Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The History of Rotherwood: A Master-Slave Mentality


Most people do not know that the stately Rotherwood Mansion, was once one of the largest slave plantations in East Tennessee.

The name "Rotherwood," remembers Jill Ellis, "immediately evokes images. One could easily imagine, romance." Rightly so, she says, because so many stories surrounding the "aura" associated with the name, are indeed rooted in romance, grandeur, intrigue, mystery, horror, and ghostly feelings, that still exist within the walls of the mansion.


Mrs. Ellis' ancestry dates back to the Zion Hill plantation between Surgoinsville and Rogersville, Tennessee. Her family later settled into what is now Rotherwood Heights, north of the original plantation.

"I grew up on the 2,500 or more acre Rotherwood land," she remembers. "My mother, Inez Looney was the cook, and my father James Looney was the chauffeur, the butler, and the mansion maitre 'd.

But let's go back MANY years before that, with information that has been passed down for generations.

Mrs. Ellis writes, "back in the late 18th century, 21-year-old Reverend Frederick A. Ross and his family inherited a vast acreage of land along the North and South Forks of the Holston River, from Bays Mountain on up almost to Virginia. Ross came into the area with his slaves and carriages and enormous wealth. Although he had many white indentured slaves, many of the black slaves he owned lived on plantation grounds at the present-day Rotherwood Heights.

So where did the name "Rotherwood" originate?

Mrs. Ellis says her research shows the name came from an old castle of Welsh-Celtic origin, and Ross was determined to have a home of magnitude and beauty. High on a hill, facing the river, the home he built even had a garden and pool on the roof. Slaves carried water up to the roof, to keep the pool filled. Columns, curved driveways, flowers, exotic florals with hanging gardens made Rotherwood the showplace and entertainment center of the region.

"Young Ross married Theodosia Vance of Washington County," she writes, "and they had about 12 children. But the showplace burned, and had to be rebuilt."

From the John Norris Brown website, writes "Ross was a kindly man, who had a very beautiful daughter named Rowena. She was well-liked by everyone in Rossville, which later down the line becames King's Port. She had been educated in the finest northern schools, and as a result she had many young men interested in marrying her. She did indeed fall in love with one young man, and were planning to marry. But he died tragically, when his boat capsized in the Holston River in front of Rotherwood Mansion, in clear sight of Rowena. She was very much affected by this, and became reclusive."

After two years, writes Mr. Brown on his website, she began to socialize again, and eventually announced her engagement to a rich young man from Knoxville. But tragedy struck again when he died of yellow fever. Once again, Rowena went into a deep depression. A decade later, she married and this time, had a daughter. When the daughter was six years old, Rowena committed suicide by walking out into the river, after she thought she heard her first love calling to her. Today, it is said that her ghost still walks the banks of the Holston River, wearing her wedding dress, searching for her first love. Some have even said the ghost of her first suitor also haunts the mansion.


"Later on, Frederick Ross lost a lot of money," says Mrs. Ellis, "through business losses and investments failures, and prior to the Civil War, he sold the plantation and its slaves to Joshua Phipps, his overseer who had always held a cruel hand over the slaves. Knowing that, Ross freed many of the slaves, who then moved further into Hawkins County, settling at Zion Hill, New Canton, and Rogersville. Among the ones who settled at Rogersville and took the name of their former slave owner, were the ancestors of future singer-actress Diana Ross.

Phipps was a truly evil man, a slave driver, and there are many stories about almost nobody liking him during his lifetime. "The basement in the Rotherwood Mansion had slave cells," writes Mrs. Ellis. "One large room was windowless with dirt floors, dirt walls and only one opening. This room was for housing 'field slaves,' grouped together at night. The front entrance was a narrow section with a seat hewed out from the dirt wall. Iron bars were set into the opening far window, with no glass."

Mrs. Ellis remembers seeing reminders of Rotherwood's slave past as a little girl, after her parents were hired by the Kingsport Improvement Company to maintain the mansion and grounds.

"As a child," she writes, "I had to go into this area almost every day because the food Mother canned was stored in the basement, and the laundry facility was also in this area. The stench was embedded in the ground--the darkness and dampness was sometimes overpowering. One could imagine hearing the moaning, the wailing, the crying of slaves.. their misery and despair. If a slave was maimed, he was shot like an animal because he was of no more use. In the front room of the 3rd floor facing the river, was the whipping post. Slaves were shackled to the post to be whipped. The blood stains are still embedded into the wood floors of that room. Days of heavy moisture, the blood stains appear!"

In fact, people in Kingsport always spoke of Phipps with dread. Phipps was most notorious for his treatment of his slaves.

Phipps was not along in his rantings. Supposedly, he also had a mistress, who, believe it or not, was a former slave. It was said, she was even more evil than he, if that were possible.


The cruelness of Joshua Phipps was also recounted by "Aunt Vic Phipps," a black woman owned as a slave by Phipps, whose account of him was told to Edward Stewart in an article published in the Kingsport Times-News in October of 1975 (Aunt Vic was also an early ancestor of the Price Family, who settled in New Canton). In the article, Stewart said "Aunt Vic was a slave at Rotherwood before the Civil War, and told me about hiding in the reeds and culverts when the slave traders would come through, so she wouldn't be sold. Aunt Vic described Richard Netherland as a workmaster for Joshua Phipps, who made the slaves work harder. She said that both Netherland and Phipps were cruel and beat the slaves all the time." But what impressed Stewart the most, was how "Aunt Vic" described how Phipps wanted to be buried. "She said Phipps often expressed a wish to be buried standing up on the hill at Rotherwood, so he could look down into the bottoms and see the slaves working."

