This story originally appeared in the Winter 2023 print edition of the Tennessee State Museum Quarterly Newsletter.
Silver Spoon, about 1800
With this recent donation, the Museum gained one of the oldest pieces of Tennessee-made silver in its collection. Family documents note that this spoon was made in Nashville around 1800 for William and Rhoda Byrne, who lived in Roane and Putnam Counties in the early nineteenth century. While its maker is unidentified, the spoon is engraved with the Byrnes’s initials “R / WB.” This spoon also has a connection to an important period in American religious history through the Byrnes’ granddaughter, Rhoda Jared Young (1820- 1899). Young and her husband converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1842. Her memoirs recount their difficult journey of leaving Tennessee for Utah along the Mormon Trail in the 1850s.
Tennessee State Museum Collection (2022.28.1)
Grand Central Station by Red Grooms, about 1990
The Tennessee State Museum maintains one of the largest collections of work by Red Grooms thanks to the continued generosity of Walter Knestrick, a personal friend of the artist. Mr. Knestrick’s most recent gift included this large multimedia work depicting Grand Central Station in New York City. Constructed primarily from wood, the three-dimensional scene captures the motion and vibrancy of urban life. Originally from Nashville, Grooms spent time in New York where he found inspiration in the city’s streetscapes. His prolific career has been widely celebrated in major museums across the country. When the Museum reopened in 2018 in its current location, one of its first temporary exhibitions was a Red Grooms retrospective. Grand Central Station can be enjoyed at the Nashville Public Library on Church Street, where it is displayed on a long-term loan from the Museum.
Tennessee State Museum Collection (2022.27), Image Courtesy of Jacob Fine Art
Fiddle Owned by Gene “Pappy” Merritts, 1925
This violin belonged to western-style fiddler Gene “Pappy” Merritts, who played it as his primary instrument during his long career in Nashville. Merritts customized the instrument by adding charismatic carvings, reddening the finish and applying mother of pearl ornamentation. The result is a stylish fiddle with personality suited for a Nashville stage. Originally from Pennsylvania, Merritts moved to Tennessee in 1961. He performed with country greats including Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline and Roy Acuff. Merritts starred in Opryland’s Country Music USA show for 24 years and was the long-time fiddler for John England and the Western Swingers, regular performers at Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway. The fiddle, along with its case, was donated by the family this year after Merritts’ passing at 92.
Tennessee State Museum Collection (2022.20.1-6)
Vice Adm. William Porter Lawrence Collection, 1970s to 2000s
William Porter Lawrence (1930-2005) was born in Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended West End High School before accepting an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. During the Vietnam War, he commanded Fighter Squadron 143 (VF-143) and was shot down on June 28, 1967, while on a bombing mission. Lawrence was held captive by the North Vietnamese at the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi from 1967-1973. During his captivity, Lawrence composed “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee,” a poem that was adopted as the official poem of Tennessee after his return. Susan Curley was working in Washington, D.C. during the Vietnam War and participated in the POW/MIA bracelet program, receiving Lawrence’s name bracelet. Curley met Lawrence after his return home and exchanged several letters with him before his death. Among the items donated are the original bracelet worn by Curley, a photograph of the two and a personally inscribed copy of the poem.
Tennessee State Museum Collection, bracelet (2022.24.2), poem (2022.24)
Jesse Eugene Loudy Collection, 1940s-1980s
The Museum recently acquired a collection related to Jesse Eugene Loudy and his World War II service. Loudy (1922-1984) was born in Johnson City, Tennessee, and graduated from Science Hill High School. Following graduation, Loudy worked for the East Tennessee Light and Power Company and married his high school sweetheart, Evelyn McNeil, in 1941. Loudy was inducted at Fort McPherson outside Atlanta, Georgia, and would eventually end up in the U.S. Army Air Forces in the combat crew section of a B-29 “Superfortress.” Loudy was deployed to the Pacific Theater and successfully completed all his missions, logging them on a large map of Japan and mission logbook, both of which are part of the collection. Following the war, he returned to Johnson City, Tennessee, and was employed by the U.S. Postal Service until his death in 1984. In addition to the aforementioned logbook and map, the collection includes photographs of Loudy and articles from various uniforms he wore during his service.
Tennessee State Museum Collection (2022.38.8-10)
Margaret Armstrong Letter to Andrew Jackson, 1833
The Museum recently acquired a rare personal letter written to President Andrew Jackson from Margaret Armstrong, dated August 17, 1833. Armstrong visited the Hermitage with several friends while Jackson was away and wrote to thank him and report on her visit. She and her husband, Robert Armstrong, were married by Jackson over the objections of her parents and she viewed Jackson as a surrogate father figure. She viewed Rachel, who was deceased by the time of Margaret’s visit, in motherly terms. She was “much pleased with their visit to the Hermitage,“ she wrote. “I took the liberty of showing them the garden and the spot where my ever-lamented friend is buried, oh what a melancholy day that was to me. There hangs the likeness of one that I owe, with yourself, all the earthly happiness that I ever have been permitted to enjoy in this world.”
Tennessee State Museum Collection (2022.46.3.3)
Medical Chair, Used by Mary Dunbar Gray of Stewart County, 1880s
Mary Dunbar Gray was born in 1809 in Stewart County, where she lived until her death in 1894. She was married and widowed twice and had four children. For much of her life, Gray lived on family farms, except for when she lived in Dover where her second husband owned a livery stable and hotel. Gray experienced health issues and was living with her daughter Martha Thomas and her family by 1880. This chair, which features small wheels and adjusts to recline, was likely purchased by Thomas for her mother. This artifact, which Gray used for about 10 years, embodies the caring relationship between Gray and her daughter.
Tennessee State Museum Collection (2022.21), Gift of the Family of Thomas Elton and Mary Bayer Weaks.