Editor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.
For those who do not know, Bartlett began as a stagecoach stop about 1829 on the route from Memphis to Nashville, and it was known as Jessamine. In 1991 the Bartlett Area Chamber of Commerce was asked if they would like an old stagecoach that had sat in front of the Old Stage Restaurant (on Stage Road where Easy Way was) several years previously. Since the stagecoach was the symbol of Bartlett, the Chamber said they would like to have the old coach and set about looking for someone to restore it. The Future Farmers of America, under the leadership of agri-science teacher Tommy Williams at Bartlett High School, had done several community projects, and the Chamber asked Williams if the FFA would be interested in rebuilding it. They agreed and brought the coach back to the school but discovered it was a plywood box on a wagon frame. Two wheels fell off while they were unloading it and the spokes had fallen apart. Williams decided it would be better to start all over.
The FFA students had already completed several successful community projects, including the gazebo in Bledose Park and a portable nine-hole golf course for LeBonheur Children’s Hospital, and they had won the Governor’s Citation as the top community service FFA organization in Tennessee for eight of the past nine years. They saw the stagecoach as a challenge. Williams offered to get blueprints and let students build a new stagecoach as a class project, and the Chamber accepted the offer.
The blueprints for an 1860 Concord stagecoach were obtained from the Smithsonian Institution and Williams visited a California coach maker who quoted a price of about $60,000 to build one. In the 1800s it cost about $1,200 new, and Williams and his students completed the project for under $10,000. The FFA group donated about $2,000 of that amount. The Chamber approached Brother Industries U.S.A. Inc. with a proposal to have a landmark for the city of Bartlett with a project that would bring together business, education and history to create a working symbol of the past, and Brother Industries contributed an $8,000 grant for the remainder.
The stagecoach was built completely by 127 FFA students in 1992-93, except for the wheels, which were constructed by a Pennsylvania Amish company on their old-time customized machinery. Red oak, black iron, 100 percent leather and tapestry were used in construction—there was not a piece of artificial material used. The coach is suspended by braces made of 14 layers of quarter-inch leather, and the undercarriage is constructed of No. 1 red oak. Williams estimated that 15,000 hours were put into the project and made sure all of his students did some part to help. The students were extremely proud of their accomplishment.
Bobby Lowery, a Bartlett resident, also helped with construction. His son graduated the previous year, and he wanted to continue to be a part of the project.
The official presentation of the Bartlett stagecoach was on May 14, 1993, at the Brother Industries facility on Brother Boulevard. Officials from Shelby County Schools and the City of Bartlett praised Williams and his students for a job well done.
“I think it’s a fantastic project,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent James Anderson said. “It will be a tremendous asset to the school and the community.”
Bartlett Mayor Bobby Flaherty said, “It’s hard to believe that you can do that at a high school workshop. It took a lot of hard work and a great advisor for that to be done.”
The stagecoach was harnessed to a team of horses and after the program participants and guests were given rides in it.
“The new stagecoach is wonderful,” said Elva Bledsoe, president of the Bartlett Historical Society. “It’s one more step forward in preserving this town’s unique heritage for future generations and one more indication of the dedicated support I have grown to expect from Bartlett’s people.”
In 1994 the Bartlett stagecoach was selected as a winner of the 1994 Economic and Cultural Honors Award for community development. The ECHO awards are presented to recognize and applaud outstanding community achievements, and Bartlett’s stagecoach project was selected along with 10 projects from eastern Arkansas, northern Mississippi and western Tennessee to receive this regional award, according to Mid-South Common Market Executive Vice President Louis Polatty.
“The stagecoach entry from Bartlett really stood out among the 18 finalists we had for the award this year,” Polatty said in 1994.
The ECHO awards judges stated in their evaluation that few of the projects this year were as well-focused as the stagecoach as a means of promoting community spirit.
The Bartlett stagecoach continues to symbolize Bartlett’s heritage and serves as a historic remembrance of Bartlett’s pioneer days. It is put on display for special events. This outstanding achievement was the result of a bonding of history, education and business in a great common cause.
Written by Suzanne Griffith Coleman, special to the Express.