Learn more about Hawthorn Hill.
The property on which Hawthorn Hill sits was originally part of a 400-acre land grant given to Charles Carter by Neil McLaughlin on December 1, 1792. According to a land deed filed on June 2, 1810, Carter formally deeded 208 acres of his land to John Bearden. It is rumored that Bearden is the one who had Hawthorn Hill built, but no documentation evidence has been found to support this. On March 3, 1817, Bearded deeded his 208 acres to Colonel Humphrey Bate. Col. Bate was a veteran of the War of 1812, having served with Troop No. 3 of the Tennessee Volunteer Calvary led by Colonel John Coffee in the Natchez Expedition of 1812.
Col. Bate moved into the house with his first wife Elizabeth Pollack Brimage Bate and their two sons, James Henry and Thomas West. Three years after moving into the house, Elizabeth passed away on November 23, 1820. On September 9, 1821, Col. Bate married his second wife, Anne Franklin Weatherred. Together they had nine children: Mary Eliza Spivey (1823-1883), Eugenia Patience (1826-1906), Willa Anne (1828-1859), William George Weatherred (1831-1912), Agnes Elizabeth (1834-1920), Amanda Malvina (1836-1872), Henry Clay (1839-1917), Humphrey Howell (1844-1911), and Aaron Spivey (1846-1863).
On September 1, 1856, Col. Bate died at the age of 77 and was buried in the family cemetery to the west of the house. Ownership of the house then passed to his wife, Anne Bate. According to the 1860s Tennessee Slave Census records for Sumner County, Anne Bate owned seven enslaved persons, four men and three women ranging in age from 1-54. A drawing done by Nancy Hunt, a member of the Bate family, show the property at one point had at least 3 slave cabins located to the east of the main house. Anne Bate died on April 1, 1875 and was buried in the family cemetery. In her will she left the house to her two eldest sons William George Weatherred Bate and Henry Clay Bate. However, the house ended up under the ownership of the third eldest son, Col. Humphrey Howell Bate, Sr., M.D.
Col. Humphrey Howell Bate, Sr., was born February 1, 1844 at Hawthorn Hill. At the age of 17, he entered the Civil War and served as a private in Company K of the 2nd Tennessee Infantry Regiment. He was wounded on April 6, 1862, through the neck, left shoulder, right leg, and left knee joint at the Battle of Shiloh. On July 19, 1864, he was discharged on disability and returned to Sumner County. Bate Sr.'s brother Col. Henry Clary Bate, Sr., also fought in the Civil War along with a cousin, General William Brimage Bate, who would later become governor of Tennessee.
In 1866, Humphrey entered medical school at the University of Nashville and he graduated in 1868; afterward he returned home to Sumner County where he practiced medicine from a medical office he had added to Hawthorn Hill. Col. Humphrey Howell Bate, Sr., passed away on June 8, 1911, and ownership of the house was transferred to Bate's wife, Nancy, and their two children, Anne (Annie) Bate Brown and Dr. Humphrey Howell Bate, Jr.. Annie and Dr. Bate each gained half ownership of the property after their mother's death on March 4, 1925. Two months later, Dr. Bate relinquished his half of the property to his sister, Annie, but he continued to live in Castalian Springs where he practiced medicine from his house on Old Highway 25 E, half a mile west of Hawthorn Hill.
Dr. Humphrey Howell Bate, Jr., had been born at Hawthorn Hill on May 15, 1875, and as a child he showed an interest in music after a former slave taught him some songs on the harmonica. Dr. Bate continued to hone his skills on the instrument, performing on the steamboats that ran up and down the Cumberland River. Many different music genres from classical to folk music influenced Dr. Bate, helping him create a trademark eclectic sound. His band, "The Possum Hunters," followed a Middle Tennessee string band tradition that emphasized the dual lead of both the harmonica and the fiddle.
Dr. Bate initially sought a career far removed from the Grand Ole Opry. He received a medical degree from the University of Nashville Medical School (later part of Vanderbilt University Medical School), where he graduated in 1897. Dr. Bate served in the Medical Corps during the 1898 Spanish-American War; after the war he returned home to Sumner County and took over his father's medical practice in Castalian Springs. He practiced medicine his entire life, even after his musical career flourished.
Even as a practicing physician, Dr. Bate kept performing. In 1899, he entered his string band into a local music contest, but did not give consistent attention to his music career until the 1920s. By 1925, his band "The Possum Hunters" had a set membership with Dr. Bate on the harmonica; Burt Hutcherson and Stanley Walton on guitar; Oscar Albright on bowed strings bass; Dr. Bate's son Buster on guitar, tipple, harmonica, and Jew's harp; Walter Ligget on banjo; and Oscar Stone on the fiddle. Dr. Bate's daughter, Alcyone, added vocals along with playing the ukulele and piano. In 1925, Band and his band began performing on the newly established country radio station WDAD based out of Nashville. In October 1925, Dr. Bate and his band, along with Uncle Dave Macon, played a benefit show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and the show was broadcast over WSM one week before the arrival of George D. Hay and three weeks before Uncle Jimmy Thompson broadcast on the station.
By 1926, Dr. Bate had become a regular on the "barn dance" program that would later become the Grand Ole Opry. While Dr. Bate's band is not considered one of the founders of the Grand Ole Opry, the music that they produced was vital to the development of the show and influenced several other artists such as the Crook Brothers and Uncle Dave Macon. Shortly after Dr. Humphrey Bate and the Possum Hunters debuted on the Opry (and the band's name was picked by "Judge" George D. Hay), the band signed a recording contract with Brunswick and the group rose in fame, often opening for the set of the Grand Ole Opry. Dr. Bate and the Possum Hunters were considered the "darlings" of the early Opry and helped to increase the popularity of the show.
George D. Hay considered called Dr. Bate "Dean" of the Opry because of Dr. Bate's keen ear for good music and his ability to recruit new artists that helped to expand the Opry's repertoire. Dr. Bate made use of large orchestras that featured popular individual soloists and through the larger orchestras Dr. Bate formed smaller groups such as the Crook Brothers. An appreciation for a variety of different genres pushed Dr. Bate to consider up-and-coming artists and give them exposure. Among those recruited were DeFord Bailey, an African American harmonica player who later gained the name "The Harmonica Wizard." Dr. Bate's love for music allowed him to look past racial and gender barriers. Dr. Bate was responsible for bringing a man named Bailey to play the Opry, who was the first African American man to do so, and Dr. Bate's daughter Alcyone was the first female to play on the show thanks to Dr. Bate.
Dr. Bate recorded over 130 songs that included titles like, "Throw the Old Cow Over the Fence," "Ham Beats All Meats," and "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." Early in 1936, Dr. Bate began to suffer from heart issues, but refused to give up the Opry, telling Hay, "It is my wish to die in harness." His heart problems worsened and he died on June 12, 1936, following a massive heart attack. After his death, the Possum Hunters continued to perform, who kept the band going until the 1960s.
Dr. Humphrey Howell Bate, Jr., stands as one of the most important contributors to the early growth of country music. His accomplishments as a leader, recruiter, and musician allowed him to be a guiding figure in the development of the Grand Ole Opry. The experiences that Dr. Bate gained while growing up in Castalian Springs assisted him in guiding the development of his early musical interests.