We were on a hunt for October. With a beautiful autumn day before us and the smell of falling leaves in the air, we would find our adventure and a few stories to share.
On a wild hair and a hankering for a Tennessee adventure, the kids and I jumped in the car with nearly no idea where we were headed.
They always ask, “Where are we going?”
I always answer, “I don’t know, but we’re going.”
I briefly looked up haunted Tennessee and read an article with a list of what the author considered to be the eight most haunted places in the state, including Cragfont Mansion in Castalian Springs, just northwest of Lebanon.
We decided to find out if there was any substance to it.
In Middle Tennessee’s basin, Cragfont’s name was derived from the rocks above and water below the property; crag for the native limestone quarried from the property to build the mansion and font for the natural spring there.
Tour guide Sheila Morrison showed us around. Upon entering, there was an energy in the house — not negative, but it felt like it was busy or harried, as though the Winchesters were still there ready to entertain their guests.
War of 1812 Brig. Gen. James Winchester of Maryland designed Cragfont and commissioned Maryland shipbuilders to build the mansion on the 300-acre plantation in 1798. He, with Andrew Jackson and Judge John Overton, is credited with founding the city of Memphis. Morrison said Winchester had served with Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge.
He married Susan Black of South Carolina who was 25 years his junior. They had 14 children; eight girls and six boys. Winchester’s son and grandson fought in the Civil War, and Morrison said many people have reported seeing Confederate soldiers on the property.
The T-shaped, Georgian-style home was completed in 1802 with 22-inch thick walls filled with rock and anchor rods. The first floor of the top of the “T” had the foyer, sitting room, the General’s office, library and a large parlor. The second floor of the top of the “T” held the family’s bedchambers.
Original Ralph E.B. Earl portraits of Winchester and his young wife hang in the foyer. While the General’s portrait shows a stoic man looking to the right, Susan Winchester’s eyes watch. No matter where you stand in the room, she is looking directly at you. I took pictures from several sides and angles and in every image, it looks like she made eye contact with my camera. The kids chalked it up to an optical illusion, a type of painting technique they’d learned from the late Deborah Mendenhall at Homestead Elementary. They called Susan Winchester “the second Mona Lisa” because of this type of painting illusion.
Another original portrait of Susan in her late 70s hangs over the mantel of her sitting room. Morrison said she has heard reports of an old woman thought to be her seen on the mansion grounds. A family taking a photo on the porch saw an old woman standing in the window above them in the photo.
A Cragfont tour guide was giving a speech on the War of 1812 when the door face of the grandfather clock in the parlor opened and shut by itself.
The General’s original uniform hat, epaulets and case are on display in his office.
Winchester’s original day book written by quill in his hand in 1825, meticulously records his business dealings along the Cumberland River in neighboring Cairo. These transactions tell of his plantation business, including the slave trade, his cotton gin and distillery.
Morrison has had her own unexplainable experiences in the house. She and a couple were on a tour in the foyer when she heard humming on the second floor. Morrison didn’t say anything but then the lady on the tour asked her if she heard the humming. That confirmed it for both of them. She said the door in the cross hall to the stairwell leading up to the ballroom closed on her twice by itself and it was captured on their video surveillance.
Once, a tour guide was hit on the head by the face of the grandfather clock on the landing of the stairs from the foyer to the second floor, cutting his head open. The spirits also threw candlesticks and books at him.
We were the only ones in the house with Morrison. On the second floor, I heard something down the stairwell. It sounded like a quick open-and-shut, like a door or cabinet. I heard it two more times. I looked toward the stairwell expecting someone to walk through the foyer or up the stairs. No steps; no one. My daughter said she heard it, too. Morrison checked the stairwell. Apparently, it was “nothing.”
On my recording of the tour, I can hear the third and final thump and click of something closing in the stairwell.
The cross hall, dining room, kitchen, and smokehouse room made up the single-story stem of the “T.” At the time Cragfont was built, it was unusual for the kitchen to be attached to the main house as a fire precaution. A thick stone wall separated the dining room and kitchen. The kitchen sits three steps below the dining room level with stairs going up to an attic-space pantry.
On the other side of the kitchen, Winchester dared to build his smokehouse attached to the house. The tall, vaulted ceiling structure of the smokehouse created a three-tiered space to prepare, smoke and store meats on the plantation and towered above the single-story kitchen and dining room levels. The deliberate design of the gaps in the brick at the top of the north-facing wall was put there to ventilate the smokehouse room.
In 1810, Winchester added a second story to the stem and filled in the space between the top of the “T” and the tall smokehouse room. In this space, he had a ballroom and gentlemen’s smoking room added. It was the only second-story ballroom on record.
From the ballroom, a flight of stairs leads to the nursery. Why Winchester decided to have the nursery above the ballroom and gentlemen’s smoking room is a wonder. The stairwell door was not upright; it closed over the stairs and became a part of the nursery floor. The two-roomed nursery had low ceilings and a small child-sized fireplace. It is said the nursery is the most active room in the house as far as the spirits go.
Morrison said Cragfont was an entertaining house. It was a thoroughfare for passers-by, and the Winchesters often had houseguests and parties. The family entertained in the second-floor ballroom.
Morrison said last year they held a War of 1812 reenactment followed by a ball. She said the security cameras caught hundreds of lit-up orbs moving around in the nursery while they were having the ball downstairs.
Hand on my heart I heard a thump near the east window, as though a small hand had slapped down on the inside of the windowsill. It sounded so near I walked toward it. I rationalized thinking it could have been a tree branch tapping the roof since we were at the top of the house and would have sounded close. I looked out the window. There wasn’t a tree or branch anywhere nearby.
The General is buried in the Winchester family cemetery to the north behind the house.
According to Morrison, before the Tennessee Historical Commission acquired the property in 1958, Cragfont Mansion was used as a barn. Hay was stored in the parlor and sitting rooms, with chickens in the kitchen.
It is listed with the National Register of Historic Places and is managed in partnership by the Tennessee Historical Commission and Friends of Cragfont non-profit organization.
Cragfont is open for tours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday from April 15-Nov. 1. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $3 for ages 6-18; ages 5 and younger are admitted free. Cragfont is at 200 Cragfont Rd. in Castalian Springs.