April 18, 2014 - 10:06
Hundred Year Old Houses

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Article Author: Marian Bailey Presswood, Polk County Historian
The Hildabrand House

Yeah, I know I said I didn’t plan to do the well known hundred year old houses, but I’ll have to eat my words because I had another task that required doing and I didn’t get anything else ready, so this is a last minute effort.

What I thought might be interesting to you is that after being in private family ownership for over 205 years, that house and 4 acres of land is now owned by the Tennessee Historical Society, who took possession immediately following the passing of Pat Trew in May 2012.

I’m sure you’re wondering how in the world the Tennessee Historical Society got it and why on earth they would want it?  I knew about it several years ago when someone gave me a copy of the will of Nell Thomas Williams who had lived there for some years back in the 1980s. Both Nell and her husband, Henry, died in 1983 just a short time after my only visit there. The will stated that upon their passing the house would be donated to the Tennessee Historical Society, but there was some thought that it was intended for the East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville and not the State Society in Nashville, but apparently we were wrong. In speaking with someone from that office they seemed to think it would probably be sold rather than used as a museum since it doesn’t have much of the original house left. When the new house was built, they salvaged some ‘bits n pieces’ and incorporated them into the building, but the whole house was not moved.

So, going back to when the house was built, most records say it was seven years in the construction and was finished around 1807. Several documents exist that say that it was designed by architect James Killian and that Robert Henry Howell was the person who did the masonry work.   Killian died while on the job and is buried on the grounds. There is the remnant of an old cemetery there that was the burial ground for some Native Americans, but only a single stone remains after many years of the field around it being cultivated and used as pasture land. The WPA report of 1940 said that out of the original 25 to 50 graves that only one stone remained - and it was in a hog lot!

I’m not about to get into the controversy with James Sanders from Hawaii that has gone on for years as to whether it was Peter or Michael Hilderbrand who actually had the house built. Both had married Cherokee wives, Nancy and Elizabeth Harlan, granddaughters of the Cherokee Peacemaker, Nancy Ward.  I do know that nearly every writer tells the story about Peter Hildebrand taking his Cherokee wife and half-breed children there to live, and after a short while they were back in their old cabin. He declared that those “damn Cherokee” sons of his were about to wreck the place, not being accustomed to glass windows or any of the other modern features the house afforded.  

Actually, no matter who built it, probably the families who called it home the longest were the W. P. Kimbroughs who lived there for 21 years, and the John Gilbert family who lived there about the same length of time.  Hildebrand descendants from out West come here nearly every summer hoping to see the old house, and are most disappointed to learn that it no longer exists and only a pile of huge foundation rocks marks the spot.  It isn’t correct to say it ‘has been moved’, but whatever parts were used are now in a house which looks more like a Southern Plantation house. It is not at all recognizable as the original house Ben Harris McClary so eloquently described as “undisputedly the most distinctive architectural feat in Polk County” with its two and a half feet wide solid walnut plank walls, moldings of carved series of H’s, and eight feet wide fireplace.


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