History of Warner Park

By F. Lynne bachleda

In the Name Of

Tragically, Percy Warner died of a heart attack just months after the unnamed park opened. It was Lea who put forth the idea of naming it for his beloved father-in-law. Percy Warner Park became an immediate hit with the citizens of Nashville. Boy and girl scouts were among the first to take advantage of its wild beauty, but as trails and roads were developed, people of all ages and stripes flocked to it.

Edwin’s Expansion Plan

After the death of his older brother (Percy Warner), Edwin Warner assumed a position on the parks board and began to implement a forward thinking - some would say aggressive - plan to acquire more acres for Percy Warner Park. Through a $20,000 donation in 1930 of his own money, Edwin funded the outright purchase of some of the added land that had been in numerous family farms for generations, some dating back to the late 1700s. Several people sold willingly, while others deeply resisted. Imminent domain was the final leverage. The total acreage after Edwin’s efforts was more than 2,600. In appreciation for his faithful efforts, the park board designated the land south of Old Hickory Boulevard as Edwin Warner Park in 1937.

Allée and Other Key Stonework

In addition to park roads, the 1930s saw a flurry of development. The Edward Daugherty gates, underwritten by Percy’s widow Margaret Lindsley Warner, were dedicated in 1932. Completion of the Allée came in 1936, designed by celebrated landscape architect Bryant Fleming, as an ascending invitation into the park’s hills.

With Help from the WPA

The Works Progress Administration is responsible for building much of what we’ve come to cherish in the Parks throughout the late 1930s and early 40s. Out-of-work Nashvillians hired on to build the stone walls, gateways, pillars, picnic shelters, and most famously the steeplechase course. It opened in 1941 with the first running of the Iroquois. The course remains especially notable for its panoramic view from the hillside.

Increasing Usage & Amenities

The 1950s and 60s marked a period of extensive Warner Parks usage. In 1965, the regionally praised Harpeth Hills Golf Course opened its eighteen holes for play, a sweet companion to Percy Warner’s nine, first played in 1938. Nashvillians came to Warner Parks to horseback ride, run, hike, take leisurely winding drives, play sports, picnic, study nature, and generally absorb all that the outdoors has to offer.

Earth Day Awareness to the Rescue

By the 1970s, familiarity had begun to breed a lack of respect for the Parks. Roads were full of potholes, car lights shone after hours, dumping trash, appliances, building debris, and even cars were commonplace. Fortunately, the first Earth Day in 1970 brought a renewed awareness of what the Parks had to offer and the publics’ interest in preserving it. It also provided the impetus to hire and house the first naturalist, David Shaffer, at the first nature center, an adapted farmhouse near the intersection of Old Hickory Boulevard and Highway 100. Shaffer began the volunteer program in earnest that still fuels the Warner Parks today.

Raising the Bar in Research and Employment

Warner Parks staff continued to increase. Through Dr. Charles Farrell, a retired Vanderbilt University professor whose wisdom is still quoted, a professionalism arose in those hired to maintain, interpret, and protect the thousands of acres. The course of serious scientific research and documentation was set, and an emphasis on birds came into focus amidst myriad other studies.

Friends of Warner Parks Begins

In 1984, the Parks earned status with a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1987, Clare Armistead undertook the formation of a neighborhood citizen support effort. Inaugurating a family tradition of park allegiance over generations, Edwin Warner’s grandson, E. Warner Bass was the first chairman of the non-profit Friends of Warner Parks (FOWP). Although Metro Nashville Parks and Recreation continues to maintain ownership and provide the essentials for Warner Parks, Friends of Warner Parks represents the financial and volunteer muscle whose mission is to preserve, steward and protect Percy and Edwin Warner Parks. The public-private partnership leverages both taxpayer dollars and charitable contributions, accomplishing more than either entity could separately.

