Elva Bledsoe persisted in protecting city’s history


Editor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.

Elva Bledsoe had a passion, and that passion was to preserve the history of Bartlett. She did not grow up here; she came to the city when she married Robert Bledsoe in 1931 at the age of 18 and lived the rest of her life here in the same house.

Born on June 22, 1913, in Tupelo, Miss., Elva Talbert had three brothers and two sisters. They lived in Tupelo until she was eight years old and the family moved to Memphis. She attended Idlewild Grammar School and graduated from Humes High School in 1928.

bledsoe-sketch-w-042816A friend invited her to Bartlett to visit relatives. There she met Robert Bledsoe and married him in 1931. They bought a house just down Court Street from his parents.

They had four children: Barbara Bledsoe Polk, Peggy Bledsoe Morgan, Robert Jr. and Judy Bledsoe Melton. Robert passed away in July 1985, and Peggy died of cancer in July 1986. Elva became involved in the community, working in the school, at her church and on civic affairs.

In 1951 she went to work for the U.S. government at Mallory Depot. She worked until June 1978 and was recognized for outstanding service.

Elva watched as Bartlett began growing rapidly in the 1970S with new homes going up and the fine old ones coming down. From an article in The Bartlett Express in March 2000, she said, “In 1979 I heard they had bought the old Gotten House and grounds and planned to put a police station there. I went up to City Hall and said, ‘Oscar (Mayor Oscar Yates at the time), you can’t keep tearing these old houses down. We’ve got to have some old places to remember what Bartlett used to be like.”

Yates said they needed a police station. He asked her if she would serve on the Shelby County Historical Commission. She agreed, but if Yates thought he would divert her attention from Bartlett, he was wrong.

When Bledsoe attended the Shelby County Historical Commission, Dr. Charles Crawford was the chairman and all the talk centered on preservation.

“I took courage from that,” said Ms. Bledsoe, “and I stood up for houses.” When Elva set her mind to something it was usually accomplished.

In 1982 Elva and a group of friends felt there was enough interest to form a historical society. They met with Mayor Yates, and he agreed that this group should move forward. The Bartlett Historical Society was officially formed, chartered and incorporated.

Elva Bledsoe was elected president and served until 1998, when she stepped down because of health reasons. She was given the title of founder and president emeritus.

Also in 1982 the Bartlett Police Department moved into new quarters in City Hall, and the city planned to tear down the Gotten House and put a park there. Elva and other members of the Historical Society went to a meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and asked that the house be preserved and leased to the Historical Society to renovate and create a museum.

The Board agreed and gave them a lease for 50 years for one dollar a year. The Society would take care of the inside of the house, and the City of Bartlett would take care of the outside.

The fundraising began in order to renovate the Gotten House/Bartlett Museum. Members held ice cream socials, bake sales and rummages. It took eight years to raise the money and do the renovations.

Jeanette and Jay Rainey, Sandra Neyman, Jack Coleman and Vernon Bowen did an enormous amount of work renovating the interior of the house. Other members of the Society helped when they could. Members of the Bartlett High School Future Farmers of America made and installed the picket fence that surrounds the house.

Though Elva was not physically able to do the redecorating, she was on the telephone daily, making contacts for the society. She set up the filing system and made copies of documents, pictures and other memorabilia. A time capsule was assembled in 1986 to be opened in 2036.

When renovations were completed there was very little furniture, and Elva did what she always did in a crisis – she prayed. Her prayers were answered when the Durham Retire-ment Home called and said it was closing and they would like to donate some furniture. The parlor is now the Durham Room in recognition of several of those donated pieces.

Several other pieces were provided by members of the society and others. The Gotten family offered a beautiful old bed and dresser that were originally in the house and had been handed down in their family.

A dedication ceremony for the Gotten House/ Bartlett Museum was held in 1991 with Dr. Charles Crawford, chairman of the Historical Department at then Memphis State University, performing the dedication.

In June 1990, to acknowledge the work of the Bartlett Historical Society’s founder, the City of Bartlett, Mayor Bobby Flaherty and the Board of Aldermen officially named the park at the corner of Stage and Bartlett Road as the Elva T. Bledsoe Historic Park. She was so honored, as was as her entire family.

During the 1990s the society grew in number and expanded into the community, sharing information on Bartlett’s history. Jonathan K.T. Smith, a former vice principal in Bartlett schools and a historian, did extensive research on Bartlett and the people who founded it. He and Elva collaborated on verifying many historical documents, letters and other information significant to Bartlett.

Robert Dye was extremely helpful in the donation of many pictures of the city.

On March 20, 2002, the Bartlett Historical Society celebrated a proud moment when the Gotten House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jeanette Rainey made it her personal mission to see that this was accomplished.

Though Elva was no longer president, she supported Jeanette in this endeavor and helped her whenever she could.

Though Elva was the guiding force of the society there were many members who worked alongside her, as well as the city’s mayors and aldermen.

Her family supported her and felt that these were some of the best years of her life.

She was “Mammy” to her family and neighbors, and she said her children lived “within smelling distance” because somehow they knew when she was cooking something really good and they all showed up to enjoyed a meal and family fellowship.

In her children’s adult lives, especially in her later years, her children each had jobs to fill: Barbara was CEO and CFO; Judy was social chairman; Babs (Bob’s wife) made breakfast and afternoon coffee; and Bob was her next-door Mr. Fixit and yard man, and she always had a “Honey-Do” list for him. Grandchildren also helped Mammy.

Elva Bledsoe passed away on Feb. 17, 2003.

The Bledsoes are still in Bartlett, and grandchildren and greatgrands are a part of the community. One of Elva’s grandsons lives in her house.

Elva Bledsoe left a very large legacy in the history of Bartlett as she worked to preserve that history throughout her life.

In June 2013 her family came to the Bartlett Historical Society meeting and shared their mother’s history and some remarks that people may have heard or read about their mother: You never wondered what she was thinking … she would tell you up front. Some folks thought she was strong willed … she was. She was definitely not a Southern belle, but rather a “Steel Magnolia.” She stood up for what she believed was right, and you would not walk over her.

George McCrary was quoted in The Bartlett Express, “She was a lady in the grandest sense of the word. She was relentless and a little impatient, but that made her all the more memorable.”

Mayor Flaherty said in 1998, “I appreciate her support for the years that I have been in office, but I have also appreciated her honesty and courage to speak up when she disapproved of a course the city was taking. She is a gracious lady, and I feel fortunate to have her as a friend.”

Mayor Ken Fulmar said in 1998, “She is a brilliant Bartlett encyclopedia with an unbelievable memory. Elva has dedicated her life after retirement to the history of Bartlett. She loves this city, and Bartlett would not be the same without her.”

Written by Suzanne Griffith Coleman, special to the Express.