A trial attorney by day, Lebanon’s Tracey Parks switches gears at night and on weekends when he morphs into a sleuth who digs for clues in wood, hoping they may help him unravel the mysteries behind antique Southern furniture.
Painstakingly long hours of research also take him tip-toeing through dusty attics, scouring archives and traipsing through cemeteries as he seeks to find whodunit and who may have been the accomplices as he toils to identify the craftsmen who produced superb pieces that have survived a century or two.
Parks will take a break from lawyering and investigating and transform into a guide and lecturer as part of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) Conference coming to Nashville Oct. 19 and 20.
On Friday, Oct. 19, he and MESDA’s Gary Albert will lead antique furniture lovers and history enthusiasts on a Culture of the Cumberland ramble as they explore such Sumner County sites as Rock Castle, Cragfont, Hawthorn Hill, Bledsoe Fort Park and Rose Mont. At 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, Parks will lecture on New Discoveries in Middle Tennessee Furniture at the Tennessee State Museum.
Regarding the lecture on new finds, Parks said, “In the last year, we’ve discovered two pieces of furniture that are clearly connected with a couple of desks made in the southern part of Wilson County between Cainsville and Statesville. They relate to an important desk in the Tennessee State Museum Collection.”
He also is plowing through the past trying to track several Tennessee pieces to their origins, including a group of bottle cases that traditionally have been found in Nashville and westward and are related to a batch out of Gates County, N.C.
“The question,” he asks himself, “is who from that shop made it west?”
Scholar Parks said he became serious about antique furniture as a teenager due to his parents, the late Les and Bettye Parks, who were longtime dealers in fine antiques.
“I never lost that interest,” he says. “In college, I read all of the inventories up until 1850 for Wilson County, which was part of the process of getting information to edit and publish the book, ‘The Art and Mystery of Tennessee Furniture and Its Makers Through 1850’ (1988), which was written by Nathan Harsh and Derita Coleman Williams.
“Ever since then I’ve been trying to collect additional data on cabinetmakers and their patrons. That’s the book I am working on now,” said Parks, who has published material on Tennessee’s earliest cabinetmakers going back to the 1770s, including Moses Crawford, who produced works out of Knox and Green counties.
“I’m not just interested in Middle Tennessee but the state as a whole and more broadly in the South. What intrigues me, if I look at a piece of furniture and I know it’s from this region, is why does it look like it looks? What cultural references influenced it?
“When you start to look at furniture design as a whole, you might say New England furniture looks similar to some furniture made in the South, yet all these places were influenced by pattern books but just as likely, craftsmen from Philadelphia or parts of Virginia or some place in North Carolina. There are a lot of different parts of the mixture. It’s a large 3D mystery, and you don’t have access to all the puzzle pieces.”
As for the Oct. 19 trek to historic sites, Parks, who graduated from Lebanon High School in 1981 and earned a degree in social science at Cumberland University before gaining a law degree from the Nashville School of Law, said, “With these rambles it’s nice to get out on the grounds and see where some of these people lived and go inside their homes.
“The ramble will take most of the day. We’ll start at Bledsoe Fort Park at ground zero for settlements in Sumner County. And we’ll get to see Hugh Rogan’s Irish cottage, built in the mid-1790s as well as Hawthorn Hill, which is owned by the state and located in Castalian Springs,” said Parks, who with his wife, Kim, executive director of Historic Lebanon, once owned Hawthorn Hill. “It is more of a preservation than a restoration and fun to see because it has not been altered.”
Parks noted Rock Castle, begun in the 1790s, is likely the earliest stone house built in Middle Tennessee and was the home of Daniel Smith, who created the earliest map of the state of Tennessee. And Cragfont served as the home of Gen. James Winchester, who founded the town of Cairo in Sumner County and also co-founded Memphis with Andrew Jackson and John Overton.
“Cragfont, a stone house, is very important architecturally, and it has a lot of the original furniture made especially for that house by Winchester’s nephew, William Winchester, who had trained as a cabinetmaker in Baltimore. William comes to Tennessee about 1802 and establishes a shop at Cragfont. While the house is being finished, he begins to make all this very high-style, neoclassical cherry furniture, and it looks exactly like the same furniture made in Baltimore out of mahogany. He follows the same techniques that London-trained cabinetmakers working in Baltimore used. We’ll have some hands-on experiences with some of those things,” he said of the revelatory ramble.
So any estimate as to how many furniture makers there were in Tennessee as a whole before the Civil War?
“Before 1850, over 1,800 men associated with furniture making in Tennessee can be found in inventories, advertisements and family accounts. This number of course does not begin to include the hidden contributions of the skilled enslaved population who participated in the craft. The actual number of cabinetmakers is several times the number of names we have discovered so far,” said Parks.
The Southern furniture historian said the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts is “the largest collection of Southern-made material culture in the world and is concentrated on the American South and includes furniture, paintings, metal works, textiles, pottery and some architecture.”
Located in the Old Salem section of Winston-Salem, N.C., the museum was created by Frank Horton, who, said Parks, “wanted to put together room settings and tell the history of the South through the material culture in the room settings through the 1820s. It has been expanded through the 1860s and includes a room dedicated to Tennessee decorative arts.”
The museum was established in 1965, and its entire collection may be viewed online at mesda.org. Its online database lists 80,000 artisans who worked in the American South.