Nashville History Lesson On Prominent East Nashvillian John Shelby

Dated: 05/29/2018

Views: 780

by TJ Anderson

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Edgefield in East Nashville, 1877, Library of Congress

When I take potential Nashville homebuyers around East Nashville, one of the names they see pop up repeatedly: Shelby.

There’s Shelby Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s main east-to-west arteries. There’s Shelby Park, a 360-acre-plus green space with playgrounds, a golf course, a dog park, a placid lake and lots of space for picnicking and playing. There was the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, now known as the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, which carries feet over the Cumberland to/from the East Side to downtown.

And every now and again, while we’re looking at East Nashville homes for sale, someone new to Nashville wonders aloud who the Shelby that gave those spots their name might be.

Like all pieces of early Nashville history, it’s a pretty interesting story.

Dr. John Shelby, an East Nashville icon from Sumner County

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Portrait of Dr. John Shelby, ca. 1840, from the Metro Davidson County Collection - Nashville Public Library

Although the Shelby name is pretty well tied to East Nashville these days, the Shelby family didn’t start their Middle Tennessee lives there. Dr. John Shelby, he of the park and the street and the rest, was born in Sumner County in 1785, and he started his adult life there in Gallatin, too, finishing medical school and starting a family in what’s now the Sumner County seat.

He left for war in 1813, serving as a military surgeon under future president Andrew Jackson, and returning, minus the function of one of his eyes, to serve as a Sumner County state senator from 1815 to 1817. It wasn’t until then, in his 30s, that Shelby became an official Nashvillian, buying land here in town and moving with his family.

Technically, it was John Shelby’s father, David, who cemented the family’s massive East Nashville connection — the elder Shelby originally purchased 640 acres of East Nashville land, bordered by the Cumberland River, Main Street and around 8th and 9th Streets, in 1788. He gifted the property to his sons, John and Anthony, for Christmas in 1818, and John sprung for his brother’s half for a cool $2500, enough to buy you about 320 centimeters of East Nashville real estate 200 years later.

Shelby went on to be one of the more prominent medical professionals in Nashville, and a supporter and namesake of a medical school that opened in the city in 1858, Shelby Medical College. He was the city’s onetime postmaster, and held a passion for agriculture, serving as the Tennessee Agricultural Society’s president through the mid-1840s.

Through the years, as you might assume, Shelby did pretty well for himself, amassing a fortune that his family benefited from on the real estate front. Among his sadly now-gone contributions to the impressive housing stock of East Nashville: two stately mansions for his daughters — “Fatherland,” for Priscilla, and “Boscobel,” for elder daughter Anna, both now names of streets there — and his own mansion, “Shelby Hall.”

The doctor died there in East Nashville, in the Edgefield neighborhood, in 1859, at the age of 74.

Shelby Park on non-Shelby land

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Interesting Shelby side note: The land that Shelby Park encompasses now wasn’t actually the Shelby family’s. John Shelby’s acreage covered much of Edgefield, a little bit west of there; an early Nashvillian named Marie Crutcher owned the land then called the “Woodlands,” and sold it to the Edgefield Land Company in 1890, who went on to build subdivisions there and set aside part of the property for a park.

Shelby Park opened in 1892, though it had its ups and downs in popularity, and the park land didn’t pass from private to public hands until 1909, with its official opening as a public space in 1912.

Also worth noting: Tennessee’s Shelby County is named for a different Shelby, Governor Isaac Shelby of Kentucky. But clearly Dr. John Shelby still has plenty of enduring Nashville property bearing his name.

Any other Nashville names you’ve been wondering about? Nashville history fascinates me, so let me know, and I’ll dig in.

If you’re looking for a new home near Dr. John Shelby’s former home base — or elsewhere in the Nashville area — I’d love to help there too. Call or email TJ Anderson Homes here, and tell me about your wish list.

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TJ Anderson

TJ Anderson is a Nashville Realtor with Benchmark Realty who's helped countless clients both buy a home and sell a home in Nashville, Tennessee. He blogs about Nashville regularly, from Nashville-area....

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