BEGINNINGS

Percy Warner Park, the first of the Warner Parks, opened to the public in 1927, but its origins date back to 1910 when Luke Lea was the controlling stockholder of the Belle Meade Company that purchased approximately 1,600 acres for residential development from the Belle Meade Plantation bankruptcy sale. In a way, the origin dates even a few years prior, when Luke Lea married streetcar and utilities magnate Percy Warner’s daughter, Mary Warner, in 1906. Mary would sadly die in 1919, and Lea would go on to marry her sister, Percie Warner, in 1920. Both Luke Lea and Percy Warner were bold-thinking men of like minds when it came to the development of Nashville.

Percy Warner & Luke Lea

Lea’s second buy of Belle Meade land was 624 acres known as the “High Pasture,” including what today might be called the “front door” of Percy Warner Park at the end of Belle Meade Boulevard. In 1926, Lea donated 868 acres to the city for a public park comprised of 543 acres of the “High Pasture,” along with 325 acres owned jointly by Lea’s Belle Meade Land Company and Warner’s Nashville Railway & Light Co

On what’s now the center strip of land dividing Belle Meade Boulevard is where Percy Warner’s Nashville Railway & Light Co. ran a trolley line to service the residents Lea hoped to attract to his up-and-coming Belle Meade development. As chair of Nashville’s parks board, Percy Warner was happy to advance his agenda of a “necklace” of magnificent parks surrounding the city, advance the market for streetcar riders, as well as support his son-in-law.

In the Name Of

Tragically, Percy Warner died of a heart attack just months after the unnamed park opened. It was Lea who put forth the idea of naming it for his beloved father-in-law. Percy Warner Park became an immediate hit with the citizens of Nashville. Boy and girl scouts were among the first to take advantage of its wild beauty, but as trails and roads were developed, people of all ages and stripes flocked to it.

Edwin’s Expansion Plan

Edwin Warner & Daughters

After the death of his older brother (Percy Warner), Edwin Warner assumed a position on the parks board and began to implement a forward thinking - some would say aggressive - plan to acquire more acres for Percy Warner Park. Through a $20,000 donation in 1930 of his own money, Edwin funded the outright purchase of some of the added land that had been in numerous family farms for generations, some dating back to the late 1700s. Several people sold willingly, while others deeply resisted. Imminent domain was the final leverage. The total acreage after Edwin’s efforts was more than 2,600. In appreciation for his faithful efforts, the park board designated the land south of Old Hickory Boulevard as Edwin Warner Park in 1937.

Allée and Other Key Stonework

Fleming allèe sketch for Warner

In addition to park roads, the 1930s saw a flurry of development. The Edward Daugherty gates, underwritten by Percy’s widow Margaret Lindsley Warner, were dedicated in 1932. Completion of the Allée came in 1936, designed by celebrated landscape architect Bryant Fleming, as an ascending invitation into the park’s hills.

With Help from the WPA

Warner Parks - WPA limestone entrance built circa 1930's

The Works Progress Administration is responsible for building much of what we’ve come to cherish in the Parks throughout the late 1930s and early 40s. Out-of-work Nashvillians hired on to build the stone walls, gateways, pillars, picnic shelters, and most famously the steeplechase course. It opened in 1941 with the first running of the Iroquois. The course remains especially notable for its panoramic view from the hillside.

Increasing Usage & Amenities

The 1950s and 60s marked a period of extensive Warner Parks usage. In 1965, the regionally praised Harpeth Hills Golf Course opened its eighteen holes for play, a sweet companion to Percy Warner’s nine, first played in 1938. Nashvillians came to Warner Parks to horseback ride, run, hike, take leisurely winding drives, play sports, picnic, study nature, and generally absorb all that the outdoors has to offer.

Earth Day Awareness to the Rescue

By the 1970s, familiarity had begun to breed a lack of respect for the Parks. Roads were full of potholes, car lights shone after hours, dumping trash, appliances, building debris, and even cars were commonplace. Fortunately, the first Earth Day in 1970 brought a renewed awareness of what the Parks had to offer and the publics’ interest in preserving it. It also provided the impetus to hire and house the first naturalist, David Shaffer, at the first nature center, an adapted farmhouse near the intersection of Old Hickory Boulevard and Highway 100. Shaffer began the volunteer program in earnest that still fuels the Warner Parks today.

