The Women who Made Williamson with Katie Shands

May 08, 2024 at 12:21 pm by RMGadmin

Iconic Historical Women of Williamson County
With Katie Shands 
Former Williamson County historian Virginia Bowman once wrote, “While much has been said about pioneers to the section of Tennessee that became Williamson County, not much attention has been given to the wives, mothers, and daughters of those early settlers… But for every step the frontiersman took, some valiant woman was by his side.”


While not every woman on the following list braved the unsettled wilds of Williamson County, they all were pioneers in their own ways. Each blazed a new trail in her respective field and left an indelible mark on this county. Read on to meet the women who challenged societal norms and became a part of history themselves.

Virginia Bowman (1923-2018)

It’s only fitting to start this list with the aforementioned Virginia Bowman, Williamson County’s second county historian. Born and raised in this county, Virginia dedicated her adult life to preserving the stories of her birthplace. She was county historian for an impressive twenty-five years, serving from 1972 until her retirement in 2016. During her tenure, Virginia documented the genealogy of countless local families and wrote many articles from her research. She also authored a book, Historic Williamson County: Old Homes and Sites, published in 1971. It remains an integral title in many historians’ libraries and a beloved collection of memories for longtime Williamson Countians.
Virginia passed away in 2018 at the age of ninety-four, but her work remains a part of this community. For one, she helped design the official county seal, still in use today. She also signed the articles of incorporation for the Carnton Association, a group that was established to raise money for the acquisition and restoration of Carnton Plantation. Thanks to those early efforts, Carnton is now a popular historic landmark in Franklin. Virginia’s legacy endures in a more physical sense as well: A cannon on the public square (the one aimed toward city hall) is named “Virginia” in her honor.


Virginia is remembered as a true Southern lady with impeccable manners and a dedicated historian with an enduring passion for Williamson County and its people.

Martha Worsham Maury (1775-1811)

To quote Virginia Bowman again, “In [pioneer] days, women were often overshadowed by men. While women owned property, they very seldom left wills, and few letters or diaries have been preserved to give us a clue to their personalities.”


Unfortunately, this was the fate of Martha Worsham Maury, the wife of Franklin’s founder Abram Maury. Around 1797, with two toddlers in tow, she accompanied her husband from Virginia into the primeval forests of middle Tennessee. They built a home (first named “Poplar Grove” and later “Tree Lawn”) on acreage that is now Founders Pointe subdivision in Franklin.
Despite earning the distinction as the second white woman to cross the Harpeth River at the site of Franklin, the history books remain largely silent about Martha. Only a few anecdotal stories have survived the centuries. One such tale involves her supposed gift of “second sight.” As the story goes, Martha dreamed about her father dying and told Abram the next morning to buy her black cloth for a mourning dress. Three weeks later, word came of her father’s passing, which had occurred the night of her dream. Martha was wearing her mourning dress when she received the news.
When Abram incorporated the town of Franklin in 1799, he wanted to name it “Marthasville” in honor of his wife. For whatever reason, she demurred, so he named it after Benjamin Franklin instead. Perhaps if “Marthasville” had stuck, more care would have been taken to document the life of the town’s namesake.


Martha died in 1811 and is buried in the Maury Cemetery, located inside Founders Pointe.

Carrie Winder McGavock (1829-1905)

In the late afternoon hours of November 30, 1864, one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War raged in Franklin. After a nightmarish five hours, Carnton, a nearby plantation house owned by the McGavock family, became a field hospital for the wounded Confederates. The mistress of the home, Carrie Winder McGavock, rose to the occasion, donating her linens, towels, and clothing to dress the mens’ wounds. She worked tirelessly that night, and her devotion to those soldiers never ebbed in the days and years that followed.


In 1866, Carrie and her husband, Colonel John McGavock, donated two acres of their land for a Confederate cemetery. They paid for the exhumation and re-interment of nearly 1,500 fallen soldiers who had been haphazardly buried on the battlefield. Carrie devoted the rest of her life to caring for the graves of those soldiers. She kept a record book of their names and often helped the bereaved locate the final resting places of their loved ones. Newspapers at the time began to refer to her as the “Widow of the South.” In 2006, Robert Hicks released a book of the same title based on Carrie’s life. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Sallie Ewing Gaut (1826-1912)
Some historians believe Sallie Ewing Gaut, a widow and mother of five, became a Confederate spy during the Civil War. According to lore, she used her beauty and charm to entertain Union officials at her residence (118 Third Avenue North), now home to Shuff’s Music. All the while, she was gathering information for the Confederates. One story even involves her smuggling intel across enemy lines in a whiskey bottle beneath her petticoats.


Whether or not she was committing espionage, Sallie certainly supported the secessionist cause. However, despite being a staunch Confederate, she cared for wounded soldiers on both sides when they filled her home for many months after the Battle of Franklin.


During the war, her cousin Adelicia Acklen’s husband died, and the family feared his massive cotton crop in Louisiana would be burned to prevent its seizure by the Federals. Sallie and Adelicia decided to take matters into their own hands. They made the dangerous trek, perhaps with a male escort, through the lines of both armies to the family’s plantations. Against all odds, the women managed to negotiate with the Confederate and Federal officers to secure the crop. Sallie and Adelicia exported the cotton and sold it for $960,000 in gold, making Adelicia one of the wealthiest women in the country.
Sallie died in 1912, but a portrait of her still hangs at the Belmont Mansion, the former home of her cousin Adelicia.

Eloise Pitts O’More (1906-2002)

After growing up in rural Lewisburg, Tennessee, Eloise Pitts O’More studied art, design, and fashion in Paris and New York. She later returned to middle Tennessee where she worked as a successful interior designer and muralist.


For decades, Eloise Pitts O’More dreamed of opening a design school, and at the age of sixty, she turned that dream into a reality. In 1970, she converted her Victorian home in Franklin (819 West Main Street) into O’More School of Interior Architecture and Design. The academy targeted women, a novel idea in those days when females weren’t traditionally employed in design fields.


Eloise took a holistic approach in her school, training students to look beyond simply decorating rooms. Her curriculum included architecture, textiles, landscape design, restoration and lighting. Within a decade, the school outgrew her house, necessitating a move in 1980 to an Italianate Revival mansion on South Margin Street. Eloise also lived in this home, which she named Abbey Leix, until her death in 2002. Today, the house is part of Franklin Grove Estate and Gardens, a multi-functional historic property owned by the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County. The school, now known as the O’More College of Design, was acquired by Nashville’s Belmont University and moved to its campus in 2018.

Mary Mills (1926-2023)

It could be said that Mary Mills helped raise hundreds of children in Williamson County. She worked tirelessly for thirty-nine years in the Franklin Special School District, both before and after the integration of public schools. Her career began with teaching positions, and she later became a principal at Franklin Junior High. Mary operated under the belief that every child can achieve if given the opportunity.


Forever a public servant, Mary continued to dedicate her time to Williamson County, even after retiring from education in 1993. She served as a Williamson County commissioner for seventeen years and spent more than twenty-five years on the Williamson Medical Center Board of Directors. Not only that, she was instrumental in preserving the county’s African-American history. She helped establish the African-American Heritage Society, as well as the McLemore House Museum.


Mary’s death in 2023 marked a huge loss for the community, but her name will forever be associated with compassionate leadership and unwavering devotion to the betterment of Williamson County. Her legacy lives on through the countless students she impacted and the institutions she helped shape.