Editor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.
Nicholas Blackwell was born on Aug. 27, 1838, in Hardeman County, Tenn., son of General Nicholas Blackwell and Sarah Baldwin Blackwell. The family moved to Pontotoc County, Miss., where he spent most of his youth, during which he visited his uncle John Blackwell at Goodwood planation in what is now Bartlett.
Nicholas received his medical degree from Jefferson College in Philadelphia in 1860, before he was 22 years old. In partnership with his brother, Dr. George W. Blackwell, he established a medical practice in New Albany, Miss.
In April 1861, Blackwell enlisted as a private in the New Albany Grays, a Confederate company. He rose to the rank of captain with this company. He was in the battles of Corinth, Franklin, Nashville and Atlanta, where he sustained slight wounds. Returning to Pontotoc after the war, Nicholas Blackwell, though only 27 years old, served as a member of the first Constitutional Convention of the state.
In 1865, Blackwell began practicing medicine in Bartlett and took over handling the estate of his uncle, Col. John Blackwell, which included extensive land holdings in and around Bartlett. The uncle’s role as a leading citizen of the area was also transferred to his nephew.
In 1866 Nicholas married Lucy Virginia Ward, whose family owned a large farm on Stage Road. On Aug. 11, 1868, their daughter, Willie Bugg, was born. The next year, Gabriel Bartlett, Nicholas’s cousin, sold a tract of land to Nicholas and Dr. William Pryor. It had been surveyed and various lots developed, but Nicholas bought out his partner’s interest in Lot 15 for his own homesite. The Blackwells sought out a master craftsman, James S. Oglesby, to build their two-story Gothic Revival home on Lot 15, which was on the corner of Sycamore View Road and Blackwell Street. It had a circular staircase with a mahogany railing and wide, dark polished pine plank floors throughout the house and windows extending all the way to the floor. The Blackwells moved in during January, 1871, and a few days later Virginia died. He never married again but reared their daughter in the home. Soon after Virginia’s death, Amanda Duncan, Blackwell’s niece, moved from Pontotoc to help care for Willie. She lived in the Blackwell home until 1890, when she married and moved to Arkansas.
In 1870 Blackwell donated land for a court square to build a courthouse for the circuit courts of Shelby County, with the stipulation it revert back to him if the courts ceased. The court square was laid out and the courthouse built, but the court square never materialized. It was in the middle of Woodlawn Street, about 0.1 mile west of Court Street. The courts were in Bartlett for 15 years, and in 1885 were abolished by the state legislature. The courthouse reverted back to Black-well, who donated it for a public school, which was called Courthouse School. The building was converted into a school and was attended by children from Bartlett and the surrounding area from 1885 until a new school was built in 1917. Blackwell’s daughter donated seven acres of adjacent land for the new school, named Nicholas Blackwell High School. The old school was torn down in 1919, and years later the site was covered by Woodlawn Street.
Blackwell was a popular man, influential, and a wise counselor in his community. The town of Bartlett was incorporated in 1866 and the first elections were held in May 1867. Gabriel Bartlett was elected mayor, and Nicholas Blackwell one of the aldermen. During the 1870s he served several terms as mayor and again in 1897 through 1905.
A beloved physician, Blackwell’s main calling was practicing medicine. He made house calls on horseback throughout the area at all hours of the day and night. Often he would ride out at night to care for the sick, carrying hot bricks to keep his feet warm.
Many years later, his granddaughter, Louise Miller, related her memories of her grandfather as a physician. He didn’t farm. He was out looking after the sick, she said, adding that, “He was skilled in everything but surgery. Patients who needed hospitalization were sent by train to Memphis. His general practice of medicine meant that he delivered babies and set broken bones.” He practiced medicine for 45 years until his death on Aug. 16, 1910, at the age of 72.
Willie Blackwell married Benjamin R. Miller and they had three children, Nicholas Blackwell Miller, Katherine Miller (Dallan) and Louise Miller. Louise lived in the Blackwell home her entire life, until her death in 1982 at the age of 88.
The home that had been in the Blackwell family for over 100 years was sold and passed through several hands. It had been neglected for many years and was in bad repair. Each successive family that owned it made repairs and improvements and today it is again the beautiful house that Nicholas and Virginia built in 1869.
Special event: Come and talk to Dr. Blackwell, who will be portrayed in the gym at Bartlett High School during the Sesquicentennial History Weekend, April 16-17.
Written by Suzanne Griffith Coleman of the Bartlett Historical Society, special to the Express.