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- This time on Tennessee Crossroads, we take you to the Belmont Mansion and the 19th century for a Victorian Christmas, then off to Rutherford County in search of a terrific tree for the holiday. We'll soak up some rhythm and blues history in Memphis and wind up in Manchester in time for lunch on the town square. Hi everybody, I'm Joe Elmore. Welcome again to another Tennessee Crossroads. Nashville's Belmont Mansion is a worthy destination any time of the year, yet even more so during December. You see, that's when the elegant home is decorated like it was during the mid-1800s. While self-guided tours are available daily through January 5th, next Monday and Thursday, you can enjoy a Victorian Christmas tour. Executive director Mark Brown offers a sample of some of the interesting discoveries. Adelicia and Joseph Acklen's Italian-style mansion was completed in 1853. Here they entertained visitors, raised a family, and of course, once a year celebrated Christmas. A Victorian Christmas tour not only offers a resemblance of a 19th century Christmas at Belmont. Thanks to volunteer guides, you discover a lot about the whole history of the holiday's customs and traditions, beginning in Europe during the early 1800s. - Queen Victoria was the ultimate influencer in the 19th century, and so when she married Albert and ascended the throne at 1837, he erected the first Christmas tree at Windsor Palace in 1841. Several years later, it was published in the illustrated London News with that new invention of the steel engraving, and it spread across England, and then in 1850, Godey's Ladies magazine, a national magazine here in America, published the same engraving of the Christmas tree, and it really caught America's attention. - [Joe] There are no actual records of Christmas trees at the mansion during Adelicia's lifetime. However, by the middle of the century, trees did begin to sprout up around the city of Nashville. - The earliest one I've found was 1855. Christ Episcopal Church erected a Christmas tree at the Masonic Hall for the Sunday school children, and they seem to be pretty common by the 1870s here in the cities, not in the rural south. - [Joe] Mark and his staff studied drawings and engravings from the period to replicate all the decorations. Obviously, greenery was a very popular embellishment. - [Mark] The use of the garland going from the corners of the room to the center chandelier or other direction, very, very typical of the period, mainly in public buildings, but you do see it in private homes as well. Greenery, of course, was the most common thing used, because that's what they had available in this area. - [Joe] And the berries are free. - [Mark] The berries, yes, they always would put berries in it. As one writer of the period said, you don't want it to look funerary. The same greenery is also use for funerals as well, so he said you put some berries in it to lighten it up so it doesn't look morbid or funerary. - You can pick up a lot of fun holiday facts on the Christmas tour, like this guy. It's a replica of the first artificial Christmas tree made in Germany around 1840. Now they called it a feather tree because, yep, the branches are made out of dyed feathers. Strangely enough, celebrating Christmas was not on the agenda for the first settlers at Plymouth Rock. In fact, it was banned. - It was outlawed in Massachusetts. There's Puritans wanting nothing to do with any of the feast days of the church, and it was against the law to sing Christmas carols or Christmas songs or anything like that. But the Anglicans that were settling in the south and Jamestown, they brought the Christmas traditions with them, and the Christmas traditions really spread faster throughout the south. - [Joe] Alabama was the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday in 1836. It finally became a national holiday in 1870. Fortunately today, all Americans are free to share and celebrate the joys of the holiday season. And while the decorations today are brighter and more dazzling, this Victorian tour is a pleasant reminder of what Christmas was like inside this timeless Tennessee treasure. - [Mark] That's what we do. It's a slow, relaxing time to enjoy in many ways the quiet of the holiday season. - The weeks leading to Christmas can be hectic, deciding on gifts, planning events and so forth. With all that to-do list, it's inevitable that well, something gets lost. If it's that tree you've forgotten, well, it's not too late. Miranda Cohen is heading down to Rutherford County to find a top of the line tannenbaum. - [Miranda] Just off Cutoff Road in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, it's beginning to look a lot like, well actually, it looks like this year round. The Country Cove Christmas tree farm started back in 