A Tennessee Historic Site
The original Taylor House located near Milligan College is a historic landmark that dates back to the late 1700s. Two prominent families in Northeast Tennessee history – the Williams and the Taylor families – are part of the house’s unique history. In 1866, Josh Williams, owner of the house from 1838-1880, provided the land for what was to become Milligan College. In 1908, ownership of the house passed to Tennessee governor Alf Taylor. Alf and his brother, Robert Taylor, are most famous for their 1886 “Tennessee War of the Roses” campaign against each other for governor. Alf’s son, Robert Love Taylor, who was a Milligan alumnus, trustee, and Federal District Judge, later owned the home. After Judge Taylor’s death, the college purchased the home in 1989.
A Place to Call Home
Throughout the waning decades of the eighteenth century, free-spirited pioneers were taking hold of their manifest destiny and were pushing the boundaries of the west. Citizens of this new country were eager to conquer and tame the unknown wilderness and claim a piece of it for them selves. They pushed across our fair eastern mountains and down into these valleys in ever increasing numbers. In 1897 Governor Robert Love Taylor, speaking at the great Tennessee Centennial Celebration said of this migration and this new land:
When Civilization first peeped over the Alleghenies and looked down on the gorgeous landscape below, I think she shouted back to the advancing hosts, ” Lo, this is Paradise regained .”
Two families of that advancing host were the Williams and Taylor families, names that would become enshrined in the local legends and history. This region began to have permanent settlement by whites in the late 1760s. An early settler on Buffalo Creek was Andrew Taylor, a tax assessor for Washington County, North Carolina.
In the years following the Revolutionary War Edmund Williams, a North Carolina Land master, came to the area to distribute War Land Grants. It was probably Edmund Williams who built the first cabin buried within the walls of this rambling old house. The date is lost to memory.
The earliest written record for the property is a deed dated 1791, five years before Tennessee was admitted to the Union, thus we have the old story that this house once stood in the State of North Carolina.
The first recorded inhabitants to call the house home were Edmund’s son, Archibald Williams, and his wife, Rhoda Taylor Willliams, a daughter of Andrew Taylor. In 1838 ownership passed to their son, Joshua. By this era Happy Valley had become a well-established community as evidenced by the church located just a few hundred yards away from this house. The Williams family were active supporters of the Buffalo Creek Church.
The 1840 Census shows that primary education was being conducted on Buffalo Creek in two locations, one being the Buffalo Creek Meetinghouse. The little church grew to be a vital force in the community even in the years before the Civil War. Following the war, Confederate Colonel Wilson Gilvan Barker conducted the school and preached for the Buffalo Creek Church.
By 1866 the school had come to be known as the Buffalo Male and Female Institute and was chartered by the State of Tennessee. Among the oldest surviving records are two receipts for tuition, dated 1866 that were issued to four students, including the young George Taylor Williams, the son of Joshua Williams.
The following year the local community began a drive to build a brick building for the school on one acre of land, adjacent to the church, donated by Joshua Williams.
Years later Colonel Barker would write the obituary for Joshua Williams, stating that for many years Williams’ (quote) “comfortable and well supplied house was the home of the minister whose services he attended.” He also wrote that “Uncle Joshua” donated one acre of “beautiful land for educational purposes, on which Milligan College now stands, and was a hearty supporter of the school (from) in its incipiency….” A certificate of stock for Milligan College issued to Joshua Williams is preserved in the Archives.
From these few facts we easily deduce that many plans for the beginning of the school were made in this house. If the school was not born here, it was at least nurtured in the hospitality of this home.
In 1908 Alfred Alexander Taylor purchased the old house in order that his children might be educated at both Milligan College and the College Academy. A decade later the main college building burned down, the second major fire in three years, and the prospects for the future of the school were tenuous.
For a time there was some discussion whether the college should be rebuilt at all. A letter is preserved in the Archives from the College Treasurer George W. Hardin to Alf Taylor regarding a meeting of some of the leading men of the community that was to be held at the Taylor home on May 6, 1919. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the merits of and make plans for the rebuilding of the college. Whether as a result of that meeting or not, the college was rebuilt and survived the immediate crisis.
There is another letter in the Archives, this one dated February 23, 1925, to the Governor from the College Dean, Willis Baxter Boyd. In this letter Boyd proposes an elaborate plan for the continued growth of the school based on the growth of the athletic program. Boyd asked the Governor to give or sell a part of his land to the College so that the athletic fields could be expanded, and they were. The hospitality of this home continued to nurture the College.
The house itself was also made available for campus events. Kathleen Boyd Gandee, a student at Milligan in 1919 remembered that the Music Club met at the Taylor House. Gandee also remembered the frightening experience of being followed by a “ghost” as the club walked along the creek back to the College that evening. The ghost, they later learned, turned out to be foxfire, phosphorescence created by decaying matter along the creek, caught in the air current caused by their passing!
It was from this house that 72-year-old Alf Taylor was called from retirement to resume his political career. Uncle Alf was persuaded to enter the governor’s race of 1920 against Democratic candidate A. H. Roberts. Some detractors claimed that Alf was too old to be governor. He had first run for the office thirty-five years before and against his brother, Robert Love Taylor, in what became the famous Tennessee “War of the Roses.”
During the contest Alf wore the red rose and Bob wore the white rose as their respective symbols. Not to be defeated by his detractors Alf likened himself to his aged foxhound, Old Limber, who despite his advanced years led the pack in the legendary East Tennessee foxhunts of that era. The people of Tennessee resonated with kindly old Uncle Alf and sent him to the Governor’s office in 1921.
That year Milligan awarded the Governor an honorary Doctor of Laws degree when he delivered the commencement address. Among the graduates that year was Alf’s son, Robert Love Taylor, named for his father’s earliest political opponent. Before going on to study law, “Little Bob” played semi-professional baseball and delighted in the fact that as a baseball player he earned a salary greater than his father did as Governor of Tennessee! Following his two-year term Alf was defeated by Austin Peay in a re-election bid and he returned here to live out his days at his Milligan College home until his death in 1931.
At that time the house passed to Little Bob Taylor. In 1949 he was appointed a United States Federal Judge and while the family moved to Knoxville they retained ownership of the “old home place.” Taylor eventually became the senior U.S. District Judge and ruled on a number of landmark cases, including the 1957 Clinton High School (Anderson County) desegregation case. It was the country’s first test of the racial integration rulings of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. The Board of Education. Justice Warren Burger said of Taylor, I regarded him as one of the finest, ablest and fairest judges in the country.”
Like his father before him, Judge Taylor would serve his alma mater as a Trustee, fulfilling that function for five decades. In 1977 Robert Love Taylor was named the College’s Distinguished Alumnus for his many achievements in the field of law. Judge Taylor once wrote that the education he received at Milligan taught him the great heritage of freedom possessed by all Americans and the responsibility of preserving this freedom for posterity. “These are some of the things,” he said, “I learned while a student at Milligan College which have been of inestimable value to me as a citizen, lawyer and United States Judge.”
The Williams-Taylor House and its residents, with their good old-fashioned tradition of Southern hospitality have indeed been an integral part of the history and growth of Milligan College. And now because of this great work of renovation and the life it will have in the future through the Associated Ladies of Milligan, it will continue to impact the life and growth of Milligan College in ways in which we can only now dream.
*Remarks on the Williams-Taylor House, Milligan College, Tennessee on the occasion of the renovation and dedication as the Taylor-Phillips House, October 25, 2002. By Clinton J. Holloway, Class of 1995.
1 Since this address was given the author has seen a copy of the original land grant, dated 1782.