in Hickman County in 1830.

-Adam Southern

The grave of Rev. Samuel G. Gibbons. He died in 1830 in Centerville, TN and was moved to Columbia’s Rose Hill Cemetery after its founding in 1853. His monument is shaped like an alter and the top is complete with an open Bible. The main base also includes Masonic symbols.

References:

Garrett, Jill Knight. “Hither and Yon”: The Best of the Writings of Jill K. Garrett. Maury County Historical Society, 1999.

Garrett, William. Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama for Thirty Years, with an Appendix. Plantation Pub. Co.’s Press, 1872.

Hackett, Vernell, and Angela Stefano. “Story behind the Song: Waylon Jennings, ‘Rose in Paradise’.” The Boot, 16 Mar. 2016, theboot.com/waylon-jennings-rose-in-paradise-lyrics/.

Jones, Pat. “Historic Homes: The High-Brown-Routt Home.” The Huntsville Times, 26 Mar. 1933, p. 4.

The 1846 Courthouse & What Remains

The Maury County Courthouse stands proudly in the center of Columbia’s Public Square, a bright, shining example of the county’s prosperity at the turn of the 20th century.

Maury County was still a rich agricultural hub in the early 1900s and it was also emerging as an industrial powerhouse with phosphate mines and all of the processing companies that came along with them. In building a new courthouse, the county’s fathers might have been sending a statement that a county such as Maury deserved a building more refined and polished.

That may have been a small piece of the puzzle. But, the other 999 pieces were all about the condition of the old courthouse.  

The “old courthouse” was built in 1846. Many people refer to it as the “Second Courthouse” since it was the second building to stand in the center of the square. Nimrod Porter, a long-serving Sheriff of Maury County, is credited with building the 1846 building which replaced another brick structure (the “first” courthouse) built in 1810. [The first county court was held in Joseph Brown’s log cabin. Today a stone tablet stands on Mooresville Pike just south of Elm Springs, marking the approximate location of the true first courthouse.]

As the 19th century came to a close, the 1846 building was already being called shabby. An 1898 newspaper article in the Columbia Herald claimed that courthouse was “the shabbiest in the state.” Similar comments were made in the new century. A 1902 Herald article stated, “The present building is an eye-sore and a disgrace to the prosperous town and county.”

The late War Between the States is to be given a little credit for this. During the War, Federal troops fortified the courthouse and placed cannons on the north, south, and western entrances. The building was left in a terrible state at the close of the War. Yet, it survived. Many of Tennessee’s courthouses burned during the War.

The War left the South financially ruined and there were no funds available to repair the damages made to the courthouse. Left unrepaired and without annual maintenance, the building fell into even more disrepair.

An early postcard showing the 1846 Courthouse razed in 1904.

January 1902, a resolution approving the construction of a new courthouse failed. The Nashville Banner reported, “Maury County needed only a change of three votes of the special session of County Court yesterday to gain a new court-house.” Even though the measure failed, a committee to investigate a new courthouse was formed.

No action would be taken until June 1903 when Maury County’s Grand Jury grave their opinion to the Quarterly Court. It read:

We have examined the county court-house. It is in bad and dangerous condition. The noise of the streets is heard above the testifying witnesses and it is a difficult matter to hear or know what is said during an investigation. We have observed during our present session that the rains came through the roof and top floor onto the second floor. The walls are cracked and dilapidated. There is absolutely no protection to the county records. Land titles, court records and other documents and records of vast importance to the citizens of the county are practically subjected to the elements. There are no vaults nor other protection from fire, and should a fire occur, the result would most probably be their destruction, bringing an unending turmoil of lawsuits, trouble and expense to property owners. The building is in such a state of dilapidation and decay that it would be folly and useless expense to undertake to repair it. The pride of the county calls for a new court-house, the serious and dangerous conditions demand, and the unprotected citizens are entitled to it.