1998 and has been owned by Joe and Jan Steiner since 2008. - We used to come to this exact farm with our young girls. - Well, it's a family affair. It's a family adventure for us. The kids were little at the time and it was just something fun that we could do. - [Miranda] Like the beautiful trees themselves, with lots of hard work and TLC, the business continues to grow. 35 acres, nearly 25 of those acres covered in the spirits of Christmas future. - [Jan] We're busy year-round. Trees get planted, trees get fertilized. The fields get mowed constantly in the summer. Shearing and topping goes on in the summer, in the heat of summer, because the trees have to be prepared to be sold. So we're very busy here. - [Miranda] There are Christmas trees as far as the eyes can see. Carolina sapphires, Leyland cypresses, white pines and many others. - [Joe] We tried lots of different species, but I started with the white pine, which is what the prior owner had been growing. It's native to Tennessee. - [Jan] We've had some Turkish fir in the ground for 10 years and they are no bigger than three feet, so they grow very, very slow, but they are beautiful trees. They're a fir, like I said. They're the only fir that we can grow in this part of the state. - [Miranda] The perfect tree doesn't just appear overnight. It will take years for the saplings to mature and grow into the jolly hollies we all love. - We start out with what they call liners, which is basically about this tall, put them in pots if we have to, or we put them directly into the ground in the spring, always in the spring. Open up the ground, put the sapling in it, close it, and then hope it survives. Usually about 80, 90% do. - This is actually one of the faster growing trees on the farm. This little tree was planted last spring and it will take approximately four years before it turns into a beauty like this. - Joe planted some trees behind us over here last week. Those are Carolina sapphire. We expect those to be ready in five years. They should be six to seven feet tall, which is usually the size that people would like them to be. - [Miranda] And there are more than a few Grinches Steiner has to deal with, like tree disease, fungus, insects, stubborn clay soil, constant mowing, and the searing Tennessee heat. - [Joe] We do not water. The people ask that. We just can't keep up with watering. - [Miranda] The Steiners will be hard at work preparing for the most wonderful time of the year for 12 long months, starting in January with the cleanup. - [Joe] February we're planting, March we're planting. April, we're starting to work on fertilizing 'cause we've got to hand-fertilize all the trees, mowing. May, we are doing some more mowing, and then June is the shearing season, start that process. July shearing, and then we start our field prep, 'cause that takes about a whole month to get the fields ready for the next year. And then September we're reshaping the trees that have grown during the summer, and then October, we are doing some fungicides. - [Miranda] Then in early fall, the trees will reveal their evergreen glory, an authentic field of dreams. The familiar aroma fills the air, and if you think this looks like a holiday postcard, you're right. - We just love Christmas, and it just gives you the Christmas-y feel out here. - [Miranda] In July, folks start booking their southern version of the winter wonderland shoots from Labor Day until mid-November. - [Jan] I think it's authentic. We have real trees out here in the field. People love to get their Christmas cards done here. We've got our old truck, which is super popular. It doesn't run, but it's really a cute set up. - [Miranda] Debbie Karschner of Key Moments is a professional photographer who loves capturing the holiday magic and turning it into a family heirloom. - I just love all of their cute little vignettes and of course Christmas trees and the fun truck. So we love it out here. It's a magical time of year and it really has everything for your family photos. You get the best out of people outside. It's not so formal. - [Miranda] Even during the grueling months of summer, the farm is fully decorated by mother nature herself, a breathtaking backdrop for portraits. - [Jan] We do a summertime for about six weeks. In the past, we've done sunflowers. Sunflowers have been really popular for us. - [Miranda] And after Thanksgiving, it is all holiday hustle at Country Cove. Last season, nearly 2,000 pines, spruces and firs became beloved family Christmas trees. - [Joe] And the other ones, we don't have enough trees. We can't get them out fast enough and quick enough for our customers to enjoy. If we could double our tree production, I think we could sell it. - [Jan] Well, they look for height, width, needle retention, especially if you're getting a pre-cut tree. You want to pull on