When Beersheba Porter Cain, wife of McMinnville merchant John Cain, followed a mountainous Grundy County pathway in 1833, she discovered the chalybeate spring that would come to bear her name. The bluff site high above the Collins River Valley became the home of this noted antebellum watering place.
By 1839, Beersheba Springs had incorporated and begun official operation as a summer resort. A small hotel was built, along with a row of log cabins. The somewhat primitive establishment benefited from the stagecoach traffic along the new road running from McMinnville to Chattanooga. Cabins sprang up as well-to-do local families discovered this idyllic haven and began making annual treks.
The acquisition of the property in 1854 by Colonel John Armfield, a Louisiana slave trader, ushered in a period of intense development that gave the mid-nineteenth century cottage community its present flavor and layout. Armfield is thought to have brought around one hundred slaves to the area to complete his improvements. The new luxurious hotel that was constructed, along with the cabins and grounds, could accommodate four hundred guests. At that point, twenty cottages were perched on the grounds, each with its own charm. Louisiana planters had followed Armfield to the region to escape the summer swelter of the lowlands. Two cottages were built for Bishops Otey and Polk as Beersheba Springs vied for the Episcopal university that would be placed at Sewanee.
Armfield added a laundry, ice houses, billiard rooms, and bowling alleys to the grounds. He planted many shade and fruit trees and rebuilt the observatory. French cooks and servants catered to the wealthy patrons. A band brought up from New Orleans supplied the music for the dances. The watering spa also adhered to the custom of playing the oach up the mountain. The horn of the coachman conveyed when the horses were resting and could let the staff know how many new visitors to expect for supper.
It would be from the wooden observatory at the front of the hotel that Confederate and Union activity in the valley below could be watched as the Civil War engulfed this region and this exclusive way of life. The constant threat of raids and plundering unsettled the area. By the close of the conflict, the “old order” had faded away. Beersheba Springs passed into the hands of Northern investors.
Though the resort reopened in the 1870s, it never recaptured its former glory. The Methodist Church acquired Beersheba Springs in 1940, and after extensive repair work and some limited improvements, began to use it for assembly and summer camp. The antebellum atmosphere of Beersheba Springs remains in its numerous nineteenth century structures and its lasting ties to prominent Southern families.
Hollowell Family Papers
The Howells were among the first of the prominent Nashville families to forge ties with Beersheba Springs in the 1870s. These images found in the Hollowell Family Papers illustrate the connections between the Howells and the Hollowells and their love for Beersheba Springs.
|Howell Cottage at Beersheba Springs||Laurel Mill at Beersheba Springs, June 1896|
|At the Great Door, an overlook at Beersheba Springs, ca. 1870|