From the Gray Farm to St. Paul…

© Jerry F. Couch

Aaron Nash, William Fields, and how St. Paul Came to Be

Jerry Couch 2Okay, folks, today we’re going to travel back to the year 1876 when George Gray sold Aaron Nash a 297 ½ acre tract of land in a corner of Wise County. Several years later this tract would become the Town of St. Paul – but we’ll work our way up to that point gradually.

Aaron Nash was a wealthy Russell County farmer. His farm was just above old Castlewood on what is known today as the Boody road. We find an oblique reference to him in the Civil War diary of Confederate soldier Edward O. Guerrant whose regiment was encamped at Bickley Mills on August 17, 1862. Guerrant described going to the home of Thomas T. Dickenson (present day “Grandview,” owned by Jo Ellen Harding). He stated that he “crossed the Clinch River near Squire Nash’s,” and that “The Clinch is a muddy, deep, sullen stream, a size or two larger than Slate.”

Fields House

The Nash-Fields house, “Locust Hill”

On November 10, 1880 Aaron Nash died in the 73rd year of his age, leaving behind an estate that consisted of many acres of land but not much cash. In July of 1880, he had his will drawn up. He was in debt and he obviously realized the clock would stop ticking before he could do resolve his indebtedness. The following is a transcription of Nash’s will and it will be of particular interest to his Fields and Dickenson descendants for it clearly shows Aaron Nash’s love of his family. Incidentally, this will was VERY hard to read. In those days many people prided themselves on their penmanship, employing an elegant round-hand script. The clerk who copied Aaron Nash’s will was not one of those people.

I, Aaron H. Nash of Russell County do make and publish this, my last will and testament.

First, I give and bequeath to my beloved wife, Catharine the lands conveyed to me by Christian Easterly, the Haban land, and all of the John Skeen land lying south east of the present path leading from James Wheeler’s line up by the James Skeen house to the Thomas T. Dickenson corner at the mouth of the cove to have and to hold during her natural life or widowhood with the remainder to my daughter Bettie, wife of Wm. Fields. I give this to my beloved wife in [illegible] all my lands.

2nd. I give and bequeath to my daughter Bettie Fields all the remainder of my lands lying in Russell and Wise Counties east of the Russell Creek [illegible] and top of Sandy Ridge during her natural life with remainder to her heirs forever. Now if my wife Catharine should decline to accept the bequests made to her in the first article of this will, then they are hereby bequeathed to Bettie Fields during her natural life with the remainder to her children.

3rd I give and bequeath to my daughter Martha J. Blackwell wife of Samuel D. Blackwell all my lands lying in the County of Scott with the tract of land lying and being in the County of Wise at the head of Cranes Nest river adjoining the lands of Noah Fuller and others and cash money and interest derived from the estate of William Nash deceased during her natural life with remainder to her children.

4th I give to my wife Catharine and daughter Bettie Fields all my household and kitchen furniture. I further give to my beloved wife my riding mare and two choice cows.

5th My executor shall sell all my steer cattle two years old and older, and as many horses as can be spared from the farm either at public or private sale as he may think better. I give the remainder of my livestock, colts, horses & cattle together with my mechanics, black smith, and farming tools also my threshing machine and mowing machine to my daughter Bettie Fields. This property is to be kept on the farm to run the farm, and to raise property to be sold by my executor and the proceeds applied to restoring the farm and to the discharge of any just debts.  After my debts I may have are discharged the proceeds of sale then go to Bettie. And after all my just debts shall have been paid up, if there should be any surplus in the hands of my executor derived from the collection of debts owed to me, it shall be divided equally between my wife Catharine and my daughters Martha and Bettie. The lands I have bequeathed to my wife and my daughter Bettie are to be charged with the support of my son William so long as he can be kept on the farm safely.

