Morton House: Nashville Zoo exhibit shows one family’s history at Grassmere dating back to 1919

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Kangeroos, zebras, tigers: you name it there is a good chance you will find it at the Nashville Zoo.

For more than a century families have been visiting and enjoying the exhibits, but one family has made their mark there long before there was even a zoo.

Off the beaten path, there is an exhibit that sits and encourages others to learn more about the land the zoo sits on.

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“The Morton family was instrumental in the success of this farm,” said Tori Mason, the Nashville Zoo’s Historic Site Manager.

Frank Morton and his son Albert, lived on the Grassmere Farmland, dating back to 1919. <em>(Photo: WKRN)</em>
Frank Morton and his son Albert, lived on the Grassmere Farmland, dating back to 1919. (Photo: WKRN)

Before the property was managed by the Zoo, it was a family home and farm. From an original land grant in 1786 to today, many people have called the site home, including enslaved individuals and tenant farmers.

“We know that this was part of the original slave cabins, but starting in 1919 it was home to Frank Morton, who was a black tenant farmer, and he was here until he died in 1962,” Mason explained, standing outside the very cabin.

From 1810 until the time of Emancipation, about 33 slaves lived, worked, and died at Grassmere, but it was in 1919, after the Civil War when Frank Morton and his family called the land their home.

The Croft house, built in 1810, was home to the last two family members (of five generations) to live there. Sisters Margaret and Elise Croft hired Morton to manage the property.

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Morton’s knowledge was crucial to the success of the Grassmere farm. At the time, he and his family were brought on to work as tenant farmers.

“Frank was hired in 1919 by Margaret and Elise’s aunt,” Morton explained. “She hired Frank to be a farmhand here at the farm while her husband was serving in World War I over in France, and, while he was busy doing those duties, she needed some assistance on the farm so she hired Frank.”

The exhibit features an inside look into how the Morton family lived while staying at Grassmere. <em>(Photo: WKRN) </em>
The exhibit features an inside look into how the Morton family lived while staying at Grassmere. (Photo: WKRN)

Inside the Morton House exhibit, you can walk in Frank’s footsteps, and learn what happened to slaves after Emancipation, how the family came here, and why it’s so important to share the family’s story.

“I think it’s important. If we lose our history, we lose the essence of who we are, you know. We need to continue to tell those stories so people will understand and people will know where we came from, why we’re here, why it’s important,” said Mason.

The space gives insight into how the family lived and worked. With each corner showing how life was back during that time.

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“Frank’s wife, Sadie helped with the household chores, the laundry, and Frank’s son Albert when he got older, helped his father with the farming, Frank was here until he died in 1962, Albert was here working until he died in 1973, and then Frank also had a daughter, Maude, who was the cook.”

Visitors can take a self-guided tour through The Morton House exhibit daily.

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