A century ago, a remote cliff and hillside perched in the southeast corner of Smith County, now desolate of human life, was inhabited by a hardy farm family.
At the same time, two dozen of Nashville’s most affluent gentlemen found it an ideal weekend escape from the big city, a place to let their hair down, to fish, hunt, gamble and imbibe spirited adult beverages.
The history of this place yields fascinating tales of the rich and the poor and of life and death, but few know the hard facts behind the few acres of earth and rock known as Sebowisha.
Nicknamed Sebo by the folks in Lancaster (pronounced LANK-stir) and Gordonsville, this ground abounds with wildlife. Here where Smith Fork Creek flows into the Caney Fork River, a rocky bluff rises to a woody, weedy and brambly hillside where the deer and coyote play, where timber rattlers and ticks thrive.
Sebowisha also serves as a grim reminder of death with two cemeteries: one unmarked and unnamed, where two railroad laborers were entombed by falling rocks after a dynamite blast went awry; and the other, the final resting place of a lad shot down in the prime of boyhood. Were these three fatalities not tragic enough, in separate incidents, a woman and two girls drowned in the river below.
The chunk of landlocked hillside rises to a prominence directly above the tracks of the old Tennessee Central Railway and sits within hollering distance of a 400-acre, bowl-shaped valley called Devils Garden.
The only way to approach this piece of private property is by water or via a winding, rutted track through the Garden, also private property, or by walking the tracks. Just beware the rattlesnakes. And should hikers come from the east, they’d best tread carefully on the wooden railroad ties of the trestle high over Smith Fork Creek.
If interlopers were to attempt an expedition to Sebowisha (the word was introduced in 1855 in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Poem of Hiawatha” as the poet’s name for a brook), they would find clues in three road signs along Highway 141 on the far side of Lancaster Hill. They read Devils Garden Lane, Sebo Valley Lane and Sebowisha Lane, but none of the lanes lead to Sebo. The most direct path follows the tracks of the Nashville Eastern Railroad.
Rooted 64.4 miles east of the Nashville riverfront, Sebowisha is no easy trek for the fainthearted but will reward trespassers with an awe-inspiring panorama of Tennessee woods and waters.
“All along here they call it ‘the bluffs of Sebowisha.’ Back here it’s like being in a miniature national park,” said Tim “Bubba” Garrett, who owns the 2.13-acre property. “It’s the best view in Smith County, maybe even anywhere.
“I’m looking down on Betty’s Island, Caney Fork River, Smith Fork Creek, Congo Bottom across the river, trains coming by, and now I’m watching the cars on Interstate 40. So many little canoes and kayaks of all colors drift by below.”
Indeed, on a clear winter day, one can spy traffic on I-40 crossing a bridge over the Caney Fork a mile or so in the distance, while in warmer weather, paddlers navigate the Caney.
“My favorite place in the whole wide world is right down there. This is a natural platform. I’m thinking of putting a bench out on this point,” he says, standing near the brow of the cliff.
Pointing to his right, Garrett noted, “You can see Lancaster over there. You got the Indian burial ground, and that’s Smith Fork Creek, the longest creek [99 miles] in the state.
“A hundred years ago, the Nashvillians who came to the lodge here were the cream of the crop. It was the Daytona Beach of Nashville. This isn’t a place where time stands still. This is a place where times runs backwards.”
Before he retired, Garrett, 71, an avid fisherman who was born in Murfreesboro and grew up in Nashville, was vice president of a company that mapped every parcel of land in all 95 Tennessee counties. He stumbled across Sebowisha by accident.
“I was looking around for a little piece of property on the river. I found a little place on Smith Fork right there by the trestle. I walked up the hill and thought it was Jurassic Park,” he said, referring to what remains of an extravagant, high-tech fence that surrounded what was once an exotic animal farm on the back side of Sebowisha.
Today, Garrett hangs his hat in the Buffalo Valley community a few miles up the Caney Fork. After moving here three years ago, he began sifting through Sebowisha’s history.
“I bought that little piece of property up there and found a little bit of data and then a bit more and next thing I know, I had a seven-and-a-half-inch-thick notebook full of material. It’s been fascinating. I found a sterling article about the Sebowisha Fishing and Hunting Lodge. There was a 25-person limit to the club. One of the members was a fertilizer executive, and he wrote an article about what they were doing up there. It’s like pulling a string on a sweater, some of the stuff I found,” he said.
