By Ryan Baker
If you were to ask most folks to name the first thing that comes to mind when you mention horse racing, I would be willing to bet that most of them would say Kentucky, or the Kentucky Derby. What most people do not realize is that Tennessee was known across the country and even across the Atlantic Ocean as the center for horse breeding and horse racing in the United States and, in particular, Sumner County.
The first official horse race in Tennessee was held in Gallatin in 1804. President Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel were in attendance. Jackson would become known as a leading racer and breeder in Tennessee.
Years later there were several homes that played a major role in horse breeding or racing in Sumner County. They were Fairvue Plantation, Foxland Hall and Kennesaw. These homes were built between the 1830s and 1850s.
You may be familiar with the road St. Blaise in Gallatin, just down from Vol State Community College. This road was named after the horse, St. Blaise, who won the English Derby. St. Blaise was purchased by a New York banker, Charles Reed, for $100,000 in 1882. This was a record price paid for a horse. Most thoroughbreds went for an average of $5,000. Just to put that in perspective, Charles purchased Fairvue and 2,000 acres for $50,000, just half of what he paid for St. Blaise.
Now fast forward to 1934. After Fairvue had been somewhat neglected for about twenty years, it was purchased by William Wemyss and his wife, Ellen, who fully restored the property. Just prior to this, Fairvue was home to the headquarters of Grasslands Hunt and Racing Club. Grasslands was a sixty to eighty farm fox hunting and steeplechase club that was located between Gallatin and Hendersonville. International steeplechase events held for two years between 1929 and 1931 before the Great Depression ultimately ended the concept. People came from as far as England and Spain for these events.
Another home that played a key role in the Grasslands Hunt and Racing Club was Foxland Hall. The home was originally named Bellmont. In 1910, John Branham purchased the estate and renamed it Foxland Hall, due to his love for fox hunting. Laura had her own horse and often participated in the hunts. She was also in charge of furnishing and decorating Race Horse Tavern, Jarrocks Hall, and other houses. She was known for hosting large parties at her Foxland home for members and guests. John would pass in 1935 after drinking contaminated water from a spring, leaving the home to his wife Laura. Laura followed his interest in horse breeding and racing. She preferred flat racing. The Kentucky Derby would be considered flat racing. It is done on a level surface with no obstacles that tests the speed and stamina of the horse, while testing the skill of the jockey.
Laura would spend a good part of forty years racing horses. She was a very skilled sidesaddle riding steeplechaser, winning many races across the states. Her horses would earn hundreds of thousands of dollars on racetracks across America. In 1983 Laura Branham received the first Sportswoman of the year from the Kentucky Horse Breeders Association. The Louisville Courier Journal read: “She has been a leader in the revival of the thoroughbred industry. It is unusual for Kentuckians to admit that someone outside of the state has mastered the science of raising winning thoroughbreds. The Kentucky breeders openly concede that this gentle Tennessean has earned the distinction.”
Laura and Ellen were good friends. After Laura passed, in a conversation with local artist, Bill Puryear, Ellen stated that one of her favorite aspects of her home was that just up Station Camp Creek loomed Foxland Hall, the white-columned mansion of her friend Laura Branham, late patroness of the grand dream of Grasslands.
Growing up as a child I did not realize how saturated my home was with history. The stories are endless and this is just a portion of one of them. I urge you to take a little time and learn more about the history of our wonderful county. There is a plethora of information out there.
To learn more about horse racing in Sumner County, visit the Sumner County Museum Tuesday through Friday, from 9:30am to 4pm, or go to sumnercountymuseum.org. For more information on Grasslands check out Walter Durham’s book, Grasslands: A History of the Southern Grasslands Hunt and Racing Foundation.