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Kirby Farm House

History of the Kirby Farm House
Listed on the National Register
of Historic Places

Kirby Farm House

A Place in Prehistory

This home is the headquarters of a self-sufficient plantation estate that has survived for more than one hundred and fifty years. It is located on Old Poplar Pike that closely follows that of the long-forgotten Cherokee Trail that ran from points deep within the states of Mississippi and Alabama to the Mississippi River near the Desoto Indian Mounds beside the Old Frisco Bridge. Potsherds and arrowheads found on the grounds of the Nelson-Kirby House indicate that the high ground on which the house stands was favored by prehistoric peoples as a camp site along the trail. It is hoped that future archeological surveys of the grounds will reveal a much clearer picture of the levels of prehistoric activity in this area.

The Development of an American Heritage

The role of Shelby County as an outpost on the leading edge of the American frontier began soon after the surrender of the area by the Spanish under Pickney's Treaty (1795) and the French under the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. While most of the new American settlements that followed were concentrated along the Mississippi River at Memphis and Randolf, other patterns of settlement spread east along the old Indian trails. These trails, or traces, were used by the early settlers as roads and became the major transportation routes for the area in the decades that followed. Many of our existing highways still follow the old traces. The old Cherokee Trace. known today as Poplar Pike, has had previous names of: Alabama Road, as it was the road to Alabama. State Line Road, as it was the easiest way to get to the Mississippi, Tennessee State Line because of the natural barrier of Nonconnah Creek. Germantown to Memphis Plank Road, a Toll Road, built to parallel the newly completed Memphis and Charleston Railway straightened out all the turns of the original old Cherokee Trail which caused the road to Traverse across lower lying areas poorly drained, thus the name Germantown and Memphis Plank Road. Tolls for passage along the Germantown Plank Road were set by an Act of the Tennessee Legislature in 1848 as follows:

For every 20 head of sheep five cents For every loaded wagon drawn by 1 or 2
horses or other animals
ten cents
For every 20 head of hogs five cents For every loaded cart five cents
For every 20 head of cattle ten cents For every man & horse, or mule five cents
For every 3 horses or mules five cents For every loaded empty wagon, drawn by 1
of 2 horses or other animals
five cents
For less than above free For every loaded wagon drawn by 3
or 4 horses or other animals
fifteen cents
For every pleasure carriage drawn
by 1 horse or other animal
ten cents For every loaded wagon drawn by 5
or more horses, or other animals
twenty cents
For every pleasure carriage drawn
by 2 horses or other animals
fifteen cents For every empty wagon drawn by 3
or more horses, or other animals
ten cents
For every pleasure carriage drawn
by 4 or more horses or other animals
twenty cents    

As Shelby County grew in the years after Memphis was settled, this property gained in value because of the early owners of this land such as Eppy White (died 1857) in 1834 who occupied the first permanent homestead on the site. By this time White received a Tennessee Land Grant so as to be able to have title to this land and thereby be able to transfer the property by sale to a new owner. The area adjoining the east line of the propertywas already active from the development of the ill fated experimental utopian colony of Neshoba, established by Francis Wright (1795-1852) in 1826. White's home was the scene of much local activity. He was the justice of the peace as his home served as the first polling place for District 11 and the first post office, then known as Pea Ridge. White sold his land in 1838 on the Alabama Road, as it was then known, and bought a larger tract to the west to be at the end of the rail that would later be know as White's Station.

The next owner was Wilks Brooks (1785-1849), a planter from North Carolina. Brooks gave the property for the Germantown Baptist Church in 1841. This is the only other building in Germantown listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After Brooks death, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad opened for regular service from Memphis to Germantown in 1852 and his son Joseph Brooks (1819-1897) sold the property in 1853. Ownership changed hands nine times till 1869. The Kirby House was developed to its current size in about 1869-1870 through the work of Thomas A. Nelson (1819-1887) and later "Victorianized" by John Louis Ebling (1852-1920) in 1890-1891. Germantown Baptist Church

Nelson, a major industrailist, banker and cotton broker in Memphis, moved his family here as a refuge after the first outbreak of the Yellow Fever epidemics that plagued the Mid-South during the late 1860s and 1870s. The Nelsons later transferred the property to their daughter, Laura, and her husband James Brett, who lived here until 1890. The Ebling family acquired the property from the Bretts, and set about remodeling the house in the style of the Queen Anne Revival, its appearance today. In 1898, the property was purchased by John A. Kirby (1842-1929) and has remained in the hands of his descendants since that time. A native of Virginia, John Kirby moved to Memphis in 1860 and following the outbreak of the Civil War, served with the Shelby Grays. After the war, Kirby married Ann Eliza Brooks (1848-1926), granddaughter of Wilks Brooks who owned the property from 1838 - 1853. By the turn of the century Kirby landholdings exceeded some 8,000 acres in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. The Kirby House served as the headquarters for these land interests ever since. In 1926, John A. Kirby transferred the Kirby Home to his son, Joseph Brooks Kirby (1877-1950), who continued the family tradition of plantation agriculture.