Housed in a restored 1920s horse barn that once belonged to a man known as the “J.P. Morgan of the South,” the Tennessee Agricultural Museum sits on the sweeping grounds of the Ellington Agricultural Center in Nashville.
Financier Rogers Caldwell developed the original estate, which included a lavish home and impressive stables for his racehorses. But Caldwell lost his fortune in the Great Depression, and the state gained legal ownership of the property. Elected in 1958, Governor Buford Ellington understood the long-term value of the grounds, and he eventually relocated the Department of Agriculture from downtown offices to the estate that was renamed in his honor.
The Creation of the Museum
The Tennessee Legislature established the Tennessee Agricultural Museum in 1959 to house and preserve early American agricultural tools, implements, home furnishings and literature. Davidson County extension agent Oscar Farris felt strongly about that connection to history and donated many of the museum’s first artifacts. In 1988, the museum gained momentum with the creation of the Oscar L. Farris Agricultural Museum Association, a group of volunteers who support the museum in its educational mission.
“Farris accumulated farm equipment from across the state and preserved many important items that would have been lost to history without his efforts,” museum director Elaura Guttormson says.
A Treasured Tennessee Asset
As the museum has grown and developed over the years, it has become an invaluable asset to the state. In addition to serving as a platform for outreach on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the museum’s educational programs, exhibits and special events attract more than 12,000 people to the property every year.
Children and adults can explore two levels of exhibits, an heirloom garden, the Bill Strasser Experience Center and a variety of historic cabins. The museum also hosts heritage craft classes that teach time-tested skills like basket-making, tatting, cast-iron skillet cooking, felting and more.
“The site preserves more than 3,000 artifacts that relate to what life was like in Tennessee before electricity,” Guttormson says. “By collecting, safeguarding and interpreting these artifacts, the museum provides an indispensable service to the public.”
Education is a top priority for the museum and its staff. They regularly host schoolchildren throughout the year in rotating programs, such as the popular Cabins and Wagons on the Cumberland field trip.
“In this program, students learn about life in Tennessee’s early statehood and apply critical-thinking skills to determine which artifacts would be most valuable to the Western settlers,” Guttormson says. “The museum’s collection includes a covered wagon dating back to the mid-19th century that is featured in this program. It is especially rewarding to facilitate student enrichment through primary sources.”
An Everlasting Influence
While the museum offers an assortment of educational workshops, programs and exhibits, the greatest value lies in providing visitors with a better understanding of how agriculture has influenced and shaped the state.
“When people talk about loving Tennessee, they usually mean they love our agriculture since it contributes so much to the lifestyle of our residents,” Guttormson says. “Among other things, the farming communities are responsible for the good food and the beautiful fields that serve as inspiration for so much of our culture. Agriculture makes this place special.”