We, therefore, heartily and unanimously recommend to your Honor, and through your Honor to the Quarterly Court, that an appropriation be made, and such other necessary steps be taken as are necessary for the building of a court-house suitable to the present needs of the county.

On June 15, 1904, the ground was broken for the new building. The cornerstone was set a few months later on October 8th by Dick Porter, a man estimated to be over 120 years of age. As a slave, he worked on the two previous courthouses in 1808 and 1846. Now, as a free man, he was selected to lay the first trowel of mortar on the cornerstone.

The “new” courthouse was finished in 1906 and has served the people of Maury County since. Other than a few remaining photographs, not much remains of the 1846 building… or so we thought.

One of the old gasoliers from Maury County’s 1846 Courthouse survived and has been in a private collection since 1957. The beautiful, four-armed fixture has been electrified and it is currently for sale. It will take $5200 to bring it home—a small price to pay for one of Maury County’s lost jewels.

The gasolier from the 1846 Courthouse. $5200 is needed to bring it home to Maury County!

Local historian Adam Southern is issuing a cry for help. He is currently seeking donations to bring this rare fixture back home to Maury County. Once the $5200 has been raised and the fixture is purchased, it will be installed in Colonel Looney’s study at Historic Elm Springs.

Elm Springs was the home of Colonel Abram Looney, a prominent man in Tennessee’s political scene and an attorney in Maury County. Looney practiced law in the 1846 Courthouse and would probably be very familiar with the fixture. This is just one of the reasons Elm Springs was selected to be the home of this fixture.

Photograph of Maury County’s Abram Looney

Another reason being that Elm Springs, a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has only one antique light fixture. This fixture, when purchased and installed, will add more history and ambiance to the tour at Elm Springs.

Donations are needed NOW! Please give what you can. Donations are being accepted through Go Fund Me at https://gf.me/u/y5dbn3. You can also mail donations to the Southern Light Fund at 409 3rd Avenue, Columbia, TN 38401.

Historic Elm Springs, built in 1835, is listed on the National Register.

Maury County’s Almost Boy Hero

The story of Sam Davis is possibly one of the most famous tales from the War Between the States. The young, twenty-one year-old scout was executed in Pulaski, Tennessee even though his Yankee captors gave him several chances to give the name of his informant in order to save his own life. Rather than betray the trust of his friend and informant, he was hanged by the Federals on November 27, 1863 and took the secret with him to the grave.

As his story made its way across the South, many began referring to Sam Davis as the “Boy Hero of the Confederacy” or the “Confederate Nathan Hale.” A play and several books have been written to chronicle the young life of Sam Davis. Numerous memorials have also been erected, including three statues in Tennessee—one being on the grounds of the State Capital Building.

One of Maury County’s own, Mr. Billy Moore, nearly became a young martyr himself. Moore and Davis both served in the Coleman Scouts, both were arrested within a day of each other, and were held prisoner in the Giles County Courthouse at the same time. Fate had other plans for Billy Moore, it seems.

Born in Maury County, Tennessee as William James Moore in 1840, Billy enlisted in Voorhies’ 48th Tennessee Infantry in the fall of 1861 and was surrendered as Fort Donelson fell on February 16, 1862. He spent the next several months imprisoned and sick in Fort Morton, Indiana on the outskirts of Indianapolis.

According to his granddaughter, Frances M. Stephenson, the Yankee doctor assigned to care for the Confederate POWs was so concerned by Billy Moore’s condition he tried to talk to the young soldier into taking the Oath in return for his release. Moore refused because he knew that he was going to rejoin the Confederate Army as soon as he was exchanged or escaped and he did not want to take an oath he knew he was going to break. (This so impressed the Yankee doctor that he remembered Billy Moore’s name and looked him up after the War.)

After finally being exchanged in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Billy Moore returned to Middle Tennessee and was assigned to Coleman’s Scouts. Captain Henry B. Shaw was the commanding officer of the scouts. He used the name “E. Coleman” as an alias in order to hide his true identity. Although a complete listing of the men that served under “Coleman” is not available, it is easy to believe they were at least one hundred members strong. These men had cunning, were daring, and knew the lay of the land—all of these qualities were necessary to be a successful scout.

