When visiting Ridley Wills II at his home, don’t plan to settle in too quickly.
Within a few minutes of talking about anything — traffic, weather, elections — he’s going to say, “Let me show you something,” and the “something” in question could be anything:
- A postcard featuring a cow being hoisted to the roof of a Knoxville building
- An invitation to funeral services for President Andrew Jackson
- A recently conferred honorary degree from Sewanee, the University of the South
The hapless visitor eventually will make his or her way back to a sofa or chair, but soon will be encircled by well-thumbed books flipped open to show specific photos or stories.
This fascinating show and tell is endlessly entertaining because Wills can and does draw a line to connect the object or image to the topic at hand.
His unique ability to keep Nashville’s past alive through sprightly and thoroughly researched storytelling — 22 books so far — is what makes him one of the state’s most authoritative and accessible voices when it comes to mining its past.
His bona fides include a direct line of descent from some very famous names (McGavock, Harding), and he’s lived through enough Nashville business history to fill a volume (which he did in Lest We Forget, a volume about now-defunct Nashville businesses).
But the best way to get Wills’ family history fast is by admiring a custom piece of art that hangs in his library.
It’s large and colorful, and represents a life well and fully lived.
In sum, the mini-mural reflects all the notable buildings and places that have formed Wills’ life and outlook, and he’s more than happy to explain it, item by item, with some anecdotal information thrown in for good measure.
“At the center is the Downtown Presbyterian Church which, when it was the First Presbyterian Church, my direct ancestor, Sarah Rogers (Mrs. Randal) McGavock joined in 1818. Some member of my family has been attending church there ever since.”
“Then on the right is Montgomery Bell Academy, where I was board chair for nine years.”
“Educators really do change the lives of young people. And then there’s Kirkland Hall, because I’m an emeritus member of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust. So were my father and grandfather.”
And then, moving on, “This is the Meeting-of-the-Waters,” he says, indicating a brick home in the painting.
“We bought it in 1989, and my son Ridley Wills II renovated the house. He is not an architect, but is a graduate of the Architectural School at the University of Virginia. We’re kin to the people who built it in 1800, so it was important to us to save it.”
His fingers then rove over to a gazebo, which honors his family’s seven-generations-and-counting commitment to the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, before settling on a group of people dotted across the painting’s lower section: his wife, three sons and six grandchildren.
And then he gets to what is now the Snodgrass Tennessee Tower in downtown Nashville, but was built as the Nashville Life and Accident Insurance Co. headquarters in 1960-70, six decades after his grandfather, Ridley Wills, Dr. Rufus Fort, Thomas J. Tyne, Runcie Clements and Cornelius Abernathy Craig founded the legendary insurance firm in 1901.
Wills was a senior vice president in the firm when it was taken over by American General Life and Accident Insurance Co. in 1982; within nine months, he was gone.
“The culture changed, and they began doing things differently,” is all he’ll say on the matter.
“I decided to leave, but I was only 49 years old. I had to figure out what to do next, so I decided I’d raise money for organizations I cared about, serve on their boards and start writing books.”
A literary career is born
First off the presses was a history of Belle Meade Plantation, which also is on the painting.
His grandmother was born there, so he had more than a little bit of insider knowledge to work with.
It won him the Tennessee History Book Award in 1992.
Then he began to cast his net a bit wider, looking at other sites in Middle Tennessee (some of which are on the painting as well) to help preserve, write about — or both.
“My father was a Fugitive poet at Vanderbilt, and so writing came naturally,” he notes.
[See sidebar for more on the Fugitive poets.]
“I’d begun doing some research in the 1970s, and translated 500 letters to and from the family at Belle Meade. After going to all that trouble and getting through all those footnotes, I decided to write my first book about the plantation.”
(And like good authors everywhere, he can’t resist adding that it’s still in print.)
From there, Wills turned his attention to a Tennessee postcard collection that had grown to 30,000 pieces.
Those were chronicled in Touring Tennessee, postcards from 1989-1955, and that’s where the cow photo resides on page 178 — the presumably living animal was hauled up for a topping out ceremony for the Knoxville Banking and Trust Co. in that city’s downtown.
Why the builders opted for a bovine adornment rather than the usual tree is lost to history.
Since wrapping up that tome, Wills has been doling out the postcards to more than 100 libraries and archives around the state.