6th If from any cause the provisions heretofore made in this will for the payment of the debts I may be liable for should fail to do so, and the lands should become liable for this payment thereof, all the devisees in this will shall contribute in proportions to the amount they have to therein discharge. My executor is hereby authorized and directed to sell and [illegible] my interest in my father’s land lying at Nash’s Ford lying on Clinch River in Russell County and apply the proceeds to the payment of my debts, and the land is excepted from the reservation made to Bettie Fields.

7th It is my wish that William Fields, if he should survive my daughter Bettie (his wife) should have a home somewhere on the lands devised to Bettie and her children.

8th I hereby constitute and appoint William Fields executor this my last will and testament. Witness my hand and seal this 24th day of July in the Year of Our Lord 1880.
Aaron H. Nash
H. H. Dickenson
J. D. Shannon (?)
William J. Dickenson

During his lifetime, Aaron Nash had accumulated over 3,000 acres of land located in Russell, Wise, and Scott Counties. In the Castlewood area he had been regarded by his neighbors and business associates as a very wealthy man. Though otherwise an astute individual, Aaron Nash had unknowingly made a terrible error of judgment which subsequently threatened to take away much of what he had spent his life building up.

Promissory Note Aaron Nash to J. J. Dickenson

A promissory note assigned by Aaron Nash to James J. Dickenson

Some years before, Aaron Nash had agreed to stand as surety for a sheriff. At that time it was common for someone of adequate means to guarantee and financially underwrite the fiscal integrity of another person. This was because there weren’t very many surety brokerage companies in those days.

Sheriffs were required to be bonded because substantial sums of money often passed through their hands with little accounting or oversight. This was particularly true when a sheriff took possession of the estate of someone who had died without heirs or without leaving a will. Those of you who have been in business know that the most vulnerable moment in a transaction is when money is in the hands of a middleman. To Nash’s dismay, the sheriff got into trouble, the dominoes fell, and suddenly Nash was called upon to pay for it all. A flood of lawsuits resulted. Monetary judgments began to rack up, eventually totaling over $10,000.

Aaron Nash died before any of this tangled mess could be straightened out. The cash and personal assets he left behind couldn’t begin to cover such demands. Those to whom money was owed were clamoring for payment. William Fields was the son-in-law of Aaron Nash and also the executor of his estate. Because William Fields‘ children were Aaron Nash’s heirs, he was trying his best to conserve the estate for their benefit. He was obviously stalling for time, hoping a solution would present itself before people began petitioning the courts for a liquidation sale of the Nash lands. Such a sale would have been disaster because a heavy percentage of the Nash property was not prime. Some of the more rugged tracts were only worth about $2 an acre. No one would have bid on that land at a forced sale. Instead, the estate would have been stripped of its best farming and grazing acres, leaving only a patchwork of unproductive rocky hillsides. But then William Fields had a piece of good luck.

Since the Civil War, there had been talk of railroads coming to Russell and Wise Counties. The rumors grew stronger with the passage of years. People began to see strangers – railroad agents representing the N & W Railway as well as the “Three C’s” and the Southern Railway. These agents were all investigating potential rights of way.

Frank Stratton
Frank Stratton

One day in 1889, a young attorney named William Elkanah Burns [see note] came to call on William Fields. Acting on behalf of a consortium of speculators which included Frank Stratton, J. C. Gent, and E. M. Fulton, Burns tendered an offer of $25,000 for the Gray Tract which Aaron Nash had purchased in 1876 for $7,050.00. Since that time, land hadn’t increased very much in value. Fields later said that anyone buying the former Gray Farm for agricultural purposes wouldn’t have offered more than $8,000 to $10,000 for it. But Burns and the others believed this particular chunk of God’s earth held great promise as the site for a town. They were willing to pay a steep price to snatch it up before anyone else could do so. They even went so far as to post a bond to guarantee payment for the land.