It was in this band of Confederate scouts that Billy Moore and Sam Davis became acquainted. With just a couple of years difference between them, the two became friends and were often riding companions as they conducted missions gathering information or delivering correspondence for E. Coleman. It was on one such occasion that Billy Moore met the lady that was to be his wife.

Billy Moore and Sam Davis, along with their commander, Henry Shaw, were riding together near Florence, Alabama. The trio happened upon a gospel meeting and decided they would sit and listen. A young Virginia Scruggs sat near the front row. Bored with the preaching, she looked around the congregation to see who was in attendance and that’s when she caught a glimpse of the three Southern Scouts. One stood out from the rest—or loomed above them, rather. Billy Moore stood at six feet and two inches tall in stockinged feet and weighed less than one hundred pounds. Tall and skinny, this glimpse of Moore left an impression on Virginia Scruggs and after the meeting, the two were introduced and a romance was kindled. The two would be married in 1865 when the war ended, but, for now, the war was still raging.

Billy Moore

Billy Moore

Billy Moore was sent across the Tennessee River to deliver some papers to Alabama in November 1863. Despite the fact the Federal Army was in Pulaski, Captain Shaw (Coleman) met Moore in Giles County. He had more papers he needed taken across the Tennessee River.

Moore told his captain that he’d need a new horse before he could go on another mission, so, with Shaw’s permission, Billy Moore took the papers and rode to Columbia to change horses. On his way back to Giles County, Billy Moore was south of Columbia on the Pulaski Pike and was just about to ride past the Foster Farm when he noticed a light in the window. Thinking it odd, he decided to stop and investigate.

With a pistol in his hand, Moore knocked on the door. After being let into the house by a young slave, he was conducted to the parlor. When the parlor door opened, Moore was welcomed by three Yankee officers with drawn guns pointed at him. There was no way to escape.

Luckily, the Yankees did not search Moore. They had no idea that he was carrying secret information from the illusive Coleman. Billy Moore told his captors he was cold and they were kind enough to move him to a seat in front of the fireplace. When the Yankees weren’t looking, Billy reached into his jacket, removed the papers, and tossed them in the fire.

His granddaughter wrote, “The Yankees were astounded, but the papers were irretrievably gone. Later, when offered food, Moore adroitly chewed up his identification papers, along with the corn-pone and bacon, and washed it all down with a gigantic swig of buttermilk.”

Billy Moore was taken to the Giles County Courthouse and held there as a prisoner. In just a few days, another prisoner would arrive; one that Billy Moore knew. It was Sam Davis.

Unlike Billy Moore, Sam Davis was not lucky enough to get rid of his papers. The papers included details about Federal troops and fortifications. Ironically, the papers were intended to be carried by another man—a man already in jail. Billy Moore.

In his own words, Billy said in an interview with Frank H. Smith, “The papers that Sam Davis had on him when he was hanged had my name on them instead of his, and had written on them to Gen. Bragg that I was to carry them out to him. Davis got in the next day after I was captured, and Shaw sent him on with the papers.”

Davis was thrown in the Giles County Courthouse and officially charged with espionage. He was to be executed by hanging. Only one thing could save his life—if he revealed the name of his informant. This, Sam Davis refused multiple times. His famous quote being, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend.”

One thing Sam Davis and Billy Moore both knew was that it really did not matter if Davis gave up the name of his informant. He would probably still be executed or, in the least, kept captive the remainder of the war. Billy Moore, in his interview with Frank Smith, told of another of Coleman’s Scouts that had been captured: “Dee Jobe was one of our scouts. The Yankees caught him, swung him up by the thumbs, cut his tongue out, and left him to die.”

The only way out of this was to escape.