Raising the Bar in Research and Employment

Bird hike with Dr. Farrell in July 1978

Warner Parks staff continued to increase. Through Dr. Charles Farrell, a retired Vanderbilt University professor whose wisdom is still quoted, a professionalism arose in those hired to maintain, interpret, and protect the thousands of acres. The course of serious scientific research and documentation was set, and an emphasis on birds came into focus amidst myriad other studies.

Friends of Warner Parks Begins

In 1984, the Parks earned status with a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1987, Clare Armistead undertook the formation of a neighborhood citizen support effort. Inaugurating a family tradition of park allegiance over generations, Edwin Warner’s grandson, E. Warner Bass was the first chairman of the non-profit Friends of Warner Parks (FOWP). Although Metro Nashville Parks and Recreation continues to maintain ownership and provide the essentials for Warner Parks, Friends of Warner Parks represents the financial and volunteer muscle whose mission is to preserve, steward and protect Percy and Edwin Warner Parks. The public-private partnership leverages both taxpayer dollars and charitable contributions, accomplishing more than either entity could separately.

Power of Public-Private Partnership

The 2000 Nature Center is an example. Built through a private capital campaign and government partnership, it has permitted the vital educational aspects of the Warner Parks to expand, establishing the Warner Park Nature Center as a premiere institution of environmental education. So too has Friends of Warner Parks’ invested over $500,000 in the preservation and restoration of the historic picnic shelters built by the WPA. Other triumphs include the 2009 acquisition and protection of the old growth Hill Forest treasure and the Burch Reserve. These additions brought the Warner Parks total to 3,187 acres, an astonishing figure for an urban park only 9 miles from the city core.

Through steady government support, generous philanthropic vision, and robust citizen involvement, the future of the Warner Parks is very bright as they approach their century celebration in 2027. For nearly 100 years, the Warner Parks have continued to provide critical solace and enjoyment for more than a million people per year from Nashville, the region, and the nation, and are affectionately known to Nashvillians as our Sanctuary in the City.

Lynne Bachleda is the author of the forthcoming history book of Warner Parks.

By Bob Allen, for The Bellevue Messenger

Bellevue and greater Nashville owes its beautiful, luscious forests, and rolling hills of the Warner Parks to someone other than Percy or Edwin Warner, whose names adorn the combined 2,681 acres of open space. Rather, the lion’s share of our gratitude should be given to Col. Luke Lea, a great-grandson and namesake of Luke Lea, a two-term Tennessee Congressman in the 1830s.

Colonel Luke Lea

The young Lea was a lawyer, soldier, senator, and newspaper publisher, but it was his fervent desire to have a park on the city’s west side that forever endears him to Nashville and to us. It was a slow and steady effort undertaken by Lea, gathering up various properties, but today the Warner Parks host tens of thousands of visitors every year. The 2,058 acres of Percy Warner Park and 623 acres of Edwin Warner Park comprise one of the largest park areas contained within city limits of any U.S. municipality.

Lea (1879-1945) was tutored at home until he attended University of the South in Sewanee. He attended Columbia Law School and was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in 1903 — the same year he established his law practice in Nashville. But Lea was more than a lawyer. As the founder, editor, and first publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, Lea was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1911, and served until 1917. As the United States entered World War I, Lea volunteered and was commissioned as an artillery officer, serving in Europe, where he was promoted to the rank of colonel, earning him a new moniker — Col. Lea when he returned to Nashville and the Tennessean. He took on various leadership roles, and in 1919 helped to found the American Legion. But shortly thereafter, Col. Lea saw the need for a park on the city’s west side, and through the early and mid-1920s began to slowly purchase properties from early settlers in what we know today as Edwin and Percy Warner Parks.


Early Park Settlers

It may be difficult to imagine now, but several pioneering families lived on the land – the Scotts (the first to sell to Lea), then the Northerns, and Betts, Reagins, Vaughns, and others followed. For those families, it must have been difficult to imagine leaving.

