Located just 10 miles south of the bustling city streets of Nashville, the Ellington Agricultural Center serves as a hub for the state’s agricultural industry. This historic property is home to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee Agricultural Museum, and acts as a branch location for many other agriculture agencies.
Although the center has been at the heart of the state’s agricultural interests since 1961, the story of this beautiful 207-acre property dates back to the 1920s.
Developed as A Private Estate
“Ellington Agricultural Center was originally a private estate known as Brentwood Hall, developed by a financier named Rogers Caldwell,” Tom Womack says. Currently serving as Deputy Commissioner, Womack has been with the TDA for 33 years and jokingly calls himself the unofficial historian of the group.
“Caldwell built his fortune in banks and bonding institutions,” Womack says. “He was a typical tycoon of the 1920s with investments in many things, including newspapers.”
In addition to owning the precursors of the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Knoxville News Journal, Caldwell fostered a close relationship with the publisher of The Tennessean. He even tried purchasing the Atlanta Constitution, though the deal fell through.
“It’s important to remember that if you controlled the message in the 1920s, you controlled the politics,” Womack explains. “And Mr. Caldwell was very active in social, financial and political circles.”
Rich in History
As Caldwell’s power and wealth continued to accumulate, he built and developed his estate on what is now the Ellington Agricultural Center.
Inspired by Tennessean and seventh president Andrew Jackson, Caldwell modeled his private residence after Jackson’s home, the Hermitage.
Known as Brentwood House, the building itself was completed in 1927 and filled with beautiful European pieces – including elegant marble fireplaces, extravagant mantels and impressive gilt mirrors. Unfortunately, his legacy took a turn for the worse during the Great Depression. During the market crash of 1929, Caldwell’s empire crumbled.
“When Caldwell built his home in 1927, he used bank money and placed the estate on his father’s property,” Womack says. “The story gets complicated here because when the markets crashed, the state of Tennessee had holdings in Caldwell’s banks.”
The state tried to put a lien against the property, but because Caldwell had the property tied up in a spendthrift trust and used bank money to finance its construction, it was difficult for the state to recover their losses.
Over time, the state gained a judgment against the house to cover a portion of Caldwell’s debts. But the banking tycoon and his wife continued to live on the property, paying rent to the state, until they fell behind on payments in the late ’50s, sold all their possessions and moved to Franklin.
“The property became vacant around the time former Commissioner of Agriculture Buford Ellington was elected governor in 1958,” Womack says. “He decided to use Brentwood House as the location for operating his transition team.”
Governor Ellington dreamed of transforming Brentwood Hall into headquarters for the Department of Agriculture, which was previously stationed in cramped quarters in a state office building in downtown Nashville.
“As commissioner and governor, my father realized the Department of Agriculture needed a more central location to operate from,” says Ann Ellington Wagner, daughter of Governor Ellington and ardent participant in Ellington Agricultural Center activities.
When Brentwood Hall came on the market, the state legislature was asked to provide funds to purchase the property.
“As the story goes, the judge said if someone else offered a dollar more than the state offered, the estate would be sold for the highest price,” Wagner says. “Dad said he would carry a few extra dollars – just in case.”
The state purchased the property and honored Governor Ellington by renaming it the Ellington Agricultural Center. Today, the land serves as a working farm, hosts meetings and functions for various agricultural groups, and more.
“We’re proud to share this property with the state’s agricultural community,” Womack says. “We like to think of it as not only headquarters for the Department, but headquarters for all of Tennessee agriculture.”