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Southern Belle and a Yankee officer

Discussion in 'The Ladies Tea' started by aphillbilly, Mar 31, 2005.

  1. aphillbilly

    aphillbilly Guest

    Mary Florence Drouillard

    August 23, 1843 – May 19, 1905

    This is the 14th in a series profiling the most significant people in Dickson County history.

    Mary Florence Kirkman Drouillard was characterized by a Nashville newspaper obituary at the time of her death as “A brilliant and admired figure all her life, she possessed great beauty…grace…unfailing courtesy…exceptional charm of manner…a bright mind that expressed itself in sparkling conversation…and a gentle and jovial spirit that endeared her to so many people.”

    Mary Florence Kirkman was the only daughter of Hugh and Eleanora Van Leer Kirkman. He was the son of Major Thomas and Ellen Jackson Kirkman, one of Nashville’s leading merchants. She was the daughter of Anthony Wayne and Rebecca Brady Van Leer, owner of the Cumberland Iron Works, 20,000 acres of farm land and a retail iron store on the Public Square in Nashville.

    Van Leer came to Tennessee in 1810 and purchased a furnace and forge on Barton’s Creek from Richard C. Napier. In 1825, he purchased the Cumberland Iron Works from Montgomery Bell. Van Leer’s uncle was Revolutionary War General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. A native of Chester County, Penn., his great-grandfather was one of the foremost iron masters of colonial Pennsylvania and founded the Reading Furnace at Reading, Penn.

    Van Leer was a leading Nashville resident when both Andrew Jackson and James Knox Polk were President. In fact, another daughter, Rebecca Van Leer married Andrew Jackson Polk, the nephew of the President, in a White House ceremony.

    When 17-year-old Eleanora Van Leer married the 35-year-old Hugh Kirkman in 1839, she was undisputedly the city’s most beautiful belle and he was its most eligible bachelor. They were Nashville’s most glamorous family. They had six children, but only two survived to adulthood. They were: John Farrell, 1840-50, Sarah, 1842-42, Mary Florence, 1843-1905, Hugh Van Leer, 1845-46 and Van Leer Kirkman, 1849-1911.

    Anthony Wayne Van Leer engaged famed Philadelphia architect William Strickland, the designer of the Tennessee State Capitol Building and St. Mary’s Cathedral in Nashville to construct the handsomest home possible to set off his daughter’s beauty. Van Leer told Strickland “to spare no pains and pay no regard to expense” in building the home. By early 1849 the palatial home on the southwest corner of Fifth and Charlotte was completed. The row of two-story fluted columns with acanthus capitals rose above the massive stone foundation along Charlotte Avenue and extended 170 feet in length. The structure looked like a Venetian Palace and was the largest home in Nashville. The site is presently occupied by the Andrew Jackson and Rachel Jackson State Office Buildings.

    The home’s entrance was on Fifth Avenue, across from the entrance of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

    Entering the home meant climbing nine steps to a stately portal between two pillars and once inside the huge double doors, climbing again nine steps inside the double doors before reaching the level of the niche-and statue-adorned hall, which opened on the tremendous drawing rooms. He used marble for the steps and colonnaded porticoes; he had white marble mantels throughout the house and “great chandeliers and mirrors were set into the walls,” brought from Philadelphia. Stately windows were framed with draperies of gold and white damask and the same color scheme was used on the upholstery on the rosewood and mahogany suites. The rich carpets were imported from Europe.

    When everything was in place, Van Leer escorted his daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren into the stunning home for the first time. The 27 year old Eleanora was breathless with excitement.

    “I can never hope to be nearer heaven than this!” she exclaimed. At the end of the day, with all the chandeliers lighted, she stood at the top of the winding stairway “for a last admiring glance before retiring for the night.” Suddenly, she turned to her husband and declared “I shall never see this stairway again.”

    The next day, February 23, 1849, her son Van Leer Kirkman was born. Complications occurred during the birth and for more than three months she was bedridden. On June 1, 1849 she died from complications of childbirth.

    Following her mother’s burial, Mary Florence Kirkman was sent to boarding school in New York. Her father took her brothers John and Van Leer to Cumberland Furnace where they lived with their grandfather, A.W. Van Leer. There is mention of a brick mansion [that burned] in a late 19th century deed. This mansion must have been Van Leer’s Cumberland Furnace home. John Farrell Kirkman drowned the following year while swimming in the Cumberland River.

    On November 9, 1861 Hugh Kirkman, the manager of the Cumberland Furnace, died. When her father died, Mary Florence, now 18, returned from New York and re-opened her large mansion in Nashville. Just out of a fashionable New York boarding school, “she became a central figure in aristocratic circles in antebellum Nashville. Her career as a belle began exceptionally happy and bright,” according to contemporary accounts. Within a year, Union troops occupied Capitol Hill and most of Middle Tennessee.

