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A History of Warner Parks (1903-present)

By Bob Allen, for The Bellevue Messenger

Bellevue and greater Nashville owes its beautiful, luscious forests, and rolling hills of the Warner Parks to someone other than Percy or Edwin Warner, whose names adorn the combined 2,681 acres of open space. Rather, the lion’s share of our gratitude should be given to Col. Luke Lea, a great-grandson and namesake of Luke Lea, a two-term Tennessee Congressman in the 1830s.

Colonel Luke Lea

Colonel Luke Lea

The young Lea was a lawyer, soldier, senator, and newspaper publisher, but it was his fervent desire to have a park on the city’s west side that forever endears him to Nashville and to us. It was a slow and steady effort undertaken by Lea, gathering up various properties, but today the Warner Parks host tens of thousands of visitors every year. The 2,058 acres of Percy Warner Park and 623 acres of Edwin Warner Park comprise one of the largest park areas contained within city limits of any U.S. municipality.

Lea (1879-1945) was tutored at home until he attended University of the South in Sewanee. He attended Columbia Law School and was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in 1903 — the same year he established his law practice in Nashville. But Lea was more than a lawyer. As the founder, editor, and first publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, Lea was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1911, and served until 1917. As the United States entered World War I, Lea volunteered and was commissioned as an artillery officer, serving in Europe, where he was promoted to the rank of colonel, earning him a new moniker — Col. Lea when he returned to Nashville and the Tennessean. He took on various leadership roles, and in 1919 helped to found the American Legion. But shortly thereafter, Col. Lea saw the need for a park on the city’s west side, and through the early and mid-1920s began to slowly purchase properties from early settlers in what we know today as Edwin and Percy Warner Parks.

Early park settlers

It may be difficult to imagine now, but several pioneering families lived on the land – the Scotts (the first to sell to Lea), then the Northerns, and Betts, Reagins, Vaughns, and others followed. For those families, it must have been difficult to imagine leaving.

Long hunters and early settlers saw the greater Nashville area as a paradise teaming with fish and game. Francis Hodge, a long hunter and original settler of Fort Nashborough, bought land west of Nashville in 1780, and 17 years later, one of his sons, James, purchased 735 acres, paying $1,600. The eastern edge of this property was the old North-South Trail, which is now Chickering Road. In 1811, George Hodge, Francis’ younger son, bought the southern part of the property from his father and built the Hodge House facing the trail, which was later a county road.

In the 1830s, the Natchez Trace ran through what is now the Warner Park Nature Center and the Cane Connector trail through Percy Warner Park. Many flat boatmen and frontier families returned from selling their wares by passing through the parks. In 1897, Virginia (Jenny) Northern and John Cartwright auctioned the Hodge House and land to Elisha Dotson Sawyer, a distant relative for $2,263.

Although Col. Lea’s efforts would close homesteads, these early families had established cemeteries, which are historically preserved and can be visited by special arrangement. (More information is available online at davidsoncemeterysurvey.com)

Percy Warner: The nature lover

Nashville businessman and civic leader, Percy Warner (1861-1927), followed his father James’ lead, capitalizing on New South exploitation of natural resources with his Warner Iron Corporation in the 1870s and 1880s. While working for the family company, Warner developed an interest in new industrial areas of electric utilities and urban mass transportation. From 1903-1914, he presided over the Nashville Railway and Light Company, controlling all the city’s streetcars. In this position, he held influence and interests in a number of Nashville businesses.

Percy Warner and Col. Luke Lea

Percy Warner and Col. Luke Lea

It may sound like he didn’t get out much, but Warner loved the outdoors and cultivated a private collection of birds on his estate. He worked to save Nashville’s Centennial Park from developers, and these civic-minded interests led to his election as a parks commissioner late in his life. However, it was his marriage to Margaret Lindsley, daughter of Sarah McGavock and J. Berrien Lindsley, which united new and old Nashville families – helping Warner inherit money and enlarge his holdings.

A benefactor of that wealth was his daughter, Percie, and her husband, Col. Luke Lea. When Warner died suddenly in 1927 at age 66, his daughter and son-in-law — who had just donated more than 850 acres of land (remember Lea’s desire) to the city of Nashville for its newest park — petitioned the park board to name it in Percy Warner’s memory. Lea left a wonderful civic legacy when he died in 1945, and a few years later the highest spot in the park was christened as ‘Lea Heights’ for him.

Edwin takes the wheel, drives parks’ growth

If Colonel Luke Lea and Percy Warner were the wheels that got Nashville’s Warner Parks rolling, Edwin Warner was the driving wheel in the development of our beautiful west-side park lands. Following his brother’s death, Edwin Warner took his place on the Park Board. Edwin, a businessman, served as chairman from 1939-45.

In the early 1930s, Highway 100 was built and served as the catalyst for the park’s future growth – from the Steeplechase racetrack to the bird blinds, from the golf courses to the Nature Center. First, the Tennessee Department of Transportation created Willow Pond on the south side of the highway. Soon after, the beautiful allée of steps lined with trees and bushes at the Belle Meade Boulevard entrance was designed and constructed by Bryant Fleming. Watch this 2-minute old home movie of Centennial Park and Percy Warner Park.  The Works Progress Administration provided funds and labor to construct roadways, entrance gates, rock walls, picnic shelters, wells, trails, golf course, and steeplechase track, which Edwin and the board oversaw.

