Friday, August 4, 2017

Wildwood Farms--the people, the history, and the future

As the rest of our City "urbanizes," one part, thankfully, is preserving Germantown's rural heritage. Wildwood Farms is one of the newest additions to the National Register of Historic Places.

Nothing defines the Germantown of the past century better than its horse farms. And our quintessential horse farm is Wildwood Farms, located on South Germantown Road near Stout. When I heard about its being added to the Register, I yearned to know more. You see, my introduction to Germantown was through Wildwood Farms, during the early 1980s.  

I was privileged to count Lynn Taylor as a very good friend. Her husband Lee grew up at Wildwood Farms, which was originally purchased by his grandfather. Lee's parents, William and Audrey Taylor, lived in "The Big House." The Taylor family was in the cotton business. Once a week, I drove from east Memphis, turned into the magical farm and followed the winding road around "The Big House", past the swimming pool until I reached two well manicured rubico tennis courts. Within view in one direction was the historic barn, and behind the courts the horse and walking trails ran through the woods. Eight of us played tennis, and afterwards talked in the shade by the court as we sipped lemonade or sweet tea. I thus became familiar with Germantown.  I visited the Germantown Commissary when it was still a country store, experienced Old Germantown when it was much larger than it is today (and still located on a country lane), and drove past the famous horse speed limit signs. Occasionally, I even went to the polo matches at the field just down the street in Memphis (this was long before before 385 was built), or went to a party in the barn or The Big House. If there was a band, it was generally The Settlers (listen to Germantown Blues by the Settlers). 

Sadly, Lynn was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few short years after I first met her. Following her initial treatment, Lynn decided to skip the polo season in Palm Beach. Instead, she went to Oxford, England to study Shakespeare, and, upon her return, she taught English at Germantown HIgh School. She had a passion for her job and she loved inspiring the average student even more than those that were more accomplished. Her interest in innovative teaching methods led to the establishment of The Lynn Warren Taylor Excellence in Teaching Award at GHS, which exists to this day. Unfortunately, she eventually succumbed to her disease. I lost a wonderful friend. 


Melanie and Calypso, with Gold Medal
Later, I was pleased to learn that Lee had remarried-- to Melanie Smith, a member of the Hugh Frank Smith family, well known in the Germantown horse world. By then, Melanie was a world-class rider, having won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles for team show jumping. She remains active in horse circles, and serves as an analyst on NBC for horse show competitions. She authored a book, the favorably reviewed Riding With Life, Lessons from the Horse. From the Mid South Horse Review-- 

Against the backdrop of her life story, Melanie presents a wealth of detailed exercises, instructional photographs, and valuable advice, as well as details about the many horses that have helped shape her approach.Throughout, she encourages us to appreciate and honor the nobility of the horse and forge a true connection with this wonderful animal.   
Melanie and Lee, from her book Riding with Life
Here she answers some questions put to her by The Eclectic Horseman. I was happy to read that Melanie stresses the importance of wearing a helmet.

Audrey Taylor Gonzales, Lee's sister, is another author in the family. She has lived all over the world. When she returned to the Memphis area, for a time she served as a minister at Calvary Episcopal Church downtown. Audrey's Blog gives "musings" from her life. Of particular interest to us is a post that describes her early life in Memphis and Germantown. She was the focus of a piece by David Waters-- Lifelong Journey Leads Woman of Privilege Back to Memphis Priesthood, and the Poor. Here she is talking about her novel South of Everything

Lee Taylor, now deceased, was the "heart and soul" of Wildwood Farms, according to Melanie. "Without Lee, there would be no Wildwood Farms." His devotion to the equestrian way of life was inspirational to everyone in the area. 

In addition to overseeing the operations of the farm, Lee used his considerable business acumen to solidify the family business by diversifing from cotton into other areas--a prime example being the company's acquisition of Holly Farms Chicken (later purchased by Tyson Foods).  

Lee was an outstanding polo player, even competing with Prince Charles in Palm Beach. Because of his commitment to the sport, the Memphis Polo Club games were moved from the Hunt and Polo Club in Memphis to Wildwood Farms. One year, he was called upon to host the U.S. Open of Polo, when the Oak Brook, Illinois location had issues that prevented it from hosting the event. After 385 was built, the Memphis Polo Club games were moved out of town.
One View of Historic Barn


I recently chatted with Melanie, current owner of Wildwood Farms. When I asked the how and why of the listing on The National Register of Historic Places, she said simply, "It needs to have its history preserved. This is a good first step." She stated that in completing the long application process she learned a good deal about the history of Wildwood Farm. It is believed that there was a Civil War encampment located there, as evidenced by the artefacts found at the site with a metal detector. The historic buildings on the property are the marvelous barn, the shop, and the manager's house. (The Big House is gone.) These buildings were designed and built during the Great Depression, in a time frame of just six months. Paul Mueller was the architect who laid out the plans for the farm. His son, Bart, remained in Germantown and started the Longreen Fox Hunt. Bart and the late Sonny Foster were the two people who started the Germantown Charity Horse Show.
The barn from another vantage point

When I asked her if the preservation efforts were limited to the buildings, Melanie answered with a resounding "NO." She said that all 360 acres need to be preserved as a unit. "I am taking measures to ensure that." It is her personal mission to see that the preservation is done correctly. 


We should all be happy that the future of Wildwood Farm is in the hands of Melanie Smith Taylor, a determined woman with an appreciation for the preservation of history. 

More details can be learned about Wildwood Farms from Melanie's book, or from a display at Saddles 'n Such on S. Germantown Road. 

Display at Saddles 'N Such



1 comment:

  1. As someone with family connection to Germantown since 1933, I am so thankful for this decision and the effort and commitment it took, and will continue to require.

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