Nashville now and then: Calling Mrs. Polk

This week in years gone by, the advent of the telephone and the opening of Tarbox School were in the local news
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It's not that far from the site of the old Polk Place downtown to the "Batman Building" of BellSouth/AT&T. This week in 1877, the antebellum mansion where the widow of President James K. Polk lived was the scene of an experiment that would lead to the construction of that distinctive, twin-pronged skyscraper: Nashville's first telephone call.

The new technology made its debut during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, being held in a Southern city for the first time since the unpleasantness of 1861-65. Along with the establishment in the past decade of Fisk and Vanderbilt Universities, the gathering symbolized the Nashville's emergence as the "Athens of the South." The Daily American was giving it prominent coverage, throwing in for good measure an editorial extolling the "obvious general truths" expressed in the recent writings of Charles Darwin.

On September 1, the meeting's official agenda reflected a broad range of scientific inquiries. Mrs. H.K. Ingram of Edgefield, across the river from Nashville, read a paper on "Atmospheric Concussion as a Means of Disinfection." The Reverend Doctor Thomas O. Summers Jr., professor of anatomy and histology at the medical schools of Vanderbilt University and the University of Nashville as well as an ordained pastor, offered up "Some Observations on the Skill of the Comanche." Other speakers covered such themes as "The Physics of the Gulf of Mexico" and the surely crowd-pleasing proposition: "All Life Conditionally Immortal."

But a few blocks from the State Capitol, where the meeting was taking place, an unofficial activity got underway at midday. Visiting scientists Francis E. Nipher (of Washington University in St. Louis) and Joseph T. Lovewell (of the State College in Pennsylvania) had stretched a bare copper wire across Union Street. The filament crossed Union Street, linking the homes of Adam G. Adams (where the Snodgrass Tennessee Tower now stands) and the esteemed Mrs. Polk (now the site of a Days Inn). By "speaking trumpet fashion" into a "little magnet battery — a box-like contrivance some two inches square," sounds coud be transmitted, the scientists promised.

It worked. Several parties in each house were able to converse clearly with each other, although Mrs. Polk had trouble hearing things clearly. "How do you pronounce it?" Dr. Summers asked. "Is it 'telephone' or 'telephone'?" A voice at the other end replied: "Take your choice."

The device was placed on the Adams' piano. "Play Dixie," commanded a woman at the Polk residence. Another asked for "The Blue Danube." Both were obliged. "Play some more," said a third lady. "We cannot get enough."

(Source note: The Daily American ran a full account on September 2, 1877. The most complete and accurate modern account is Hugh Walker's "Over the wire, a voice..." in the Nashville Tennessean Magazine, March 2, 1958, pp. 14-15. Thanks to the people of the Metro Nashville Archives for locating that source.)

Beginnings of a civic institution

Nine years later, the city of Nashville was ready to open an institution that would help shape the lives of generations: the Tarbox School. The Daily American had the story on August 31, 1886:

TARBOX SCHOOL.

The New West Nashville Building Completed by the Contractors.

It Will Probably Be Turned Over to the City To-day—Description of the Ediflice—Cost and Seating Capacity.

The new West Nashville city school building is completed and will likely be turned over to the Board of Public Works to-day. The contractors, Messrs. Simmons, Phillips & Hawthorne, of this city, have not only fulfilled their promise to have the building ready by Sept. 1, but have been ready for a week past to turn the key in the great front door, over which is written in the stone the words "Pro Inventa."

The work was begun March 13. Brick laying was begun April 28. The structure has cost the city $27,000, including $1,600 cost of an extra foundation. The exterior is of pressed brick with terra cotta ornamentations and finish. The interior is well lighted, spacious and modern, with a large study ball on each if the three floors 60 by 68 feet, and two recitation rooms on each corner, 20 by 22 feet, making three large study halls and twenty-four smaller recitation rooms, handsomely ceiled with tongue and grooven plack,painted a light blue arid tastefully shaded. The wood wainscoating is of imitation cherry, the doors handsomely grained in cherry color, as are also the front stairways, presenting a very handsome appearance, ascending at an easy rise and of generous width.

The edifice is of commanding appearance, located on a rise from which it is seen from any point within the valley of Nashville, has a frontage of 106 feet, is 100 feet in depth, and the whole is surmounted by a tower measuring 78 feet square and 135 feet from the top of the foundation walls of the main building to the apex of the roof. The walls of the building proper are 53 feet high to the bottom of the cornice, or starting point of the roof, which has a steep pitch and is covered with unpainted tin. The ceilings in each story measure fifteen feet from the floor, and the main floor has an elevation from the grade of the ground of about four feet. The windows are lofty, and of good proportion.

It will furnish desk room on each floor for 400 children, and draw its pupils from the West End mainly in the Tenth Ward in which it is located. The architects of this superb addition to the city's property were Messrs. Thompson & Gabla, of this city.

Named for Luther G. Tarbox, a public-education pioneer in both Memphis and Nashville, the grade school was located between Division Street and Broadway, where the Bristol on Broadway condos now stand. It served a population that was rapidly spreading to suburbs in what is now Nashville's Midtown area.

George Bailey Elliott, for whom the Elliott School in North Nashville would later be named, was principal at Tarbox from its opening in 1886 until he died in 1890. Among the school's students over the years were future poets Allen Tate and Randall Jarrell and future puppeteer Tom Tichenor, as well as Mary Helen Lowry, who would go on to become a legendary English teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy.

And one last morsel: 219 years ago this week, a certain Mr. Bushnell took pen in hand to write to his hometown newspaper in Connecticut about the rich new life he had made for himself in Nashville. Details of his pitch for the new settlement will have to wait for a future column, but suffice it to say Bushnell may be Nashville's first known (if perhaps self-appointed) director of economic development. The beginning of his missive, as printed in a copy of the Connecticut Gazette that this writer purchased off eBay some years ago, makes for a nice computer desktop background or screen-saver element. The image is downloadable at this link.

Birthdays of note this week:

  • Former Deputy Governor Peaches Blank — September 2
  • Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy, Stites & Harbison attorney Bill Penny — September 4
  • Newsletter publisher and political commentator M. Lee Smith — September 5

"Nashville now and then" is a week-by-week look back at Nashville's economic, political and social history. Your thoughts, suggestions and questions are always welcome — leave them in the comments section below, or e-mail tom.wood@nashvillepost.com.