Sam Davis seemed to be the focus of their captors, so Billy Moore used this to his advantage and looked for ways to make his escape. Just as he had done when captured, Billy Moore complained. This time, he told them he was too warm. His jailers took him to a nearby window and opened it, allowing Moore to sit and take in some cool, November air. That wasn’t all he took in, though. He noticed the sentries down below and the changing of the guards and how often they made their rounds.

He saw that one sentry was not very attentive to his duties. Once the guards had made their rounds, that’s when Moore decided to try it. He jumped from the second-story window and crashed into the Square below. Just as he thought, the nearby sentry had not noticed. Billy Moore crawled into a ditch to take cover until he was ready to make his move. Seeing the sentry was still oblivious, Moore got up and made a run for it—no one, including the sentry, seemed to notice.

The next day, as Billy Moore dodged Yankee pickets and patrols on his way north to Columbia, Sam Davis was executed on a hill overlooking Pulaski. Having returned to Columbia, Billy Moore acquired a new horse and rejoined the scouts. He served until the end of the War, then he married his sweetheart. The two would live out their days in Billy’s family home, Locust Hill.

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Billy Moore’s “Locust Hill” still stands today on Mooresville Pike. 

Billy Moore died in 1913. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery just steps away from the Confederate Monument. A fitting place, as in his heart, he was still a Confederate. He had never taken the Oath.

IMG_5124

Billy & Jennie Moore’s monument in Rose Hill Cemetery. The Confederate monument and section is in the background.

The Lost Cantaloupe Capital

Have you ever heard of the Cantaloupe Capital? Well, it is right here in Maury County. We call it “Culleoka.”

Farmers began growing cantaloupes by the acre here in 1907. The owner/operators of the Culleoka Produce Company, brothers Erastus J. and Hardie Park, pitched the idea to local farmers. Culleoka Produce Co. furnished the seeds and the farmers provided the land and care. Once the melons were ready for harvest, Culleoka Produce Company marketed and shipped the cantaloupes wherever they would fetch the highest price.

After the success of the first crop in 1907, farmers took on more seed and sowed more acreage. By the 1920s, the Culleoka Produce Company was shipping hundreds of carloads of cantaloupes out of the Pleasant Grove Depot annually. Half of the success was having a good, quality product. The other half was the marketing genius of Erastus Park.

Every cantaloupe that came through the Culleoka Produce Company was labeled with a sticker identifying it as a “Culleoka Cantaloupe.” It is not unusual to see the Dole and Chiquita stickers on produce purchased today, but it was unheard of in the early twentieth century. It is believed the Culleoka Produce Company was among the first ever to employ a produce sticker. (These “stamps” can still be found today and are treasured by Culleokans.)

474597DE-C881-406D-9AB7-8E9A8D843A8D

“Culleoka Cantaloupe” sticker from the collection of Adam Southern.

Erastus Park also made an agreement with the railroad, allowing the line to serve Culleoka Cantaloupes on the passenger cars while they were in season. He was sure that if a passenger tried one on the train, they would be sure to request one at their local market when they returned home. It must have worked, as the cantaloupes were shipped nation-wide.

Advertisements featuring Culleoka Cantaloupes have been found not only Nashville newspapers, but also those from North Carolina and Tampa, Florida. Newspaper accounts from the time report of carloads of cantaloupes being shipped to New York and California. And at least two different varieties were sold—Park’s Delight and the Culleoka Queen. The Culleoka Queen was known by its distinct “pink” or salmon-colored meat.

After some of the largest yields and profits the farmers of Culleoka had ever seen, Erastus Park died in 1928. Culleoka Produce Company continued to operate and the farmers still grew the cantaloupes, but without the driving force of Erastus Park, it was never the same. Farmers took fewer seeds each year and production fell. 1935 would be the last harvest processed and shipped through the Culleoka Produce Company.

