Upland Chronicles: Sevier’s Murphy-Swan House has rich history

Nov. 09, 2013 @ 11:37 PM

Located off Old Knoxville Highway on top of a hill with a view of the Little Pigeon River valley and the Smoky Mountains, the Murphy-Swan House was built for William Campbell Murphy, a Sevierville merchant, in 1883. The two-story structure is an example of an extremely rare tripartite-style dwelling built in the Victorian era.

The frame house is supported by a solid brick foundation and features one-story porches on the front and rear facades of the north wing and on the front façade of the south wing. Five entrances to the house are located on these porches, which are supported by simple, square columns.

The weather-boarded exterior exhibits modest ornamentation with window and door crowns supported by small hand-carved brackets; corner pilasters with molded capitols; a wide frieze band; deep gable returns; two-over-two wood sash windows; and original shutters.

The most decorative exterior elements are the half-circular shaped pediment vents, which exhibit sawn-work detailing, and a central chimney stack with patterned brickwork. Four unique mantels display tapered pilasters and artisan Lewis Buckner’s signature flower motif gouge work. Lewis Buckner was an acclaimed African-American cabinetmaker and house carpenter in Sevier County during late 19th century and early 20th century.

William C. Murphy was one of the founders of Murphy College, which was named in honor of him and his father. He received the land on which the house was constructed, a part of the old Cannon Farm, from his father Col. James Crawford Murphy. He built the home for himself, his wife, Lucy Rawlings Murphy, and their children: Frank, Willie, Anna (Bryan), and Hattie (Wade).

When Murphy moved his family to the farm to live, there was no church nearby. There was a schoolhouse, Low Gap, where public school was conducted for elementary grades and Sunday school was held regularly in the same building.

Realizing a need for a building designated as a place of worship, Murphy purchased the lumber from the old Sevierville Methodist Church South, which was being demolished to make way for a larger building for the Southern Methodist congregation. He bought the old building and had it torn down and rebuilt on a hilltop near his home. The church was built by James H. Thomas, who was paid one dollar a day

Murphy specified that the church was to be named Luretta, to honor his two wives; Loretta McBath Murphy, called Retta, and Lucy Rawlings Murphy, who was often called Aunt Lou. The church was built under the jurisdiction of the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. However many in the community who attended identified themselves as Baptists.

William C. Murphy died in 1901 at age 70 and his wife Lucy died in 1914 at age 72. Their son Frank Murphy and his wife Lou Catlett Murphy then lived there where they raised their children, Harold and Lucy.

When the Knoxville, Sevierville and Eastern Railroad Company was established in 1908, Revilo Construction Company laid tracks from Vestal (in south Knoxville) to Sevierville. The path of the tracks cut through the farm. Ewing Station was about one mile south of the farm and Revilo Station was located about one mile southwest.

A swinging bridge was built over the Little Pigeon River connecting Catlettsburg (commonly called Cobtown) with the farm. Residents of Catlettsburg crossed the pedestrian bridge and walked through the Murphy farm to board the train.

During the years of the Great Depression years, financial difficulties forced Frank Murphy to relinquish the property.

Charles Karns Swan and his wife, Margaret Henry Swan purchased the house and a large portion of the acreage in 1933. They were owners of Swan’s Bread Bakery, located on Magnolia Avenue, Knoxville.

The Swan family, which included four children — Charles Karns Jr., John Henry, Elizabeth (Heim), and Margaret (Webb — lived on the farm in the summer and returned to their home on White Avenue in the Fort Sanders Neighborhood to live during the winter months. They relied on several hired hands to manage the day-to-day operation of the big farm that included a sizable dairy and a stable of fine horses.

Charles Swan was an invalid for several years but the family continued to return to the farm every summer; accompanied by a nurse to care for him. Margaret Swan was an accomplished equestrian and therefore enjoyed living near the riding stables. The fiery red-headed widow was known for her outspoken temperament.

Through her friendship with the Motlow family who owned Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Margaret managed to obtain a luxury box at the Kentucky Derby which she and her family used for many years. Ironically, she died as a result of an accident in which she was involved while horseback riding.

The heirs of Mrs. Swan sold the property to Frank D. McCroskey and Jack Miller in 1973. Miller sent the antique carriage that was part of the estate to Pennsylvania where a talented group of Amish craftsmen restored it and he prominently displayed the carriage in front of his restaurant, the Open Hearth in Gatlinburg.

Miller and McCroskey sold the place to a couple of brothers named Martin from Blount County. The Martin brothers held on the property for about seven years before putting it up for sale.

In 1983, the farmstead was bought by Ted Miller, president and partner of Dolly Parton Productions, and his wife, Linda “Chigger” Miller. They set about refurnishing and remodeling while maintaining the historic integrity of the house. The Millers lived there until 2005 and the house has been vacant since that time.

John and Shari Coleman recently acquired the property and plan to create a venue for weddings, receptions and corporate events. They will offer horse-drawn carriage rides, reminiscent of the days when the Swan family resided there, along with a variety of unique amenities. They plan to call the place Swann Plantation

Interestingly, the Swan family who once owned the property spelled their name Swan. However, in recent years the owners who followed them have spelled the name Swann. The Colemans plan to continue to use the Swann spelling.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com