the stem, and if needles fall off, pass that one by. Seven to eight is our most popular height. Scent, these Carolina sapphires that we're standing in, they have a wonderful orange citrus smell. It just will scent up your house. - [Miranda] Choosing a tree and taking it home, a cherished family memory or maybe a new tradition. The Steiners are happy to help bring a little more magic into the lives of their neighbors and friends, and they will work all year to do it. Jan Steiner says her husband Joe is as hardy as the trees themselves, and is dedicated to the farm that brings so much joy to others. - [Jan] He is the Energizer bunny. He never seems to slow down. He works in the heat with the 18 year old kids, and I'm not gonna tell you how old he is, but he can stick with them. He just loves Country Cove. He just loves preparing the trees for our customers, and he works very hard to make them perfect for the people that visit our farm every year. This year has made us realize how important family is and how important togetherness is. People are really, really excited to come to the tree farm this year, or any tree farm, and just experience the tradition or start a tradition or continue their tradition. - Thanks, Miranda. Tennessee has a rich musical history, and no city plays a more important role in that history than Memphis. Of course, Sun Records was the birthplace of rock and roll, but Stax Records had soul. Danielle Allen takes us down memory lane with a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. ♪ These arms are mine ♪ ♪ They are lonely ♪ - [Danielle] From the unmistakable voice of Otis Redding, ♪ Who is the man that will risk his neck for his brother ♪ ♪ Man, Shaft ♪ ♪ Can you dig it ♪ - [Danielle] To the undeniable funk of Isaac Hayes, Stax Records played a short but vital role in soul music. What started as a small record company run by a brother and sister duo in the 50s grew into a distinctive sound recognized around the world. This was where unknown artists became stars and their songs defined an era. Although it's been decades since the records were recorded, their music plays on. - Memphis is still an active, vibrant music community. It's everywhere, and so I think that's one of the things that we try to do here at the museum, is not just talk about what's in the past, but also what's happening now, too. - [Danielle] Jeff Kollath is the executive director of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. It opened in 2003 and sits at the original location of Stax Records. When visitors go inside, they'll find a collection of more than 2,000 artifacts and exhibits outlining the history of soul music. - [Jeff] Much of what we have on display is permanent. It's a part of our permanent exhibition. It's been here since the museum opened in 2003, but we do change things out occasionally. We get new, because of our small staff size, we're not an active collecting organization nearly as much as we would like to be or should be. Hopefully that will change soon, but we're able to change some things out here and there and put out some new things. But really what we're doing is trying to, with the permanent exhibition, anything we bring in that's new or different is really just further enhancement of the story, maybe tell the Stax story in a little bit different way. The Stax story is so broad. There's so much there, and for what we do in our exhibition here, we do a great job telling, I guess you wouldn't say one version of the story, but several stories within there, but there are many more to tell. - [Danielle] Those stories are told through elaborate stage outfits, music awards, and pictures that take you back in time. Many of those images highlight how Stax Records broke the mold in music and society. - Stax is unique for a lot of reasons, but of course the one that's part of our real core story is that this was an integrated workplace at a time when segregation was rampant here in Memphis, Tennessee and throughout the south. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton made it a very intentional decision to create Stax Records and to run Stax Records in the way that they did, and they're heroes for that. - [Danielle] Now, if you want to get a visual of the impact of Stax Records, take a stroll down this hallway. This is the hall of fame of records, which represents all the music released from 1957 until 1975. That includes about 280 LPs and 900 singles from performers like Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas and the Staple Singers. And many of the people on these walls combined different styles of music to create that Stax sound. - [Jeff] Something that we're all pretty passionate about here is that Memphis music is the genre. There are not genres within Memphis music. Everybody knew everybody. Most everybody could play different