Writer’s note: Many years ago, I wrote a history column for a local newspaper. One of the topics I was asked about was the farm next to the river on Pellissippi as you are going from Blount to Knox Counties. The place is rumored to be haunted and it is all the caretakers can do to keep people out. I don’t know why they just don’t cash in on the interest, clean it up and make some money on the place. But, hey, they didn’t ask for my opinion on the subject. As of this writing (2015), keep in mind this story is at least a dozen plus years old, so many of the people I interviewed are now dead and I have no idea who owns it these days. And again, let me emphasize it's private property.
Haunting remnant of the past welcomes motorists to Knox County
If you ever find yourself traveling north on Pellissippi Parkway (I-140) from Blount to Knox County in East Tennessee, you may notice a hauntingly beautiful farm nestled into the valley against the Tennessee River. The best time to see it is in the early morning when the sun hits the mist rising from the water and bathes the buildings in an eerie half-light.
The scene is even more memorable if you know the history of the barns and dormitory that were once an extension of East Tennessee State Mental Hospital located farther up-river in Knoxville.
After the Revolutionary War, it was common practice for the fledgling United States government, known then as the Continental Congress, to give land grants to soldiers in lieu of monetary compensation. John Toole was a lieutenant in the Hawkins County Militia for the State of North Carolina. (Later Hawkins County would become Knox County, Tennessee.)
“At that time, the government, still under the Articles of Confederation, wanted to consolidate its western lands,” reads John Toole and his Descendants, “particularly against the French in the Mississippi Valley. Lands were thus opened in the western wilderness and grants were given to the soldiers who had served in the war. In this area they became known as the Nolichucky Settlers [after the Nolichucky River which flows through the upper northeast part of Tennessee].”
In 1788, Toole received one of these grants in the form of 600 acres in recognition of his loyal service. The wooded but fertile land, wrapped in the Tennessee River, was christened Toole’s Bend. Toole’s allotment also included Post Oak Island, sometimes known as Turkey Island, a large expanse of several acres of land in the middle of the water. The island soil was rich with years of sediment and perfect for farming.
Unfortunately for Toole, he was unable to enjoy his bounty for long. In 1792, he drowned in an attempt to rescue a slave from the river. In his will, he left the Bend property to his four children who, in turn, passed it down the Toole family line. One notable descendent, Bart Toole, lived in or near the Bend from 1899 to 1995.
In the early part of the last century, the ground on which the majestic Toole farm sits was purchased from Bart Toole by Mrs. Susong and Mrs. Brabson, two elderly sisters from Newport in Cocke County, Tennessee.
The late Fred O. “Bud” Scott, a longtime resident of the Bend area, said “My grandfather farmed the land for the ladies for $60 a month. That was considered good pay at the time. He was their head man and took care of the day-to-day farm business.”
According to Nelson Green, whose home overlooks the farm, the Newport ladies in turn sold the property to East Tennessee State Mental Hospital (also known as East Tennessee Hospital for the Insane and now called Lakeshore Mental Health Institute). The main campus opened on Lyon’s View Drive in Knoxville with the transfer of 99 patients from the Nashville hospital in 1886.
Eventually, the primary residence would house approximately 3,000 - 4,000 patients, not all of which were technically mentally ill. During Prohibition years there were no special facilities available for alcoholics, so many were incarcerated at state psychiatric hospitals. Then the Great Depression hit and brought with it new problems.
“It was common practice during that time for families, unable to feed all of their members, to commit them to a mental health facility or insane asylum as a way of keeping them alive,” said Eddie Francisco, writer and professor of English at Pellissippi State Technical Community College. “They just dropped them off on the doorstep and wished them good luck.”
As the population at East Tennessee State increased, approximately 50 patients from the main campus went to work the Toole’s Bend farm to help produce food to sustain them all. Those patients who were deemed “sane enough” to function with a lesser amount of supervision were free to wander about the farm as they worked.
There was also a fully equipped dairy on the farm supported by a herd of 100-200 Holstein cows. They dotted the fields surrounding the farm buildings and provided an adequate milk supply to the hospital. In order to maintain the herd, the Eastern State farm patients also tended fields of corn along with the fruits and vegetables for the patients.
The goods produced on the Toole’s Bend farm were transported up-river by barge or private ferry. Making the trip to Knoxville by water was a faster, more efficient way to travel at that time. It would be many decades before the well-traveled Pellissippi Parkway was built and the bumpy, curvy Northshore Drive, known then as Lowe’s Ferry Pike, was difficult to travel with a wagonload of supplies. The farm flourished during the 1930s.
“During Eastern State’s ownership,” Green said, “the farm was tidy and well-kept with a long white picket fence surrounding the property. It looked almost like a country club. Patients kept the bushes neatly trimmed and painted the fence regularly.”
Although patients did much of the work, East Tennessee State employees did such things as plowing and other jobs that required large equipment. They farmed not only the river valley area but also Post Oak Island, which could only be reached by boat
“One spring day a worker spent the morning turning soil on the island,” Green said, “At midday he rowed across the river for lunch. He returned later that afternoon to finish the job.”
At that time, many tractors often had iron cleat wheels and had to be started with a crank located on the front of the machine. According to both Green and Scott, the man struggled with the crank for some time before it sprung to life. Unfortunately, he was unable to dodge the metal monster and he became another of the many tragedies associated with the farm.
Green and Scott spoke of other accidents and deaths including one employee who was struck by lightning. Jack Toole, Bart Toole’s son, recalled witnessing a patient’s body being pulled from the river after drowned trying to escape from the property. Sadly, this was an all too common occurrence.
In the early 1940s, when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) flooded the area upon the completion of Fort Loudon Dam, the State traded what was left of the Toole’s Bend farm to John Kriess for property located near the main mental health campus at the forks of the French Broad and Holston Rivers. Unfortunately, Kriess too met with an untimely death when he fell through an opening in one of the barn lofts.
The late John Fitzgerald, a lifelong Knox County resident, said, “Kriess was a state trapshooting champion and highly respected in the community. It was such a shock that a guy like that would die so suddenly.”
Kriess’s daughter, Hazel Oliver, then inherited the property and used it primarily to raise turkeys.
In the late 1960s, the United States government issued legislation that changed guidelines for mental health facilities. Patients were no longer allowed to work on farms or dairies like Toole’s Bend. It was thought more humane to lock them inside a facility than have them working outdoors. Also during that time, many patients were released but were unable to cope outside the walls of the place they had called home.
On June 24, 1988, Mrs. Oliver died just six days short of her 84th birthday and the farm passed onto her descendants. Since then, some of the original buildings have burned or been torn down. The skeletal remains of the dormitory no longer houses human occupants and most of the ramshackle barns play host only to rusty equipment. And although the current caretakers plant the fields with hay and other crops, their main job is to keep vandals and ghost hunters off the property.
The tragic stories of the Toole’s Bend farm help to lend an even more unearthly mystique to the place, especially when the fog wraps itself around the buildings at the night swallows them whole. And like its original settler, Post Oak Island has also drowned in the Tennessee River. But in the winter, when the water is low, you can catch a ghostly glimpse of its shadow.
The farm sits quiet now, tucked sleepily into the bend. Gone are the long white picket fence and the troubled souls who tended it. It is now just a curious reminder of days past.