Donnell House tells a tale of heartache and drama - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Donnell House tells a tale of heartache and drama

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If these walls could talk... If these walls could talk...
ATHENS, AL (WAFF) -

Heartache, tragedy and drama permeate the walls of a stately home in Athens, and boy, if those walls could talk…

"The house was built in 1845 by Reverend Robert Donnell, who was a Cumberland Presbyterian minister," said curator Jacque Reeves. The house eventually became a boys' school and merged with Athens High School.

"The house still has the antebellum character that it had when it was first built," Reeves continued. "The furniture is all period." One piece of particular note is a sofa in the gentlemen's parlor, an original. "Some other items that are also original to the house are in the girls' room," she said.

Evidence which saved the house from a 1970 demolition is in the ladies' parlor. "The sash window sidelights that open up like the larger windows," Reeves pointed out, "is something that you're not going to see anywhere else."

The curator said the smallest bedroom is believed to be the parents' bedroom. "This is our museum room, and this is where we have items that belonged to the family."

They hired someone to recreate the stenciling that was originally in the boys' room. Reeves said the family was from Scotland and shortened their name from MacDonnell to Donnell. From North Carolina they headed south. A bible was with the belongings traveling down river, "and all the belongings were on a flat boat set fire by the Indians," said Reeves. The scorch marks can still be seen.

Donnell married his first wife and had five children, but only one lived to maturity. "James Webb Smith Donnell and his wife Mariah Jones lived in the house with their many children, just in time for the beginning of the Civil War," Reeves said.

The house was taken over by many union soldiers. 16-year-old Nanny Smith Donnell was sick with scarlet fever. "Her mother went outside and asked Colonel Turchin if he could instruct his soldiers to keep their noise down, and his reply was ‘She can go to Heaven listening to Yankee music.'" Family legend said she collapsed and died. "Her mother gave birth the following year to another baby daughter and named her for Nanny, and the second Nanny was my great-grandmother," said Reeves.

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