types of music. Isaac Hayes was as inspired by the Grand Ole Opry as he was by gospel music growing up. I mean, it's a pretty remarkable thing to be able to put all that together and to create that Memphis sound. - [Danielle] Speaking of Isaac Hayes, he's one musician you'll see a lot of here. There are several items pertaining to the entertainer. However, one in particular drives a lot of traffic in the museum. - [Jeff] '72 custom Cadillac, peacock blue, 24 karat gold plating accessories, white fur carpet, faux fur in the interior, which I'm from the north, that would not work in the north. It gets pretty slushy up there. TV in the front seat, refrigerator and bar in the back. I mean, it's a remarkable piece. - [Danielle] This unforgettable car is a conversation starter among older visitors who remember seeing it around town, and for students taking their first drive through Stax memory lane, it's one of the many ways the museum engages a younger generation. - [Jeff] Really diving deep into the biographies of the performers and the people that worked here. It's very impactful. So many of them are kids from south Memphis, and we get a lot of school groups that come from the elementary schools, middle schools and high schools within five, 10 miles of us. So I think those stories, personal stories really work well. I think just engaging them on a level that we really haven't done before. We have a new educator that started last year. She's completely revamped our school tour program. We've seen more school tours this year than we ever have before. - [Danielle] The museum isn't the only one working to get the attention of youngsters. - I came because I saw a lot of things that I would like for my grandchildren to see. I would like to take pictures and let them know how it used to be and what a reel-to-reel is, what a dial telephone is. The old stuff, even those little Coke bottles over there. That's what I wanted them to see, and plus, I wanted to reminisce. - [Danielle] There's definitely a lot of reminiscing at the Stax Museum, but this is also a historical place that embraces the future. ♪ Squeeze her, don't tease her, never leave her ♪ ♪ You've got to love her ♪ ♪ Try a little tenderness ♪ - [Danielle] The museum is part of the Soulsville Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization that enriches the lives of young people through the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School. With the work of the museum and the schools, they're keeping the spirit of Stax Records alive one note at a time. - [Jeff] We want to be just like the record company. We want our doors to be as open as possible and a lot of people to come in and experience the story, and especially here in Memphis. It's important, we think it's important that Memphians know this story and be proud of this story, because again, it only could have happened here and it only happened here. - I got to go, y'all, I don't want to go. - Thanks a lot, Danielle. Renee Holt came from a family of good cooks and shared a dream along with her mother of opening up a cafe someday. Well, it was a long time coming, but Renee has made that dream a reality. She named it The Mercantile Cafe and Sweet Simplicity Bakery. Susan Watson's gonna take us to this now popular spot on the town square in Manchester. - Town squares all across Tennessee are coming back to life with shops opening up here and there almost every week. And of course, one of the major draws to any town square is a delicious place to eat, like the Mercantile here in Manchester. It's a restaurant, bakery, gift shop and community gathering spot all rolled into one, presided over by the irrepressible Renee Holt. Growing up in a family of wonderful southern cooks, the kitchen was always her favorite place to be. - My mother was an awesome cook, and so my grandparents were awesome cooks. We have a lot of good cooks in our family. Even during high school, me and my mother always had a dream of opening up a cafe. But you know, it's a really scary thing to do, so I worked retail for 26 years and then I went to work for a local financial advisor. I was a personal assistant to him for about nine years. I've never even worked in a restaurant before, so it was kind of interesting. - [Susan] Five years ago, after taking the scenic route to her destiny, Renee opened the Mercantile Restaurant and Sweet Simplicity Bakery in a historic building on Manchester Square. - I decided just to take the plunge, so it was very scary. And everybody says restaurants, hard business. It's a hard business to make work, and it is. It's 80 hours a week or more. It's a lot of work, but I love it. - [Susan] In addition to running the restaurant, she also caters, hosts private parties and still has time to make jams and jellies and salsa and pickles from the bounty of her husband's