"During the Civil War," says Mrs. Ellis, "Phipps established his own kind of cruelty to his own family. His daughter Pricilla waited faithfully for her young lover to return from the war. Her father disapproved of the young farmhand, and had him killed in action! She died from grief at the age of 20, and her ghost is said to still sit at the front window of the mansion."

The Civil War's Battle of Rotherwood lasted about a day, according to Mrs. Ellis. The mansion had escape routes built in during the war, and the dining room fireplace had a secret trap door that opened into a tunnel that led to the river. A person with the enemy on his tail could escape in a boat down the river.

As mean as Joshua Phipps was, fate had a way of dealing its OWN cruel hand. In July of 1861, Phipps became very sick and had to be fanned on his sickbed by a young slave. There, his sickbed became his deathbed. According to legend, as he lay in bed, a swarm of flies gathered and eventually filled his mouth and nostrils. Unable to breathe, Phipps suffocated.

As if his death were not dramatic enough, his funeral turned out to be even more horrifying. A huge crowd turned out for the funeralization, quickly turning it into more of an event than a funeral. As the hearse carrying his body was being pulled by horses up a hill towards the cemetery, it became too heavy for them to budge it. At the same time, the sky began to darken, as if a storm was brewing. It took many more horses to finally move the casket, and as it slowly made its way up the hill, the sky got darker and darker. All of a sudden, a large dog emerged from the coffin and ran down the hill! The onlookers were terrified. Suddenly, a cloud burst and rain poured down on them. The casket was quickly buried, and everybody ran home.

Today, the black dog, also known as the "Hound of Hell" is said to roam the area around the Rotherwood Mansion. On dark and stormy nights, its low, mournful howl can be heard through the area. Meanwhile, two ghosts are said to haunt the Rotherwood Mansion and its grounds. One is that of Joshua Phipps, who is said to remove covers from sleeping people inside, and laughing his evil, sadistic laugh. The other is the ghost of his evil mistress, who legend says, was killed by the slaves who rose up against her, after becoming sick of tortures inflicted by one of their own. To avoid punishment (and possible mutilation of her remains), she is said to be buried in an unmarked grave, somewhere on the grounds of Rotherwood Mansion.

It's said that most people who have heard the legend of Joshua Phipps have always tended to avoid Rotherwood Mansion after dark. Seeing the ghost of Rowena Ross would be un-nerving, but a chance encounter with the spirits of Phipps, his mistress and the "Hound of Hell" would be too much to bear.

The Rotherwood Mansion sat empty for many years after those harrowing experiences, and its checkered slave past. But then, the railroad came to King's Port (the name later shortened to "Kingsport"), and again, Rotherwood played an important role in the development of the town. Mrs. Ellis writes, "Rotherwood was operated like a "surfdom" when land was purchased by Kingsport for (New York banker and railroad backer) John B. Dennis. An enormous farm was established there, with prize Jersey milk counts, prize bulls, riding stables, a village (Whitesburg) for all farm hands, including an elementary school, church, etc, and of course, the main house servants.

Decisions concerning the building of "Kingsport--The Model City" were made during dinner or lunch meetings. Entertaining notables such as George Eastman, railroad executive J. Fred Johnson and other city notables was all done at Rotherwood Mansion.

Rotherwood was bought by the U.S. government in 1940, Mrs. Ellis remembers. "Mr. Dennis and his wife, my mother Inez (my father had passed away in 1937), moved to Asheville, North Carolina."

Colonel Ryan and his family moved into the Rotherwood Mansion. The 2,500 acre farm was still occupied by the government until the end of World War II.

Mrs. Ellis says Rotherwood was for sale, bought, occupied, for sale again, abandoned, and finally sold during the mid or late 80's, to a young doctor who had found her dream home. "She completely renovated the mansion, reconstructed especially the slave quarters in the basement, the 2nd floor bedrooms and the foyer entrance, and she did hire an artist to paint a mural on the walls in the hallway, depicting the History of Rotherwood. The mural extends up the stairway to the foyer on the 2nd floor. I had to give up photographs of me as a child at Rotherwood to be included as part of the living history of the Rotherwood Mansion."

When the Learning Channel did a television story on Rotherwood called "Ghostly Waters" filmed on location, Mrs. Ellis narrated the first part of the story line. She writes, "Rotherwood Mansion still stands majestic with ghosts who are apparently friendly with the present owner, but holding on to many of its secrets that are still untold."

But lest you think, slaves haunt the grounds of the Rotherwood Plantation itself from the accounts of Mrs. Ellis and research from John Norris Brown, consider the nearby Sensabaugh Tunnel under the CSX Railroad, just up Big Elm Road from the Mansion.

It's said to be JUST AS HAUNTED.

The following information has been documented by the Haunt Masters Club, a paranormal research and investigation group working in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

Dr. Nancy Hamblen Acuff explains that the original natural tunnel was cut by Sensabaugh Branch and was widened to make a 348' long tunnel that was never intended for driving. An episode of Haunted South TV explains that 16 men died when the Clinchfield Railroad was widening the tunnel (for overhead passage) in the 1920s.

Long ago, slaves from Hawkins County would hide in the natural tunnel and wait for a ferryman to come down the Holston River and signal it was clear to come aboard by waving a lantern.

One slave and mistress to a Hawkins County man escaped with their three children and was waiting in the tunnel when the slaveholder found them. He smashed one baby against the wall, killing it, then shot the two other children and his mistress.

The youngest baby is allegedly the mournful crier of this tunnel.