Long hunters and early settlers saw the greater Nashville area as a paradise teaming with fish and game. Francis Hodge, a long hunter and original settler of Fort Nashborough, bought land west of Nashville in 1780, and 17 years later, one of his sons, James, purchased 735 acres, paying $1,600. The eastern edge of this property was the old North-South Trail, which is now Chickering Road. In 1811, George Hodge, Francis’ younger son, bought the southern part of the property from his father and built the Hodge House facing the trail, which was later a county road.In the 1830s, the Natchez Trace ran through what is now the Warner Park Nature Center and the Cane Connector trail through Percy Warner Park. Many flat boatmen and frontier families returned from selling their wares by passing through the parks. In 1897, Virginia (Jenny) Northern and John Cartwright auctioned the Hodge House and land to Elisha Dotson Sawyer, a distant relative for $2,263.

Although Col. Lea’s efforts would close homesteads, these early families had established cemeteries, which are historically preserved and can be visited by special arrangement. (More information is available online at davidsoncemeterysurvey.com)


Percy Warner: The Nature Lover

Nashville businessman and civic leader, Percy Warner (1861-1927), followed his father James’ lead, capitalizing on New South exploitation of natural resources with his Warner Iron Corporation in the 1870s and 1880s. While working for the family company, Warner developed an interest in new industrial areas of electric utilities and urban mass transportation. From 1903-1914, he presided over the Nashville Railway and Light Company, controlling all the city’s streetcars. In this position, he held influence and interests in a number of Nashville businesses.

Percy Warner and Col. Luke Lea

It may sound like he didn’t get out much, but Warner loved the outdoors and cultivated a private collection of birds on his estate. He worked to save Nashville’s Centennial Park from developers, and these civic-minded interests led to his election as a parks commissioner late in his life. However, it was his marriage to Margaret Lindsley, daughter of Sarah McGavock and J. Berrien Lindsley, which united new and old Nashville families – helping Warner inherit money and enlarge his holdings.

A benefactor of that wealth was his daughter, Percie, and her husband, Col. Luke Lea. When Warner died suddenly in 1927 at age 66, his daughter and son-in-law — who had just donated more than 850 acres of land (remember Lea’s desire) to the city of Nashville for its newest park — petitioned the park board to name it in Percy Warner’s memory. Lea left a wonderful civic legacy when he died in 1945, and a few years later the highest spot in the park was christened as ‘Lea Heights’ for him.



Edwin Takes The Wheel, Drives Parks’ Growth

If Colonel Luke Lea and Percy Warner were the wheels that got Nashville’s Warner Parks rolling, Edwin Warner was the driving wheel in the development of our beautiful west-side park lands. Following his brother’s death, Edwin Warner took his place on the Park Board. Edwin, a businessman, served as chairman from 1939-45.

In the early 1930s, Highway 100 was built and served as the catalyst for the park’s future growth – from the Steeplechase racetrack to the bird blinds, from the golf courses to the Nature Center. First, the Tennessee Department of Transportation created Willow Pond on the south side of the highway. Soon after, the beautiful allée of steps lined with trees and bushes at the Belle Meade Boulevard entrance was designed and constructed by Bryant Fleming. Watch this 2-minute old home movie of Centennial Park and Percy Warner Park.  The Works Progress Administration provided funds and labor to construct roadways, entrance gates, rock walls, picnic shelters, wells, trails, golf course, and steeplechase track, which Edwin and the board oversaw.

Imagination was part of the plans, too. For example, the meandering roadways and trails scaling the beautiful hills in the park are designed in such a fashion that looking up or down you cannot see another road or trail above or beneath you – preserving the parks’ pristine views.

Edwin Warner

In 1935, renowned ornithologist Amelia Laskey established the Eastern Bluebird nesting box program in Warner Parks, and bluebird research remains active to this day. A bird banding program was initiated in 1982, and in the years since thousands of families have been enthralled with the parks’ unique bird watching experience.

During the late 1930s, the 9-hole Percy Warner Golf Course opened, and additional property was acquired that allowed Edwin to join his brother as park namesake. The board voted to name all land south of Old Hickory Boulevard as ‘Edwin Warner Park.’