    Van Leer closed the Furnace in 1862 because of the war, and on July 9, 1863, he died. According to historian George E. Jackson, Van Leer left his estate to his granddaughter and grandson. Mary Florence, 20, and Van Leer Kirkman, 14, inherited the Cumberland Iron Works and other assets worth in excess of $500,000 and 85 slaves.

    For all practical purposes, Mary Florence Kirkman was raised in New York City. She was comfortable among northerners. Her grandfather and his family were from Pennsylvania. But her community and the main part of her family was southern and their sympathies lay with the South.

    Florence’s godfather, Andrew Jackson Polk was a Colonel in the Confederate army and her brother Van Leer Kirkman, from the age of 14, was an escort for General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

    Soon after assuming command of Capitol Hill, Union officer Captain James Pierre Drouillard noticed the vivacious and beautiful girl living in the mansion that was also being used as a part of the Union headquarters. Kirkman shocked Nashville society when she announced her forthcoming marriage to a Union officer.

    Against the wishes of her entire family and ostracized by her godparents, Aunt Rebecca Kirkman and Uncle Andrew Jackson Polk, she married Drouillard at Christ Episcopal Church Sept. 21, 1864. A 1861 graduate of West Point, the Gallipolis, Ohio native remained with the army until the end of the war. After being elevated to Major, he retired. Even though he became a Major, he preferred being called Captain Drouillard. Captain J.P. Drouillard is inscribed on his tombstone. Drouillard was first on the staff of General McDowell in Virginia and later as aide-de-camp to General W.S. Rosecrans in Missouri and Tennessee.

    After a few years, it was generally acknowledged that she was the victim of being the “first” to marry a Union officer. She had made it easier for other young ladies to marry northerners, and soon she was accepted back into society.

    With the war over, they discovered that their Cumberland Iron Works was one of the only iron furnaces in Middle Tennessee that wasn’t destroyed by Union soldiers. After a few years operating the Furnace, they decided to build a country home in Cumberland Furnace. From 1868-70, they constructed their summer “cottage” at Cumberland Furnace and spent their summers there for many years. It was built high on the top of a hill overlooking the iron works. The three-story mansion was visible for miles from surrounding hills and valleys.

    With 10-foot tall shutters at the many windows, the long porch across most of its 100-foot front, the grandeur of the Italianate-style home inspired by elegant summer cottages she had visited in Newport, R.I., made the huge frame house a landmark.

    The house was built with white oak beams, yellow poplar floors and cedar-floored porches. The spiral stairway that stands three stories high allowed Drouillard to make a grand entrance during summer parties that included guests from Nashville and as far away as New Orleans. The former billiard room, the original bathroom with its copper-lined tub, the china and silver pantry that measures 12-feet by 7-feet give some evidence of the elegance of life in the Drouillard country home.

    The Drouillards also built Van Leer Academy and an Episcopal church for the community at the foot of the hill from their mansion. They paid the salary of the minister, who doubled as the teacher.

    As telephones were invented, J.P. Drouillard Telephone & Telegraph Company introduced telephone services to Dickson County. Their first child was born at Cumberland Furnace in 1865. The Drouillard children were: Hugh Kirkman Drouillard, born at Cumberland Furnace 7/20/1865, died 11/3/1900 in San Diego; Van Leer Kirkman Drouillard born and died 7/4/1867 at Nashville; Eleanor Chambers Drouillard born 2/2/1872 at Nashville died 1/6/1875; James Pierre Drouillard, II, born 5/13/1874 at Nashville; Florence Kirkman Drouillard, born 3/18/1876 at Cumberland Furnace; Joseph Chambers Drouillard, born 4/3/1878 at Nashville, died 8/18/1890; Anthony Wayne Drouillard, born 7/22/1883 at Nashville, died 10/27/1885; Bernard Wayne Drouillard, born 6/17/1889, Nashville, died 1968.

    Her son, JP, II, like his father, was a graduate of West Point Military Institute.

    Drouillard’s daughter Florence, a native of Cumberland Furnace, married Bernard Alexandre Georges Edmond, Count de Pourtales from Paris, France on April 28, 1896. Their three children were: Gladys, born 1897 near Geneva, Switzerland; Roxane, born December 1899 at Salniati Villa near Florence, Italy; and Arianne, born March 1903 at Monte Carlo, near Cannes, France. Her second husband was a wealthy baron and her third husband was the Count de Martimprey, with whom she had a son.

