Katherin Estes Nesbit: Small woman, big friendly heart

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

Katherine Nesbit was a little woman with a big heart. A petite lady, she stood barely 4 feet 10 inches tall, her hair knotted on top of her head as was the style at the turn of the 20th Century. She was always dressed in long-sleeved cotton dresses with either a hat or a net over her hair and her purse tucked under her arm, and she was known for her grace, generosity and individuality. She met everyone with a hug and left everyone with a smile.

Katherine Estes was born in 1893 in Memphis. She attended St. Mary’s Episcopal School, graduating in 1941, and at the time of her death in 1991 she was the oldest living alumna of the school. She met her husband Robert Nesbit when she was 10 and he was 13 years old. They were married in 1920, when she was 27 and he was 30, and they celebrated their 52nd anniversary the year he died.

He made a living raising chickens and as a cotton broker. He was successful at both before asking for her hand in marriage. Mr. Nesbit built their house the year before they married with the help of a black man named Mack. It was a four-room frame structure containing a large living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen with a wood-burning stove. The house was located in what is now known as Stanky Creek to area off-road cyclists. It sat in the woods that encompass the area between Billy Maher and Yale Road within the 350 acres of their farm. There they raised chickens on a working farm. At one time they owned the oldest horse in Shelby County, Miss Kay, who lived to be 40+ years. Mrs. Nesbit fed Miss Kay a loaf of Pepperidge Farm bread every day.

Mr. Nesbit’s hobby was skeet shooting, which Mrs. Nesbit supported. Together they traveled throughout the U.S. for him to compete in skeet shoots, and they graciously entertained skeet shooters in their home. They came to be known as Mr. & Mrs. Skeet Hospitality. The National Skeet Shoot Association struck a metal denoting such to be awarded to them in the 1960s. It was a well-deserved award as no one remained a stranger to them for long. After Robert’s death, the NSSA presented the Nesbit Trophy in his honor at annual tournaments. (It’s possible that Mr. Nesbit was one of the first players in the sport. It began in 1920 and over the next few years was improved and quickly developed into a popular shooting game. )

Mrs. Nesbit was a loving person who “adopted” people and cared for them warmly. Among those she adopted were the Bartlett Police. In a Bartlett Express article in 2006, former Police Chief Hank Johnson said, “She would look after us and we would look after her. There was a long drive that led to the house marked by two giant cedar trees. On either side the grass was always cut, and it was as if you were entering a different time. She would have ice-cold root beer or hot chocolate and sandwiches ready for us.” The police cared for her by checking on her every day, sometimes every shift. Both Johnson and retired Captain Don Robertson said Mrs. Nesbit told them many times that she wanted her land to become a nature park for children.

Mrs. Nesbit’s generosity did not stop with the police department. She also had “Christmas Tree Kids” who were allowed to come to her house during the holidays and cut down a tree.

“Some of her Christmas tree kids have become pretty prominent citizens in Memphis and Tennessee,” said Johnson.

Each summer the Nesbit home place was the site for the Bartlett Police and Fire Departments’ family picnic. The city employees and their families would gather for softball and hay rides. Former BPD Inspector Steve Johnson also recalled Mrs. Nesbit’s knack for making friends, including some famous ones.

“I was assigned to escort Maria Von Trapp when she came to Bartlett for the city’s performance of ‘The Sound of Music.’ She and Miss Katherine hit it off right away. They stayed in touch until Ms. Von Trapp’s death. She even spent one night at the old homestead with Miss Katherine. They were opposites — Ms. Von Trapp was large and forceful, Miss Katherine was small and quiet — but they did have a lot in common.”

Mrs. Nesbit also adopted friends and their children, whom she remembered with keepsake gifts on a number of occasions throughout a year. There were always gifts for her guests. Unassuming and modest, she discouraged compliments and personal recognition, although she was lavish in her praise of others.

In 1986 a city ambulance was dedicated to her. On Aug. 15, 1988, she celebrated her 95th birthday and was honored for her contributions to the city at Bartlett City Hall. Many city employees attended as Mayor Bobby Flaherty gave her a proclamation, setting aside Aug. 15 as Katherine Nesbit Day. After the reception Mrs. Nesbit was given a party by her friends in her home.

She died on Dec. 17, 1991, at the age of 98 at her home. Her obituary states that she was a member of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, active in the Red Cross (where she taught swimming) and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Junior League and the Memphis Gun Club. She is buried in Elmwood Cemetery next to her husband.
In the 1970s Katherine Nesbit sold her property to the Shelby County Conservation Board with the stipulation that it would remain park land. A portion where her home was located was designated as a life estate for her. It was called Bartlett Park. After her death the County took ownership of the property, but nothing was done to it. In 1999 Bartlett and the to the Shelby County Conservation Board began talking about the park becoming a part of Bartlett, and in May 2005 the county deeded the park to the City of Bartlett. Off-road cyclists had been using the land for several years and calling it Stanky Creek because of the stink from a drainage ditch on a part of the trail. The cyclist clubs had been maintaining the trails, but the City of Bartlett has been making improvements and it has officially been named Nesbit Park.

The Nesbits were gentle people who led a simple life in a place they loved surrounded by the beauty of nature. They left a legacy rich in friendship and shared experiences, and with the donation of their land they guaranteed that even surrounded by a city as large as Memphis, a peaceful place will always exist.

Written by Suzanne Griffith Coleman, special to the Express.