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Cecil Bennett, 77, stands in contemplation over his grandmother’s grave at the Bennett-Sebowisha Cemetery near Lancaster in Smith County. Bennett was born and lived here the first 10 years of his life. He helped dig his “Granny’s” grave after her death in 1954 when he was 13.

Editor's Note: While Sebowisha is a fascinating place, it and the surrounding area are private property. Going onto the property without permission from the landowners will be considered trespassing. 

The Sebowisha Fishing and Hunting Club opened in April 1910. On Aug. 28 that year, a snippet in The Tennessean reported: L.B. Fite and L.R. Eastman are spending the weekend at Sebowisha, the attractive club quarters on the banks of the Upper Cumberland. The club is composed almost entirely of Nashville men.

L.B. Fite proved to be Leonard Beard Fite Jr., a prosperous Nashville dry goods commission merchant (and nephew to John Armenus Fite, a prominent Carthage attorney and circuit court judge). The 1911 edition of “Who’s Who in Tennessee” listed him as the president of the Sebowisha Fishing and Hunting Club.

Three years later, his obituary in the Nov. 27, 1914, Tennessean reported, Len Fite was as true and loyal a friend as lovable a comrade as he was a hustling business figure. He believed in rotating, mixing pleasure with business, in a rational, temperate degree and manner. His recreation was fishing and to his love of the rod and reel and of Tennessee’s beautiful streams can be attributed to the existence of the Sebowisha Hunting and Fishing Club, which nestles on a great bluff on the Tennessee Central above Nashville, overlooking the picturesque Caney Fork. Len Fite was the originator, the organizer and the life and moving spirit of Sebowisha and was its president until his death. Many of Nashville’s best known citizens enjoyed the boon of his friendship and comradeship on his outings at Sebo, on Caney, on Emery river and elsewhere. . . .

 

Educated at Cumberland University, he was a close friend of Jere Baxter. From the organization of the road until his death, Col. Fite was both a director and stockholder in the Tennessee Central.

 

(Two historical notes: Jere Baxter was a Nashville lawyer, politician and president of the Tennessee Central. He died in 1904. The town of Baxter, maybe a dozen miles from Sebo as the crow flies, was named after him. L.B. Fite’s wife, Sarah Eunice Williams Fite, was the granddaughter of Col. William Walton, a Revolutionary War officer who donated 50 acres of land upon which Carthage now stands.)

Tim Garrett, who now owns the property, believes that with Fite’s death, the Sebo Fishing and Hunting Club began to decline.

Bennett family home place

 

At the time of the land transaction, Lorenzo Bennett and his family lived in a small house at the bottom of the hill. It seems the members of the Sebo Fishing and Hunting Club built an intimate, rustic clubhouse on a third of an acre a bit higher up and that Mrs. Kirkman had a larger, finer structure erected at the top.

In late 1940, after the lure of Sebo had lost its luster for the Nashville bunch, Lorenzo’s son, James Bennett, with $150 cash in hand, purchased the property back, and he and his parents moved into the lodge at the summit. Lorenzo’s youngest son, Lewis, then moved his family into their old home closer to the tracks.

Lorenzo and some of his kinfolk utilized a fourth building at Sebo, a small six-by-six-foot watchman’s shelter house beside the tracks which held lanterns and tools, as they moonlighted checking the tracks at night for fallen boulders. Lore has it that their actions saved at least one train from having a bad accident. 

In “The History of Smith County History,” Michael Burton writes: brothers Tom and Jack Bennett ran a gristmill in the Lancaster Hill area but also had a job “watching the bluff at See-Bow-Wishiee for the railroad to inform oncoming trains if rock happened to fall on the track.”)

“This was once a welcome stop, a flag stop,” said Garrett. “The railroad passengers would spend the night up here when they had to replace the furnace brick in the train. Mrs. Bennett would cook for them. There was a cinder passenger platform and a road that carriages and wagons could take up the hill. And there was a lane into Devils Garden by a little brook where the families who lived there held a flea market.”

Lena Bennett Hunt confirms this in “The History of Smith County History” as she penned, Seabo Wisha was a flag stop. The only mail to come into the (Devils) garden was on the train. A post office established Aug. 3, 1910, called Sebowisha Smith. Lorenzo D. Bennett was postmaster; it closed June 15, 1912.

Evidently postmaster Bennett could not read or write as he signed his deed with an X. That did not prevent him from being industrious as he served as the fishing guide for the Sebowisha club members and charged them a fee of 15 cents a pound for every fish caught.

A walk through the cemetery

 

In November, Garrett and several friends hiked the railroad tracks from Sebowisha Lane and crossed the railroad trestle over Smith Fork Creek while taking a sentimental journey to Sebo with Cecil Bennett, 77, a grandson of Lorenzo Bennett who was born at Sebowisha in 1941.