    Florence Drouillard’s first cousin, Antoinette Polk and her parents Andrew Jackson and Rebecca Polk moved to Rome, Italy at the end of the War Between the States where they became close friends with King Humbert I. Antoinette married General Baron Athanese de Charette de la Courtrie, the grandson of Charles X, the last Bourbon King of France.

    Another cousin, Van Leer Polk, served as U.S. Ambassador to India during President Grover Cleveland’s first administration.

    The Drouillard’s purchased her brother, Van Leer Kirkman’s interest in the Cumberland Furnace for her half of other property they owned together plus $20,000. Kirkman married Samuella Berry, 1851-80, the daughter of William T. Berry. They had two children. After her death, he married Katherine Thompson of Oxford, Miss., 1863-1926, and they had three children. Miss Thompson was the daughter of Jacob Thompson of Memphis, Secretary of Interior in President James Buchanan's Cabinet.

    The Kirkman’s estate was known as Oak Hill, a thoroughbred farm, at the corner of Franklin Road and Tyne Boulevard. It was a portion of the battlefield of Nashville. The First Presbyterian Church occupies the site today. Van Leer Kirkman and both his wives are buried on the lot. He was a director aof many of Nashville’s substantial corporations and was President of the Cumberland Park Racing Association and for many years the President of the Hermitage Club.

    Van Leer Kirkman and Mary Florence Drouillard’s uncle, James Kirkman, was the President of the American National Bank and later Third National Bank in Nashville.

    In 1882, the Drouillards sold their furnace operation, including the mansion. They divided their time between Nashville and Europe. In 1886 their big red brick mansion at the corner of Vauxhall (Ninth) and Demonbreun was ready to move in, and its heavy Victorian lines were the height of fashion then. With international social acclaim, she and her husband traveled extensively in Europe and continued his many varied business pursuits in Nashville and maintaining an active interest in the furnace operations until his retirement in 1889. Captain Drouillard died of diabetes in 1892. Florence Drouillard was a founder of the Cumberland Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and served as its president.

    During Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition, she served as First Vice President of the Women’s Department and her sister-in-law, Katherine Thompson Kirkman, served as president. On the date of Tennessee’s Centennial, June 1, 1896, Florence Drouillard entertained the distinguished visitors to the Tennessee State Centennial preview at her palatial residence on Vauxhall.

    The actual Tennessee Centennial celebration was held the next year and Drouillard and Katherine Kirkman were in the center of the social whirl surrounding the celebrity-filled summer of 1897.

    Drouillard began suffering from diabetes in 1899. She began closing her home for entire seasons and staying with cousins on West End Avenue. It is there that she died at age 62 in 1905. The Drouillard, Kirkman and Van Leer families are buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery at Nashville.

    Members of the Van Leer family were connected with Cumberland Furnace more than 100 years, 1825-1941. Captain Drouillard formed the Drouillard Iron Company in 1882 and sold the furnace in 1889 to the Southern Iron Company, which operated the furnace until 1896. Colonel Robert B. Stone, a cousin of Mary Florence Drouillard, was a principal stockholder in the company. The furnace was held outside the family from 1896 to 1936. Robert Stone's son, Epps Hardiman Stone, purchased it in 1938 and operated it through 1941. But high transportation costs made it impossible to operate the furnace profitably. The furnace was dismantled in 1943 and the scrap metal was contributed to the war effort.

    In 1996-97, the Drouillard’s Cottage at Cumberland Furnace was restored by Robert and Linda Leftwich and Paul T. Klontz and his wife, Marjorie A. Zugich. Their work to preserve the integrity of the mansion was recognized when the Drouillard House became the first recipient of the tourism council’s Judge William D. Field Heritage Award.

    Klontz and Zugich operate Onsite Workshops in the plantation home and the adjoining cabins and carriage-house they added to the property. Onsite Workshops provides a safe place for professionals to rediscover strength and balance about relationship, family, work, stress, trauma or emotional issues in a beautiful, nurturing setting.

    Today, the elegant mansion proudly sits atop its perch in Cumberland Furnace as if awaiting the regal return of its former Mistress, Mary Florence Drouillard.


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  3. dawna

    dawna First Sergeant

    Feb 20, 2005
    Tommy...what an interesting story, and great pic of the beautiful Drouillard House.


    "I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life."
    ~Belle Starr~
  4. aphillbilly

    aphillbilly Guest


    I am glad you liked it. I presented not only because I thought it an intriging story but that it is a local story. My father was born in the wide spot in the road known as Vanleer. Which was named for the Van Leer in the story. Cumberland Furnace is just up the road a piece from me. Mongomery Bell State Park is just walking distance from my back door. Funny thing though. I did not know about this story until a few years back.

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