In the years that followed, some farmers continued to grow cantaloupes, but it was on a much smaller scale. Today, it is just a sweet-tasting memory, as not even a seed remains…

Recently, a Tennessee Historical Commission marker was placed near the sites of the Culleoka Produce Company and the Pleasant Grove Depot. The marker was researched and submitted by Adam Southern. An official dedication will be held at a future date.

Culleoka Cantaloupes 5

The new “Culleoka Cantaloupes” marker placed on the corner of Culleoka Highway and Depot Street in Culleoka, Tennessee.

Maury native wrote cookbook

Most everyone has a dish they are known for or a restaurant they love to visit. To say we love eating good things is an understatement. This is nothing new. As a matter of fact, one Maury County native actually wrote an entire book of Good Things to Eat. This book, published in 1911 by Rufus Estes, was the first cookbook written by an African-American chef.

In the book, the author included a short sketch of his life. From this sketch, we learn Rufus Estes was born into slavery in Maury County in 1857. Estes was the name of Rufus’ master, a man named D. J. Estes. Rufus was held in bondage along with his mother and siblings—a family of seven boys and two girls.

1860 Slave Schedule

1860 Slave Schedule. D.J. Estes’ slaves begin at number 33.

During the Civil War, Rufus’ older brothers “ran off,” as he put it, and “joined the Yankees.” He lamented, “This left us little folks to bear the burdens. At the age of five I had to carry water from the spring about a quarter of a mile from the house, drive the cows to and from the pastures, mind the calves, gather chips, etc.” In these conditions, young Rufus toiled until 1867 when he and his mother moved to Nashville.

Two of Rufus’ brothers died during the war. The brothers are possibly George W. Esters and Robert Esters engraved under the U. S. Colored Troops (USCT) section of the Maury County War Memorial. Rufus wrote, “Two of my brothers were lost in the war, a fact that wrecked my mother’s health somewhat and I thought I could be of better service to her and prolong her life by getting work.”

His first jobs included milking cows and delivering meals to workers in the fields. He did these things until the age of sixteen when he found work in a Nashville restaurant and found his calling. He wrote, “I was employed in Nashville by a restaurant keeper named Hemphill. I worked there until I was twenty-one years of age.” The “Hemphill” Rufus worked for was Alexander Hemphill, the owner of a well-known restaurant on Church Street. According to newspapers accounts, Hempshill’s restaurant was sold in 1880 and a “new regime” began management in 1881. This may account for Rufus’ next move.

hemphill

The Tennessean, October 26, 1880

From Nashville, Rufus traveled to Chicago in 1881 and found employment at 77 Clark Street. He earned a salary of $10 per week at this position. Two years later, he would begin his career with the Pullman Car Company. It was during his fourteen years with Pullman that Rufus really made a name for himself as an outstanding chef. He wrote, “During the time I was in their [Pullman’s] service some of the most prominent people in the world traveled in the car assigned to me, as I was selected to handle all special parties.” These prominent people included Presidents Cleveland and Harrison and the famed singer Adelina Patti. (She also has a Maury County connection, but that’s for another time.)

Rufus’ friends persuaded him to compile all of his recipes and cooking methods. He published this compilation in 1911 under the title Good Things to Eat. Ten original copies are known to exist. Reprints are now available, titled Rufus Estes’ Good Things to Eat: The First Cookbook by an African-American Chef. For those interested, Duck River Books in historic downtown Columbia, Tennessee has copies available.

Rufus Estes 2

By the 1930s, Rufus was living in Los Angeles, California. The 1930 US Census lists him as a widower with the occupation of cook in LA’s café industry. When he died in 1939, his passing went largely unnoticed, despite his significant contributions to culinary arts and Black History.

Luckily, modern cooks have rediscovered his work. A quick online search of “Rufus Estes” will produce many results from chefs and bloggers alike that have attempted dishes from his book of Good Things to Eat.

Born into slavery to become the first African American chef to author a cookbook, Rufus Estes’ story is another amazing story to add to the annals of Maury County’s history.

-Adam Southern