As the parks became increasingly popular, the first race at the Steeplechase debuted in 1941. It remains the only racetrack ever built by the Federal Government.

Later, to support the war effort, Victory Gardens were planted on 1,038 acres of park land and Nashvillians raised 25,000 pounds of Irish potatoes, 870 acres of hay, and more than 30 acres of crimson clover annually.

An 18-hole Harpeth Hills Golf Course opened in 1965 during a time when the modern hiking trail system design began, and the repaving of roadways was initiated.

Great care was given to the parks’ maintenance and the growth continued. The Nature Center was established in 1973, and a year later the Youth Conservation Corps, aided by the Comprehensive Employee Training Act, made numerous improvements in the park.

Entrance Gates to Percy Warner Park



Groups Form To Protect The Parks

The Nashville community became endeared to Warner Parks as a valued asset, a natural area, and a location for recreational interests in the 1940s and 50s.  By the 1960s, the Parks began to show signs of wear.  Initial concerns develop about potential for over-use of the Parks and about conflicts between individuals and recreational special interest groups.  By the 1970s the decline of Warner Parks becomes visible.

In 1980, the Tennessee Register of Natural Areas listed the hiking trails and bridle paths on the Tennessee Recreation Trails System and four years later Warner Parks was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The trail system has been a source of pride for years, drawing cross-country events and now trail bicyclists.  In 2014, the Warner Park Mountain Bike Trail, an eight-mile stretch for riders of all skill levels, opened.

Using New York’s Central Park Conservancy as a model, Friends of Warner Parks was founded in 1987 in the home of Clare Armistead with the help of Peggy Joyce, Chippy Pirtle, Adrienne Todd and Elizabeth Proctor.  This would be the second “friends group” nationwide developed to support a metropolitan park.  Immediately, Friends of Warner Parks linked arms with Metro Parks to fund and publish the Warner Park Master Plan.

In the 1990s, Friends of Warner Parks funded the publication of the Warner Park Nature Center Master Plan, and by 1998 $4million was raised and ground was broken on the new Susanne Warner Bass Learning Center.

In 2009, the Friends of Warner Parks, founded in 1987, purchased the H. G. Hill property for future use and to prevent commercial development on the north side of Highway 100. This area contains some of the oldest forests in middle Tennessee and is a haven for many rare and endangered species of birds, plants, and wildlife. Plans are underway to create a ‘natural’ walking trail in a section of it.


Other projects funded by Friends of Warner Parks have included restoration of the Hodge House, restoration of the Vaughn’s Gap field Station to coordinate urban forestry and resource management programs, restoration of the Spring House near the Chickering Road entrance, and restoration of 16 historic shelters originally built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s and 1940s.  In 2012 Friends of Warner Parks was presented the Preservation Award for the Indian Springs WPA Picnic Shelters Restoration Project at the Metropolitan Historical Commission’s 37th Annual Preservation Awards.

Notably, E. Warner Bass, Edwin’s grandson, served as the Friends of Warner Parks first president. Edwin passed away in 1945.

Over a million people visit the Warner Parks annually to utilize the Nature Center, picnic shelters, dog park, scenic roadways and overlooks, hiking trails, equestrian center and horse trails, cross country running courses, golf courses, and athletic fields.

They also are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Managed by the Metro Board of Parks and Recreation, they are one of the largest municipally administered parks in Tennessee and together span 2,684 acres.

Surely, neither Col. Lea nor the Warner brothers could have envisioned the mass destruction that the 1,000-year flood of 2010 wrought. However, the communal love and admiration of the parkland (that in part may have been birthed by their initial efforts) brought out thousands of volunteers who came together to clean up and preserve the natural beauty of the parks. For that, Bellevue is indebted to the trio’s foresight for selecting and establishing the Warner Parks as Nashville’s greatest west side story.  



*This article compiles two separate print articles that ran in July 29, 2014 and August 12, 2014 issues of The Messenger. Author Bob Allen is founder of the Bellevue History & Genealogy Group. For more information on the Parks' history, please contact Friends of Warner Parks Historian Bob Parrish, 615-370-8053 ; bparrish@warnerparks.org.