Almost 100 years ago, Williamson County was totally different.
From the end of the Civil War to World War II, Franklin continued unchanged as a small town and rural seat of a heavily agricultural county.
In 1938, a doctoral student at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville decided to write her thesis on Franklin- its people, its past, its present and its future.
Her name was Julia Hodgson, and her report provides a rare picture of what living in Williamson County looked and felt like nearly 100 years ago.
Here are various excerpts from her paper, which detail the residential, economic and everyday life of the City of Franklin and the surrounding county just before World War II. She also predicted what the future might look like.
“By comparing the maps of 1878 and 1938, one can see that the total area of the city is almost the same,” she began. “The streets are the same but widened.”
Life in Franklin, Hodgson wrote, centered around the public square. The courthouse and town hall sat there, along with many stores. Mills and livestock pens abutted it. It was the center of life and a cross section for those who lived in both the town and out in the rural county. It was where, since 84 percent of the county was farmland, farmers brought their harvest or livestock to be sold and processed.
“Around the public square and southeast on Main Street the principle retail and commercial development has taken place,” Hodgson wrote. “Here is the typical small town business section. Dozens of cars are parked each day at the curb in front of the stores around the square. Only enough passage way is left for easy driving.”
She wrote that surrounding the town was gardens, cultivated fields and pasturage. Beyond those were rounded, wooded hills.
Of the actual City of Franklin, which as of the 1930 U.S. Census was home to 3,337 people, almost overwhelmingly the town’s land was residential.
Commercial, Retail and Industry
“The land devoted to all types of commercial enterprise is very small compared to the whole,” Hodgson wrote.
What retail there was in Franklin was clustered around the square and the four main streets leading away from it.
“They are mostly two and three story buildings, with the upper floors used for storage or living,” Hodgson wrote of the stores along Main Street.
“A smaller center of commercial activity is located along Columbia Avenue and Ninth Street and continuing out Natchez Trace Road.”
The second commercial hub she refered to as the “Negro section.”
“This is called Baptist Neck, and Negro stores and businesses are crowding close to Columbia Avenue at this point,” Hodgson wrote. “Within the first block there are a Negro doctor’s office, a funeral parlor, a grocery, a cafe and a number or dwellings.”
The types of stores included what we have come to expect from movies of a parochial, Depression-era small town.
“Drug stores and soda fountains, five and 10 cent stores, furniture, hardware, jewelry are all represented by one or two establishments of each type, making up the rest of the retail core,” she wrote of Franklin. “There are a profusion of filling stations for a town of Franklin’s size, with the main highway passing down Main Street.”
Industry mostly grew out of the agricultural engine that drove the county economy.
“There are several industrial plants, all of which, practically exist in response to the agriculture activities in the county,” Hodgson wrote. “Several produce houses handling milk, cream eggs, chickens and turkeys, along with two livestock stables, are located within a block or two of the square.”
There was also, outside of what was Franklin then, Dortch Stove Works, which today is the site of the Factory at Franklin. Other industrial plants included the O’Bryan Brothers manufacturing plant for Duck Head overalls and work clothes, the Franklin Ice Company, two newspaper publishing companies, Beasley Lumber Company, S.F. Farnsworth and Company, and a building supply company. There was also the Franklin Limestone Company, working a large quarry about 2 1/2 miles from Franklin on Carter’s Creek Pike.
One of the most important companies was Lillie Mills, a large flour mill established in 1869 and the only Franklin mill that processed flour. D.E. Casey Seed and Grain Company handled wheat, corn and oats.
The silo for the mill’s grain still stands today off of First Avenue south.
Transportation and Roads
The main highways in Franklin radiated out from the square.
“Of the highways, only U.S. Highway 31 – the most used one – may be considered an excellent one,” Hodgson wrote. “It is hard surfaced and has good shoulders. Others are surfaced, though not as wide. The growing use of trucks and buses together with the privately owned passenger automobiles has caused highways to play an increasingly important role in transportation. The most important bus routes use U.S. 31, which passes through the heart of the commercial core.”
Another important highway, Hodgson wrote, was Hillsboro Pike, the old route. For a few miles outside of Franklin it had been graded and widened, but was not especially wide.
