A Nineteenth Century Art and Architectural Treasure
Thanks to the generosity and deep concern for the perpetuation of a very special piece of our history by Ms. Jennie Smithson, the Ames Plantation is now the home of the early 19th century Stencil House. The home, which has been in Ms. Smithson’s family since its construction in the 1830’s, was originally located in Wayne County, Tennessee outside the town of Clifton. With the home in a poor state of repair and without a viable plan for its preservation on site, the Stencil House was moved to the Ames Plantation in 2002 as part of a plan to save the historic structure.
Incomplete archival records leave many questions about the home's past unanswered. It is thought that the house was built around 1835 for John W. Nunnely, the first occupant of the land upon which the house was located. Over the course of its history the house was passed down through the family several times to include the extended families of Johnson, Dillon, and Morris.
The historic structure was originally constructed as a 1 1/2 story dogtrot log house built primarily from beech and hackberry trees that are still found in abundance in the surrounding countryside. Not long afterward, possibly within a year or so, the log home was extensively renovated. The walls were covered on the exterior with beaded poplar siding and the inside was modified to include a variety of wall coverings and decorative painting. Hand planed poplar tongue-in-groove lumber was applied to a portion of the interior while other areas were covered with horsehair plaster above a wainscot of horizontal boards. A highly crafted stairway leads from the entry hallway to the upstairs landing where a banister rail protects the stair opening. The level of workmanship exhibited in the structure is remarkable, representing the finest in wood craftsmanship. Luckily, most of the home’s historic architectural features have remained intact due to the absence of modernization, which so often contaminates such structures.
The home is most noted for its interior stencil painting, representing one of the most extensive examples of this style interior decorative painting known in the region. Stencil painting found in the home is of the style of Moses Eaton, Jr., a very popular itinerant painter during the early 19th century from Dublin, New Hampshire. It is unlikely, however, that Eaton produced the painting himself. Detailed inspection of the stencil work found in the Stencil House reveals small but significant deviations from Eaton’s work. More likely an itinerant painter utilizing stencils very similar to, if not copied directly from the Eaton collection, did the work. Interestingly, work that shares many of the same distinctive touches as the Stencil House stencils appears in homes located elsewhere in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana raising the possibility that the Stencil House painter traveled throughout the region plying his trade. There are more questions than answers at this time relating to the true identity of the painter. Hopefully further research will shed some light on the issue. The very fact that such a decorative application was utilized in a middle class rural farmhouse is in itself an anomaly.
Restoration necessary to return this remarkable historic home to its original grandeur is underway but much remains to be done. The process, which is very expensive, can only progress as funding permits. If you would like to assist with the Stencil House Project through a tax-deductible contribution contact the Ames Plantation by calling (901) 878-1067.