July 22, 2018
Iris Hill Farm
It’s rare to find an in-tact antebellum home and farm in the heart of a large metropolitan area. But one such jewel exists in the Bartlett area, on the border with Memphis, Tennessee – a legacy of the late Judge George D. McCrary and his widow Judy McCrary. The 1828 home and 140 acres are permanently protected with a conservation easement through the Land Trust for Tennessee, plus the properties also have Greenbelt classification for agriculture and forestry.
Judy McCrary describes her late husband as “a Renaissance man. He bought land to preserve it, not to make money off it. He was as much or more at home on the tractor as in the courtroom. He had a great love of the land and believed in being good stewards of the land,” she said.
McCrary earned his first degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1965, but always wanted to go to law school. He received his JD in 1970, also from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He served Bartlett, Tennessee for 35 years, first as City Prosecutor then as Judge in the Bartlett court. He practiced law for almost 40 years and had an office for his private practice in Bartlett since 1979. McCrary died in October 2009, but his wife Judy still carries on the farm work.
Farming was one of George’s passions and he loved animals, too. George had two horses – Zorro and Buck – whom he enjoyed riding around the farm, and he also taught his daughter Melanie to ride. These days it’s Judy who does the riding around the farm – on the tractor to keep up with all the mowing and farm maintenance that 140 acres requires. Their son Michael grew up working on the farm and continues to help Judy with the farm work. She has a neighbor who cuts hay on the property, and that helps quite a bit. The property also has some valuable forest land with oak trees that equal or rival the state’s champion trees in size and age.
Judy has amassed a wealth of information about the history of the home and the land. “The first land grant from the governor was made in 1827: 100 acres to James Jameson (sometimes spelled Jamison). The original salt box houses were built in 1828, side-by-side with each side having its own fireplaces and separated by a ‘dog trot’ in the middle. It wasn’t long before the home was made into a showplace. The home is built of poplar logs with heart pine floors. The Thurstons bricked it in the late 1930s.”
Between 1827 and 1848 Jameson put together 500 acres through additional land purchases. He died in 1852. “His son George Jameson held onto the land until 1860. Parcels of the land were sold off to various people between 1860 and 1891. Then in 1891 the Thurstons purchased 241.5 acres and held onto it for 50 years,” Judy explained.
“In 1943 the land was purchased by the Rhodes family, a mother and three daughters, and came to be known as Iris Hill for all the irises that bloomed all over the farm, with a majority near the orchard. It was from the three daughters, the ‘three sisters’ they were called, that James Ferguson purchased the house and 26 acres. George McCrary had already bought some other acreage adjacent to Ferguson’s; then in 1992 he bought the land Ferguson held, that included the house and 26 acres,” she explained.
“It was a large, working plantation from 1828 to the 1860s,” Judy explained. “Jameson was a wealthy, educated man and served as a school commissioner,” she continued. Judy has a notebook full of documents about the land and several that show items sold in an “estate sale” after James Jameson died in 1852. Most of the household items sold for less than $1.
An interesting sketch is one that James Thurston drew of the details of the farm when he revisited the farm in 1990. [His grandfather had bought the property in 1891; he was born in 1917 and grew up on the farm.] The sketches were made from his childhood memories, but were amazingly accurate. There was a lumber mill, a pecan grove, a dairy barn, a hog area, and the farm was self-sustaining; just about everything the family needed was grown on the farm. He drew each part of the property with detailed descriptions of the buildings, and then told a story about each one.
“This historic place is well documented and well protected,” Judy said. “George purchased land out of sheer love for the land, the open space, and the wildlife habitat. This is an example of land that has been loved and taken care of for over 200 years. We are continuing to protect its historic value.” Foxes occasionally come by the house; deer are plentiful, as are hawks, owls, and a multitude of birds. “Every year since 1989 the Audubon Society has a bird count here in December,” Judy added.
George’s two horses Zorro and Buck have gone to live permanently with their farrier, “and they can never be separated,” she explained, how caring for the future well-being of the horses goes hand-in-hand with caring for the future well-being of the land. The two stall barn remains, and is situated near Harrington Creek, which eventually runs into the Wolf River. The barn is built of concrete blocks, with spacious stalls and direct turn out. On each side of the barn there’s an inset area with an overhang where hay can be stored to keep it out of the weather.
There are several lakes on the property – one large one and several smaller ones, one that is spring-fed that the Thurstons used to water their cattle.
As one traverses the land, there are no indications that one is in the middle of a “developed” metropolitan area, with subdivisions and commercial development surrounding the property. It is quiet – no city noise to interfere with enjoying the beauty of the land. George McCrary had, and his wife Judy has, a solid understanding of the things that have permanency. In an area like Memphis, subdivisions wax and wane. They have a life cycle of about 15-20 years: early on they are thriving; they reach a peak; then they begin to decline; and eventually they can become “blighted” property. But Iris Hill farm is an example of how land not “developed” remains a community asset – economically, esthetically, and environmentally – through the centuries. And because of the conservation easement, it will retain its value through centuries to come, i.e., in perpetuity. “I’m really proud of what we’ve done and what George has done to protect the land,” Judy said.
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