People and Government
“It is interesting to notice the almost total lack of foreign-born people in the population of Franklin,” Hodgson wrote. “With no races being represented except the white and the Negro, a typical interior southern town situation.”
She noted the government had always been aldermanic, and went on to list services provided.
Franklin had entered the age of electricity, but its advent and use was not yet an assumption.
“Not only is electricity used for light, but it has replaced coal and kerosene fuel for cooking purposes to a great extent in the better class homes,” Hodgson wrote. “The electricity rate is very low if power is used for the ice box, water heater and lights at the same time.”
She noted the “wrought iron” electric street lights at each corner on the square and “less conspicuous” electric bulbs serving the rest of the town.
“There is no gas plant, so many other homes depend on kerosene, coal and wood for cooking and heating purposes,” she wrote.
The Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company provided telephone services for the entire county, with more than 1,100 subscribers as of May 25, 1938.
The fire department included a fire chief, an assistant chief and an engineer. There were 20 volunteers who answered the siren call, and one fire engine with a ladder and hose.
Each morning, a man with brushes and a cart cleaned the main business streets. The town owned a sprinkler, but when necessary the streets were washed with the fire hose.
The Franklin Police Department consisted of three officers, one for the day and two for night, except on Saturday, when an extra officer patrolled.
“The day policeman also directs traffic at the busy intersection near the elementary school in the afternoon,” Hodgson wrote.
Where People Lived
“A small area of high population density, relatively speaking, centers on the square and begins to spread out in many directions of Five Points, to merge gradually into the open country, where many prosperous farm-home units are to be founded,” Hodgson wrote.
She wrote that the richest residential sections were east, south and west of the square. She also discussed the much poorer African American sections to the east.
“Many of them in the eastern part of the town are in a tragic state of dilapidation,” Hodson wrote. “The wonder is that many of them remain standing at all. Practically all are in need of paint or white-wash. However, characteristic of Negro sections, there are flowers in profusion in season, and many, many gardens that crowd up close the the houses. One of the most amazing conditions is the number of able-bodied Negro men and women seen in the Negro districts who are apparently unemployed. After some inquiries it was found that this demoralized labor situation was a result of WPA and similar governmental projects.”
At the time in 1938, only two apartment houses existed, with a third converted home with four apartments.
Dotted outside of town, usually around a grocery, small residential neighborhoods would pop up, but by and large farms filled everything outside the small “downtown” area of Franklin.
Except for these, Hodgson wrote, there was no urban development around Franklin.
“An occasional country grocery store or filling station may be found, but nowhere is there an agglomeration even suggesting the concept ‘suburb,'” she wrote.
With 586 square miles, or 374,040 acres, in the county, 313,480 acres, or 84 percent, was farms. There were 3,658 farms, the average size being 87.9 acres. In 1929 there were 2,611 white farm operators and 394 African American operators.
In 1920, 667 farmers had telephones. By 1930 this had increased to 731.
The Williamson County Health Center was located in a large brick building in the back of the county courthouse.
“Thus far this year (1938), there have been no deaths from typhoid fever,” Hodgson wrote. “There have only been two deaths from this source in the past seven years, which is a record for a Southern county.”
Franklin’s telephone directly listed among its subscribers 25 doctors, 10 attorneys, eight preachers and several dentists.
Identity, Work and Living
“Franklin does not want to be a suburb of Nashville but wishes to retain its own individuality as the trade center of a rich farming community,” she wrote. “Many people who live in Franklin go to Nashville each day by bus, private cars and the interurban to business offices and other jobs in Nashville. Fewer people, doubtless, go in the opposite direction.”
“Franklin is a most completely occupied town,” Hodgson wrote. “Not only is it rather compactly built-up, but the houses are filled with families. Throughout the town, there are not more than a dozen homes advertised for rent or for sale, and very few business locations.”
Hodgson wrote a prediction that Franklin would probably someday extend its city limits to include the small dots of “modern” housing being built outside its radius.
She wrote that no new schools had been built since Franklin High School in 1926, and that a new “white elementary school” was needed.