Imagination was part of the plans, too. For example, the meandering roadways and trails scaling the beautiful hills in the park are designed in such a fashion that looking up or down you cannot see another road or trail above or beneath you – preserving the parks’ pristine views.

Edwin Warner

Edwin Warner

In 1935, renowned ornithologist Amelia Laskey established the Eastern Bluebird nesting box program in Warner Parks, and bluebird research remains active to this day. A bird banding program was initiated in 1982, and in the years since thousands of families have been enthralled with the parks’ unique bird watching experience.

During the late 1930s, the 9-hole Percy Warner Golf Course opened, and additional property was acquired that allowed Edwin to join his brother as park namesake. The board voted to name all land south of Old Hickory Boulevard as ‘Edwin Warner Park.’

As the parks became increasingly popular, the first race at the Steeplechase debuted in 1941. It remains the only racetrack ever built by the Federal Government.

Later, to support the war effort, Victory Gardens were planted on 1,038 acres of park land and Nashvillians raised 25,000 pounds of Irish potatoes, 870 acres of hay, and more than 30 acres of crimson clover annually.

An 18-hole Harpeth Hills Golf Course opened in 1965 during a time when the modern hiking trail system design began, and the repaving of roadways was initiated.

Great care was given to the parks’ maintenance and the growth continued. The Nature Center was established in 1973, and a year later the Youth Conservation Corps, aided by the Comprehensive Employee Training Act, made numerous improvements in the park.

Entrance Gates to Percy Warner Park

Entrance Gates to Percy Warner Park

Groups form to protect the parks

The Nashville community became endeared to Warner Parks as a valued asset, a natural area, and a location for recreational interests in the 1940s and 50s.  By the 1960s, the Parks began to show signs of wear.  Initial concerns develop about potential for over-use of the Parks and about conflicts between individuals and recreational special interest groups.  By the 1970s the decline of Warner Parks becomes visible.

In 1980, the Tennessee Register of Natural Areas listed the hiking trails and bridle paths on the Tennessee Recreation Trails System and four years later Warner Parks was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The trail system has been a source of pride for years, drawing cross-country events and now trail bicyclists.  In 2014, the Warner Park Mountain Bike Trail, an eight-mile stretch for riders of all skill levels, opened.

Using New York’s Central Park Conservancy as a model, Friends of Warner Parks was founded in 1987 in the home of Clare Armistead with the help of Peggy Joyce Wood, Chippy Pirtle, Adrienne Todd and Elizabeth Proctor.  This would be the second “friends group” nationwide developed to support a metropolitan park.  Immediately, Friends of Warner Parks linked arms with Metro Parks to fund and publish the Warner Park Master Plan.

In the 1990s, Friends of Warner Parks funded the publication of the Warner Park Nature Center Master Plan, and by 1998 $4million was raised and ground was broken on the new Susanne Warner Bass Learning Center.

In 2009, the Friends of Warner Parks, founded in 1987, purchased the H. G. Hill property for future use and to prevent commercial development on the north side of Highway 100. This area contains some of the oldest forests in middle Tennessee and is a haven for many rare and endangered species of birds, plants, and wildlife. Plans are underway to create a ‘natural’ walking trail in a section of it.

Other projects funded by Friends of Warner Parks have included restoration of the Hodge House, restoration of the Vaughn’s Gap field Station to coordinate urban forestry and resource management programs, restoration of the Spring House near the Chickering Road entrance, and restoration of 16 historic shelters originally built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s and 1940s.  In 2012 Friends of Warner Parks was presented the Preservation Award for the Indian Springs WPA Picnic Shelters Restoration Project at the Metropolitan Historical Commission’s 37th Annual Preservation Awards.

Notably, E. Warner Bass, Edwin’s grandson, served as the Friends of Warner Parks first president. Edwin passed away in 1945.

Over a million people visit the Warner Parks annually to utilize the Nature Center, picnic shelters, dog park, scenic roadways and overlooks, hiking trails, equestrian center and horse trails, cross country running courses, golf courses, and athletic fields.

They also are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Managed by the Metro Board of Parks and Recreation, they are the largest municipally administered parks in Tennessee and together span 2,684 acres.

Surely, neither Col. Lea nor the Warner brothers could have envisioned the mass destruction that the 1,000-year flood of 2010 wrought. However, the communal love and admiration of the parkland (that in part may have been birthed by their initial efforts) brought out thousands of volunteers who came together to clean up and preserve the natural beauty of the parks. For that, Bellevue is indebted to the trio’s foresight for selecting and establishing the Warner Parks as Nashville’s greatest west side story.  Steeplechase field in fall

*This article compiles two separate print articles that ran in July 29, 2014 and August 12, 2014 issues of The Messenger.

Author Bob Allen is founder of the Bellevue History & Genealogy Group. He would like to thank Heather Gallagher of Warner Parks for contributing much of the information for this article. Contact Allen at (615) 218-4580 or rvallen@comcast.net  for comments or questions on the Parks’ history.