It was once a family home, then a roadside hotel, a dinner club and a church.
Soon, the historic Crab Orchard Stone structure on Hwy. 70 E. will once again welcome visitors as the newest venue at Oaklawn Farms, The Manor House.
“I didn’t want it to ever be too far gone. I decided to put some time and some money into it,” said Jason Kemmer, who operates a landscaping and event business on the farm surrounding the house. “I couldn’t imagine driving by and not seeing it.”
The building began as the home of William Garrison, who grew up in Crossville but left, as legend has it, with a dollar in his pocket. He made his way to Chicago, attended law school and become the purchasing agent for the city.
He returned to Crossville in the 1930s with his wife, Helen. They established their home on Hwy. 70 E., called Will-Nell Farms — a twist on Garrison’s pet name for his wife, whom he called Nellie.
Garrison built the Will-Nell Building, now Highland Federal, and the Palace Theatre. Each building reflected something he had seen in Chicago, Kemmer said.
Garrison Park on Fourth St. is named for William Garrison and his contributions to the community.
The Manor House was built in two sections. The first provided a place for the Garrisons to live while work continued on the rest of the house. A curved entrance joined the two structures, and the stone exterior of the first house was covered over with plaster.
“This style is called French eclectic,” Kemmer said. “Garrison, being in Chicago those years working, that’s something he would have seen there and brought here.”
The building was completed with the distinctive Crab Orchard Stone that made Cumberland County famous. Kemmer uses stone quarried from the property in his landscape work and at venues around the property.
In 1945, Kemmer’s great-aunt and uncle, Jane and Mike Hale, purchased the property. They added hotel rooms to each side of the house with a pool out front.
“A lot of people talk about the pool. It was apparently one of the first ones in the county,” Kemmer said.
The hotel provided a stop-over for people driving across the state on Hwy. 70 before Interstate 40 came through in the 1960s. The Hales sold the property to a group of Crossville businessmen and it became the Oaklawn Country Club. Kemmer said there had been some plans to put in a golf course on the property surrounding the house, but it never came to fruition.
The property sold several times. It was once a nightclub called the Eagle’s Nest.
“People still talk about how nice it was and how it was decorated,” Kemmer said. “It was kind of a speak-easy. It was apparently a happening place in the ’60s.”
Kemmer’s father purchased the property in 1978 from Oaklawn Baptist Church, who had been meeting in the ballroom at the back of the house while their building was under construction down the road.
“They were the last tenants,” Kemmer said.
William Kemmer took down the old hotel rooms, preserving the Crab Orchard Stone, and the old ballroom was also removed.
“Knowing I would restore it one day, I wanted that part gone because it wasn’t original to the structure,” Kemmer said.
The remaining Manor House is about 3,600 square feet.
“It looks huge from the road, but it’s basically two squares connected by the round foyer,” he said.
About 15 years ago, Kemmer took care of a few critical needs at the house, including gutting the inside, taking out windows and replacing the roof. Interior work was put on hold, until just a few months ago.
“It was having the time and money to put into it,” Kemmer said.
There was also a safety concern. An upstairs bathroom included a tile shower. The support girder in the floor below was cracked.
“There was so much weight with the tile, the fixtures, the cast iron. I was waiting for that to fall before I got in here. It was too big of a risk,” he explained.
In early February, he started on the interior framing. That included putting back a staircase removed in the 1940s to provide a second access point to the second floor and providing a more open floor plan that better accommodates small events and parties.
New floor joists and subfloors were installed.
“We had to hand-dig the crawlspace to get enough room to crawl under it,” he said.
He found the original portion of the house was built with sawmill lumber and required little reframing, with hardwoods. The second part of the house was built with dimensional lumber, which is slightly smaller, and it required more work.
“This went quicker than I thought,” Kemmer said.
Next up will be plumbing and electrical wiring, with a bathroom added to the first floor to make it more accessible for patrons.
He’s kept several of the architectural details original to the home, like curved doorways. Some of the original decorative plaster is still there, and Kemmer plans to keep it, returning it to its original off-white color.
He plans to panel the walls in different wood species, like oak, poplar, hemlock and cedar.
Upstairs, the old bar from the dinner club still exists, and he’s saved the original bartop. He plans to keep it and recreate a mural that once decorated the walls upstairs.
When complete, it will make a great space for smaller events, bridal showers or birthday parties, complementing the event business there.
“It will give us that intimate space for smaller events,” he said. Plans are to have the Manor House available in spring 2021, if not earlier.
Kemmer opened his landscaping business around 2006, offering a variety of landscape design, hardscapes, water features and plantings.
The event business has evolved over time. Each summer, family and friends would gather at the farm, listening to music and sharing a roasted pig. There wasn’t a place to protect them from the elements.
Kemmer started working on a timber-framed barn in 2015, using timber harvested from the farm.
“It’s a true timber frame with mortise and tenon joints,” Kemmer said.
He had a barn raising in 2016. It took about six days to get the skeleton constructed.
With that finished, he started offering an event venue rental at the barn overlooking the pond.
“There’s not as much labor in the event business,” he joked. “I’ve always liked being around people, and I like sharing the farm. We all just love it, so I was eager to have something where people could come and enjoy it.”
The Barn can accommodate about 200 guests.
This year, Oaklawn Farms will offer a new event space, Jake’s Barn, on the other side of the property. The large barn is open air to take advantage of the mountain views. There’s a small chapel and silo-inspired restrooms and dressing rooms. Named the Rainbow Valley Chapel, it seats 80 people and features a custom-made sourwood tree chandelier.
It’s a larger space, able to accommodate about 400 people.
Oaklawn Farms is a full-service event venue, with catering available. Kemmer lives on the property and someone is always available when guests are present.
Throughout the property you’ll find heirlooms, antiques and salvaged materials adding unique details. In the barn, the chandelier is one that once hung in the Manor’s ballroom. The pews in the chapel came from a church in Watertown, TN. A collection of antique metal glider benches offer seating outside the Barn.
Several events are already being planned for this year.
The Kids on the Rise will hold their annual Blue Jean Ball at Jake’s Barn June 12.
Oaklawn Farms will also present the Byrd Creek Music Festival in July.
“It’s mostly folk, Americana and bluegrass,” Kemmer said.
Lost Dog Street Band and The Hill Country Devil will be among the acts performing July 8-10.
To learn more about Oaklawn Farms, visit www.oaklawnfarms.com. Announcements for events will also be made on their Facebook page.
Got photos? If you have old photos of the Manor House from the past, Jason Kemmer invites you to share those with him. Email firstname.lastname@example.org