garden. Renee spends so much time here, it's like a second home for her, and she wants her customers to feel like they're at home here, too. - We'll come and take care of you. I feel it's so important that I try to greet every customer that comes in this building. If I'm not here when they come in, I try to go to every table, make sure that they were satisfied with their meal. - [Susan] Satisfaction is practically guaranteed with the combination of family recipes and fresh-as-can-be ingredients. The kitchen may be small, but let me tell you, magic is made in there. - [Renee] We don't have recipes for stuff we cook in the kitchen. We just make it. We use the best ingredients. We use real vanilla, we use butter. We use all the right ingredients. We do everything we can fresh. Our turnip greens are fresh, our potatoes are not instant. All of our meat comes in fresh. We hand batter it and we make our batter. If I can utilize fresh produce that's in season from local farmers, I do that if I can. We decide in the afternoon, okay, what do we want to cook tomorrow? So that makes it really cool because we don't get tired of cooking the same old thing. So we always have mashed potatoes and creamed corn and green beans every day, 'cause that's kind of the staples, but as far as our entrees and our desserts and our bakery case and some of our other sides, we can be totally creative with those things, and I love that because it gives me an opportunity to create new recipes and at the same time do something different. - [Susan] Food is served cafeteria-style and plates are piled high with steamy southern goodness. - [Renee] And then they sit wherever they want. We can seat about 90 people. Sometimes I tell people, you just scoot on over and make yourself, find you a friend and we'll get you fed. - A quick glance around the room and I spot flowers and a gift bag, so I head towards the party. Are these seats taken? Would y'all be open to someone sitting down here? Rhonda was celebrating a friend Mandy's birthday, and they graciously shared their table with me. While savoring every bite of my delicious lunch and getting to know my new friends, I must admit my mind was already on dessert. Renee's niece, Alie Siegmund, is her primary baker and cake decorator. - I kind of just started off in the dining room, waiting on the customers and stuff, and then I slowly started decorating cakes. At first I wasn't very good at it. And then, you know, practice, I just kept doing it over the years and gotten pretty good at it. I do a flower cake for every season and I'll do the flowers, like the color of the season or the color of the holiday, so I'll be doing a fall one today. This is where I make the biggest mess, and that's why they get mad at me, 'cause there's sprinkles everywhere. Ta-da. - [Susan] While Alie transforms cakes into edible art, Renee is busy topping pies with clouds of merengue. - This is what you call mile high pie, 'cause it's big and tall. - [Alie] And then we have a pecan caramel cheesecake, and this is a pumpkin spice cake, and then our chocolate candy cake, which is chocolate cake, chocolate fudge. If you love chocolate, that's for you. - [Susan] Well, I think you can understand my dilemma, but it was a cake with a most unusual name that ultimately won my heart, the coon hunter's cake. - You can actually Google it, but I will tell you, the recipes you get off the internet, we don't really go by that. We do it in a three layer cake. It has got pineapple, pecans and coconut in the cake itself. And then while the cake is still warm, we pour a buttermilk glaze that we make on top of the cake while it's warm so it kind of soaks down into the cake, and then we put a cream cheese frosting on top, frost the whole thing with the cream cheese frosting. - [Susan] It's easy to see why the Mercantile is such a popular lunch spot with locals and visitors alike. - [Renee] They come just to bring their friends and have a nice lunch and just catch up on things. - [Susan] In a fast paced, fast food, plugged in world, it feels good to slow down for a while and savor the good food and warm smiles you'll always find in abundance at the Mercantile. - I'm afraid of that's gonna wind up our weekly visit, but please join us on our website when you get a chance, TennesseeCrossroads.org. Of course, you can follow us on Facebook, and by all means, join us here next week. I'll see you then.
December 10, 2020
Season 34 | Episode 20
On this week's Tennessee Crossroads, Joe Elmore takes a Belmont Mansion Victorian Christmas tour. Miranda Cohen visits a Rutherford County Christmas tree farm. Danielle Allen visits Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. And Susan Watson sits down for a home-cooked lunch followed by dessert at Mercantile Restaurant and Sweet Simplicity Bakery on the square in Manchester, TN.