That article appeared in the April 9, 1910, edition of “The American Fertilizer.” A portion stated: This club was formally opened on Saturday, April 2, and numbers among its limited 25 members many prominent and well-known men of Tennessee, among whom we notice the name of W.G. Sadler, secretary of the National Fertilizer Association.
The magic name of “Sebowisha” has been chosen as the emblem or title of what is destined to become one of the famous fishing clubs of old Tennessee. In a grand beech grove, nestling at the foot of a tremendous rocky cliff, and overlooking the beautiful valley of the Lower Caney Fork River, a neat little club house has been built by the Sebowisha Fishing and Hunting Club. The location selected is near the mouth of Smith Fork, about a mile from Lancaster, Tenn., on the Tennessee Central, and it is declared to be worth a trip to this point just to get a view of the valley of the old Caney, even if a line be not wetted meanwhile.
Locals share tales
Bits and pieces of Sebowisha history and lore have been stashed in the memory banks of some who spent their formative years in the southeast section of Smith County.
Carthage attorney J.L. Bass, 97, who grew up in New Middleton, carries a few remembrances of Sebowisha.
“Sebo was between Carthage Junction and Lancaster. It is where Smith Fork Creek dumps into the Caney Fork River. For whatever reason, some members of the Tennessee Central Railroad selected that place to build a little cabin where they could go and enjoy the summertime. They built a small hotel and a little campsite, and the natives would make the place comfortable for them,” Bass said. “I have been told the women and children would go swimming in the creek or river, and the men would play cards for enjoyment. Sebo played out after World War II.”
Allen Mason, who has lived in Lancaster since 1975, cherishes his community history. He owns the building that was his grandfather’s doctor’s office from 1906 until 1918 and served as the Lancaster Post Office from 1919 until it closed in 2003. About Sebo and Devils Garden, he says, “Most folks think of them as the same, but I’ve heard many stories from people about Sebowisha.
“I heard some executive from the Tennessee Central wanted a place to come fish, hunt and hang out, so they chose Sebowisha. But it also was a place for them to party and bring up their girlfriends with ’em. I think some of the wives got suspicious.”
New Middleton’s Mark Lawrence, who labored for years in the Gordonsville zinc mine, has been an outdoorsman most of his life and as a youth loved fishing, hunting arrowheads and exploring caves.
“Sebo is just a good place to be, and a good place to find night crawlers,” said Lawrence, who, like other anglers, knows Sebo’s reputation as a rewarding fishing spot. “A man over there, W.M. Bellar, used to give people a tour of a cave above the river, Neil Fisher Cave (aka Rip Van Winkle Cave). There’s still steps carved out in the rock on one side. There’s rattlers on the rock bluff. I had a friend who told me he killed 22 rattlesnakes along the tracks there one day back in the 1970s.”
What really captured Garrett’s attention was when he began hearing tales about the Sebowisha Fishing and Hunting Club. He and his attorney began following the paper trail, starting with a title search and tracked back to the early 1900s where they ran across the name of Nashville socialite Katherine Van Leer Kirkman.
“Katherine was probably the richest woman in Nashville. She and her sisters were jet setters back then except they took steamships,” Garrett said. “For Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition, she got herself elected president to head up the Woman’s Board where the Parthenon is. When the exposition opened, Katherine hosted President McKinley’s wife for the grand opening, while President McKinley stayed back in Washington and threw the switch. After that, Katherine founded the Centennial Club, one of the premier social organizations in Nashville.
“She actually bought the (Sebo) land in two plots from Lorenzo Bennett in 1910. In 1911, the Tennessee Woman’s Press and Authors’ Club, which typically met at Bloomington Springs near Baxter, took the train to Sebowisha and had a dinner they called ‘Sunset over the Caney Fork,’ and they all dressed out like it was Easter.”
The property that would be christened Sebowisha officially changed hands Feb. 15, 1910, with attorney Jordan Stokes Jr. handling the closing for Kirkman and his brother, Walter Stokes, chief council for the Tennessee Central Railway.
“I have a feeling what happened was that both Mrs. Kirkman, and the railroad used it [the property]. I think the railroad was probably a silent partner and had some sort of financial interest in it. Jordan Stokes came back to Nashville and helped form this 25-member club,” said Garrett.
Next week: Part 2: The Bennetts of Sebowisha and where did the name come from?