Staring up the cliff from the tracks, Cecil said, “I climbed that bluff many a time. I was born right at the mouth of Devils Garden and Smith Fork. My dad, Lewis Bennett, worked for the railroad. He put ties down on this track. I loved living in this place, but it got where you couldn’t make a living. We were making $2 a day in the cornfield and only got work in summertime. We left when I was about 10.”

Inspecting the Bennett-Sebowisha Cemetery on the lower side of the hill, he shared that his grandparents, Lorenzo and Mary, who he called Pappy and Granny, were buried here. After finding “Granny’s” final resting place, he said, “Me and my sister’s husband dug the grave for my grandmother. They sold the house and property later for $500 to pay for her burial.”

Also laid to rest here is Cecil’s uncle, Reggie Bennett, who was killed in 1917 at the age of 11 in a shooting incident. His tombstone reads, “Budded on earth to bloom in heaven.”  

“Cooney Bennett shot my daddy’s brother. That was an accident they claimed,” he said.

Records in the Smith County Archives show that Eddie (W.E “Cooney”) Bennett and another young man were indicted by the grand jury. The district attorney interviewed numerous people and decided not to contend the case. However, Reggie’s death certificate states “death by pistol shot, probable homicide.”

Cooney was one of the 10 members of the Bennett family whose lives were snuffed out in the horrendous truck-and-train collision near Carthage Junction in 1949.

(As if the Bennett clan hadn’t suffered enough, Luther Bennett’s daughters, Lutherine, 16, and Evelyn, 13, drowned July 11, 1944, in the Caney Fork at Sebowisha. And on March 2, 1960, Gladys Bennett drowned on the opposite side of the river. Her body was discovered several days later near the Gallatin Steam Plant. It should be noted the Caney Fork has changed since the early days of Sebo. Back then, it was not controlled by Center Hill Dam, and the flow was much more natural. Because of the dam, flooding is much reduced and the water is infinitely colder than it would have been back in those days.)

Surveying the meager burial ground, Cecil said, “There’s a baby buried here and my brother Jim’s little ole white dog, Beetle.”

On top of Sebowisha

 

Walking the path to the top of Sebowisha, Cecil noted that some Nashvillians “had a clubhouse right at the bottom of the hill. Granny would cook for ’em if they wanted. I remember their home had two bedrooms and a living room and a kitchen. They had a side room that come out on the porch.”

On the far side of a rock wall, a few clues divulge the location of his grandparents’ residence: a brick fireplace with a 16-foot-high chimney, a piece of sheet metal, the remnants of an old cook stove, a fruit cellar dug into the hillside and a well.

Near the brow of the bluff, a plot of yucca plants flourish. They were planted by Cecil’s grandmother nearly a century ago. As for the house he grew up in and his grandparent’s place, both structures burned in the late 1950s or early ’60s.

Next week: Part 3: Bennett grandchildren reminisce, Devils Garden

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Where did the name Sebowisha originate?

No matter how you may pronounce or spell it (you can choose from Sebowisha, Seabowisha, Sebowishie or Seebowishiee), most folks between Gordonsville and Lancaster seem to prefer Sebowisha. And, for brevity’s sake, many refer to it as Sebo.

But the big question that arises is where did the place name originate?

Credit most likely is due to wordsmith Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem “The Song of Hiawatha” debuted Nov. 10, 1855. The story, set on the shore of Lake Superior in the upper peninsula of Michigan, refers to a brook christened Sebowisha, noted in the verses below.

From the hollow reeds he fashioned

Flutes so musical and mellow,

That the brook, the Sebowisha,

Ceased to murmur in the woodland,

The second question is how did the name Sebowisha get branded on this location far below the Mason-Dixon Line?

We may never arrive at the definitive answer, but Tim “Bubba” Garrett, who has owned the 2¼-acre plot of cliff and hillside known as Sebowisha for the past three years, has been hot on the trail and believes he holds the answer.

“We did a study of Indians in this area and that name is not in their dialect, so I thought it must have come from an outside source. I had heard that a Tennessee Central executive had two dogs named Sebo and Wisha, but I have the feeling the dogs got their names after the place,” Garrett said.

“In doing research on this property, I found that (Nashville) lawyer Jordan Stokes Jr. did the closing on the property (in a 1910 transaction), and his brother, Walker Stokes, was the chief council for the Tennessee Central Railway. From an obscure article, I read where Jordan Stokes’ dad, also a prominent attorney, went to Princeton. Guess what he majored in? Literature. I bet you money he was looking for a name and thought of Sebowisha, the name of the brook in ‘Song of Hiawatha.’ ”

There are at least three other places in the U.S. that have or have had the name: Sebowisha Camp in Norwich, Conn., in operation from 1911 into the 1920s; Camp Sebowisha, a girls’ summer camp on Indian Pond in Greenwood, Me., that ran from about 1924 to 1935; and Sebowisha Farm in Mickleton, N.J, a dairy farm in business today.

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