It has been said that a grand lady dresses in beautiful clothes and always wears a fancy hat and gloves. Also, it is said that a grand lady’s dinner table has an elegant white cloth and silver place settings. Then, naturally, a grand lady would have a card tray on which to display calling cards from afternoon visitors. (At least this was the way of life in the late 1800s.)
The W. F. Thomison home (also called Magnolia House) is an example of a “grand lady.” Located in Dayton at 656 Market St., life began for this grand dame one hundred and thirty-one years ago in 1890 when Dr. Walter Fairfield Thomison had the house built as a wedding gift for his bride of sixteen, Ella Adelia Darwin. The land for the house was purchased from W. T. Broyles in March of 1890, and Walter and Ella lived with Dr. James G. Thomison, Walter’s brother until their home was finished.
“Miss Ella,” as she was affectionately known by most people, was the daughter of Captain William Perry and Adelia Gillespie Darwin of Evensville. “Dr. Walter,” as he was called, was born in Old Washington, the son of William Preston and Nancy Smith Thomison of Virginia.
It was during 1889 when Walter was at the train depot in Dayton and saw a beautiful young lady who was dressed in a fancy hat and gloves. She was so impressive to this man of thirty that he declared to a friend, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” And Ella did say yes, only if he would promise to keep a cook! She told him that if the cook left, she would also leave! Evidently that strategy worked because they were married June 1, 1890 at the Methodist Church in Evensville and stayed married for fifty years, until Walter’s death in 1940.
This grand old house has seen many dinner parties in which the spacious dining room was set with the family’s best china, crystal and silver. The built-in china cabinet which remains in the house today came from Walter’s home in Old Washington and was the handiwork of his father. Ella was a needlework artist, and created many beautiful table linens for the large oak dining table. The door between the living and dining rooms has a large Queen Anne transom with wood accents and an original wood chair rail runs around the entire dining room.
Each room in the house was equipped with a fireplace since that was the only type of heat available when the house was built. The ornate mantels in the living room and parlor, along with the original fireplaces and decorative grates are still in place today. Also, surrounding these hearths and fireplaces are ceramic tiles, with built-in mirrors between the mantelshelf and overmantel of each one.
My grandmother (Clara Thomison Brown) has told me stories of getting dressed for a dance to be held at the Dayton Opera House (the social gathering place), and going from room to room in evening attire. She said that a person could “freeze to death” because the halls of the house had no heat and only one side of your body could get warm at a time from fireplace heat!
This two-story Colonial Revival style house is constructed of virgin pinewood with ionic columns for support on the front. A concrete block fence marks the property boundaries, and the original iron gates are missing, having been replaced with others. Original, working transoms above the doors of the house still allow both sunlight and fresh air to enter the long hallways and large rooms. These transoms created the “air conditioning” which kept the home relatively cool during hot summer months. The main entrance opens onto a long central hallway, which was the first area a person would see when visiting. “Miss Ella” kept a card tray in that downstairs hall for her visitors to deposit their “calling cards” as an announcement of their visit. The stairway features low eleven inch risers which were built to accommodate Miss Ella’s small stature, and a newel post dominates the staircase.
The large front porch was designed as a place for social gatherings and enjoyment of the night breezes of late summer. A wicker swing and rocking chairs entertained many visitors during the years. A small wrought iron balcony on the second floor adds to the décor and romance of the house.
Ella traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio to buy all the furnishings for her home. One of her brothers, Fred Darwin, owned a furniture store there, so she was able to buy the finest, most exquisite items with which to furnish the house. She traveled by train because Walter was the local surgeon for Southern Railway System and he received free passes for family members.
After graduating from Vanderbilt Medical School in 1895, Walter first practiced medicine with his brother, Dr. James G. Thomison. When the Dayton Coal and Iron Company was at its height of production, he became head company doctor. Later, he opened a drugstore on West Main Street in Dayton, with his office in the back. Ella and Walter were members of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Dayton, with Ella being active in the women’s activities of the church. In addition, she was a charter member of the V.C. Allen Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and held many meetings of that organization at her home. Walter was an active Master Mason for fifty years. Ella was also busy raising a family in those early years, along with entertaining many guests in her home.
The house was home to the three children of Walter and Ella: Maude, born in 1891, Clara, in 1893, and Agnew, born in 1898. During their childhood years, the three of them were always in trouble for their actions! They would swing from the upstairs balcony to a window, which was no small feat; also, they were caught more than once smoking rabbit tobacco in the barn out back. During that time, all houses were self-sufficient, having a smoke house, barn, chickens, cow, stable, horses, and gardens. There were certainly no modern conveniences.
Maude never married; Clara married Peyton J. Brown, auditor and business manager of the Raleigh News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and had a child, Nancy. Walter Agnew became a doctor and practiced with his father after attending Medical School at Vanderbilt and receiving a fellowship in surgery at the Mayo Clinic. He married Shirley Gaskins, of Hazelhurst, Georgia, and to this marriage was born two children: Shirley Jeanelle and Joanne Sylvia. Nancy, Clara’s daughter, married Karl W. Hawkins, a civil engineer, from Park Ridge, Illinois, and had a child, Patricia Jo (me).
Some member of the Thomison family lived in the house for ninety-nine years, until its sale in 1989. At that time, Nancy was the single occupant of the “grand lady.” The house was named Magnolia House by the first new owners, Gloria and Paul Downs. This was because of the huge magnolia trees on each side of the front porch. Those trees were planted by Walter when the house was built. Magnolia House was officially added to both the National and Tennessee Registers of Historic Places on October of 1997. Then ownership changed hands to Cindy and Mike Turner, and the next owners were Diana and Roger Gupton.
The house today remains very much as it was when first built. It was moved back a few feet when Market Street was constructed. Indoor plumbing and electricity were added when those became available, and the fireplaces are no longer in use. Some of the original furnishings of the home “live” with me today and remind me of former times. This “grand old lady” has a great many stories hidden in her walls and memories of past and present family members and their friends. She is a special lady to me because she was my childhood home. Therefore, we all need to study the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.
Pat Guffey can be reached at email@example.com