But many smaller cities and towns also received a historical windfall, mostly because Wills “got tired of fooling with them, and didn’t want my children to have to fool with them, either.”
Other books included histories of:
- The Nashville YMCA
- Tennessee governors (his family built and owned what is now the governor’s mansion, deeding it to the state in 1949)
- Meetings of the Waters
- Montgomery Bell Academy
- The Hermitage Hotel
- Banker Sam Fleming
- And other people, places and events that sparked Wills’ imagination or that he, often literally, related to.
Now he’s following up a volume on Nashville streets with a series on the turnpikes that radiate out through Davidson County and beyond.
So far Franklin, Granny White and Hillsboro pikes have gotten a thorough treatment in print, and that number will eventually reach seven.
“I went back 150 years on the maps, and took a look at all the historical places,” he says of the project.
“People may not know where the Glen Leven plantation was, but I do. I’m very active with the Land Trust for Tennessee, and that’s a house we were able to save.
“I want these books to educate Nashvillians, or anybody who reads them.”
“That’s why I put 74 different sites alone on Hillsboro Pike in that one, and 125 sites along Harding Pike in the other one. Even if they’re gone, people need to know about those places.”
When faith and history intersect
Even in the midst of researching multiple books, which meant poring over maps and combing through archives in many different locations, Wills never forgot one major touchstone in his own life: The Downtown Presbyterian Church.
The Egyptian Revival building was dedicated as First Presbyterian Church in 1851, and any conversation around the congregation kicks off around then, and moves quickly to the Wills family’s unique role in preserving the building as a functioning house of worship.
“My father was one of the people that brought Dr. [Walter Rowe] Courtenay here in 1943, and he never did like the Egyptian architecture,” Wills says of the nationally renowned minister, adding that “Downtown was full of soot and soft coal, so you’d go to church and by the time you got out your shirt was discolored. Because of that and the limited parking, he worried about competing withWestminster Presbyterian and other presbyterian churches, and so in the late 1940s they bought Oak Hill out on Franklin Road from the Cheek family, and eventually moved the church out there in the 1950s.”
As programming and eventually services moved to the new site, a handful of families opted to stay downtown.
Those included the Wills, as well as the family of former state Sen. Douglas Henry.
“We didn’t want to go out to the country, so my father’s lead gift, along with many others, made it possible for us to buy the church,” Wills says.
“That caused a little animosity, but he did it for two reasons:
- He thought every church should have a presence in the heart of the city, not just in the most affluent suburbs, and
- He knew this building was one of the great examples of Egyptian Revival architecture anywhere.
It’s a national landmark now, and if he’d given up it would have been torn down for a surface parking lot.”
“That church is meaningful to me,” he continues.
“We’ve only got 90 members, but we feed 200 people breakfast on Saturday and lunch on Wednesday. Plus,” he adds with a wink, “we’re a little more liberal than some of the others.”
Determined not to let history get away
Although he’d go on writing forever, at age 82 Wills acknowledges a need to pick and choose his priorities carefully.
That’s why he’s frustrated when something sneaks by him and likely won’t get the attention it deserves.
“In Lest We Forget, I forgot to include Cumberland Dodge,” he laments.
“John Cheek went to Battle Creek to meet the Dodge brothers when they were starting their own auto-manufacturing plant.
“John Cheek said he wanted the first franchise, which was Cumberland Dodge.
“It was where one of the Beaman lots is now, and I missed it. I don’t like to miss things.”
It could be successfully litigated that this particular omission was an outlier, and that Wills catches far more than he overlooks.
But even as he researches a volume on Gallatin Pike, he frets about not being where he wants to be in terms of Murfreesboro, Charlotte, Buena Vista and Whites Creek pike research.
It’s the historian’s conundrum — what goes in, what stays out?
“There are fabulous houses, historical sites, that people need to know about,” Wills says. “Who’s going to write about them?
“And the pikes — six of them are named for real people and families [Harding, Charlotte, Hydes, Dickerson, McGavock, and Donelson] who were around doing things that people today ought to know about.
“Now contractors build streets and roads and name them ‘Blue Hills’ or ‘Sunshine,’ and I don’t think I or anybody else is going to be writing about a road named ‘Sunshine.’
“Still, it’s been very satisfying, and at the rate things are changing in Nashville, I’m glad that I’ve been able to come away with at least a few opportunities to write about the interesting places and people who used to be here.”