Bond To Secure Purchase Of St. Paul

Fields let no grass grow under his feet. He petitioned the court to permit the sale to go through since it would ultimately benefit his children. Money from the sale would pay the Nash debts, leaving enough money to improve the home farm. It would also provide money for the education of the Fields children. At that time Kate Fields was 15 years of age and attending Sullins College in what is now Bristol. William was 18 and lived in Blacksburg where he attended the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. And Charles Fields, age 20, was living in Travis County, Texas for health reasons.

It’s possible William Fields would never have sold the land upon which St. Paul was built if he hadn’t been desperate for money. It was random – or was it? Nothing in St. Paul’s history and development has been easy or a sure thing. People took risks, spent money they didn’t have, got in way over their heads, and often failed at what they were attempting to accomplish. But somehow it all came together and a town started to grow upon the spot, much as morel mushrooms might pop up under a dead apple tree.

Gray Farm

Pictured above is a portion of what is known as “The Stratton Map” of St. Paul.  The town was subsequently re-surveyed and what is known as the “Magruder Map” was drawn.  Streets were renamed and some were relocated.  There was also some reshuffling of the boundaries of building lots .

NOTE: William Elkanah Burns was an attorney who was associated with the development of Cleveland, Va. and Coeburn, Va. In later years he became a judge and lived at Lebanon, Va. To his credit, the towns he envisioned and helped create live on today.

15 thoughts on “From the Gray Farm to St. Paul…

  1. Ive been in this house a couple of times, and the woodwork in it is absolutely amazing. With what tools they had, it had to be a beautiful home.
    Would have loved to have seen it when it was full of loved ones and family.

  2. My brother, Huck Hicks and his wife, Lisa Hicks lived in this house for many years. Such great memories we have of this place. Mrs. Alice Fields offered to give it to my brother but he declined the offer..Thank you for this great article

  3. This farm was one of the properties set up by my 4th Great Grandfather, James Gray. He died there in 1849 & was taken back to the original farm by Lebanon for burial.

  4. Ironically, I had been working on my ancestry all weekend. Then, as an amazing gift, I found this article on Facebbok. No words can express my thanks to you for your research and outstanding article.
    Aaron Nash was my 2nd Great Grandfather and Martha Jane Nash Blackwell was my Great-grandmother. William Fields was my Great-Uncle by marriage. I had very limited research on Aaron Nash and somewhat more on William Fields. This article has answered so many questions that I and my family had.
    Once again thank you,
    Lennie Blackwell Story

    1. I am a history buff and I throughly enjoyed this article. Any history of Russell, Wise and Scott county is always so interesting to me.

  5. Jerry, Somehow I didn’t stumble upon this historical account until almost a year after it was published. I have a group I enjoy reading from on fb called Abandoned in Virginia. I came across a post of the Nash Historical Home there today (didn’t know of it previously) & continued reading on another more local group. From there I found your article & was excited to connect the fact that I’ve actually been in The Fields House on Booty. When I was very young (mid1970s, Elementary school age I guess) my sister had a friend who lived nearby across the road and I went over to explore the house with them. My sister’s friend was the daughter of Eleanor Wilson, whose mother was Mrs.? Fields. (Alice?). She had already passed by that time, but her granddaughter remembered her and being in her home often as a child (she & my sister was at least 5 yrs older than me). I recall the high ceilings, large chimneys, big bedrooms and woodwork. We found a big trunk with women’s long gloves that buttoned up & a pair of heeled dress shoes. I was hooked! I’ve been an abandoned home junkie ever since! Now I live a few mere miles from the Fields House and have oftentimes wondered its History. Realizing how far away Nash’s Ford is on the Clinch River gives me an idea of the extent of their family property. I didn’t know the connection to The Town if St.Paul either so it’s been a great time of learning for me.😉 Thanks again for preserving our local heritage!

    1. I’m glad you liked the article, Barbie. Some furniture from the Fields/Nash house is now in the Old Russell County Courthouse. The large china cabinet in the dining room is one of the pieces.

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