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Columbia, Tenn: A treasure trove of unique southern history

Just an hour’s drive south of Nashville is the lovely town of Columbia, Tenn. home of the 11th US president, classic country diners and the picturesque charm of a southern town.

The initial draw to the town on this particular day was the celebratory Mule Day parade that honors the town’s long and storied history in mule breeding. After taking in the festivities and walking around downtown, we headed to the James K. Polk Home for a guided tour of the 11th president’s Columbia residence. Many of the home’s objects are original to the Polk family, with some at a whopping 200 years old, making the experience a true step back in time.

The James K. Polk home provides insight into a fascinating history of one of the country's most dedicated presidents. PHOTO BY CILLEA HOUGHTON

The James K. Polk home provides insight into a fascinating history of one of the country’s most dedicated presidents. PHOTO BY CILLEA HOUGHTON

All of the furniture in the home comes from Polk’s Nashville residence, Polk Place, that was sadly demolished in 1900. Just some of the fascinating items on display in the home include a table made from ancient marble in Tunisia that represents the 30 states that were part of the country at the time, two chandeliers that served as the first gas fixtures in the White House and the only article of clothing that still exists belonging to Polk (all the others had to be burned after he died of cholera). Even the artwork is impressive, as all the paintings in the home are the original versions.

However, James Polk’s legacy has less to do with the historical relics and more to do with the powerful impact he made during his short four years in office. Polk is famous for being one of the only presidents to fulfill every campaign promise he set out for himself, including to lower tariffs, annex Texas and establish an independent treasury. It’s clear that the immense hard work took a toll on his health, seeing as the two portraits in the foyer – one from when he was first in office the other during his final days as president – with Polk looking like he aged 40 years in just one term.

But the home acts as a remembrance of the incredible work carried out by his wife Sarah Polk just as much as her husband’s. Sarah came from the prominent Tennessee Childress family and was very well-educated – so much so that she worked as Polk’s speechwriter, advisor and secretary. The story goes that Sarah was so proud of her husband’s accomplishments that she wanted everyone to know that they were in the presence of royalty when President Polk was in the room, to the point where she hired a band to play “Hail to the Chief” every time he walked entered a room.

She herself was famous for her four-hour dinners, known as the “Four Mortal Hours,” where she would serve a daunting 150 courses. But the event was not meant to be an enjoyable one for her, as she worked through the entirety of the meal, even instigating debates between the politicians at the table because she believed it was a more civilized way to discuss politics – and even participated in them as well.

The interior of the Polk home contains items original to the family. PHOTO BY CILLEA HOUGHTON

The interior of the Polk home contains items original to the family. PHOTO BY CILLEA HOUGHTON

But the home also serves as a testament to the undying love the couple had for one another. The last words that Polk spoke to his wife were “Sarah, I love you all eternity,” a statement she did not take lightly. Sarah dressed in black every single day for the next 42 years of her life, engaging in never-ending mourning over the death of her husband. She eventually turned her home into the first Polk museum, where she was a curator and gave visitors tours to help keep the memory and incredible legacy of her husband’s work alive.

If you opt out of taking a guided tour, visitors can check out the exhibit across from the gift shop that gives a general overview of Polk and his presidency and displays artifacts that include a replica of Sarah’s stunning gown that she wore to Polk’s Inaugural Ball, a painted fan that was made by James for Sarah that displayed the portraits of past presidents, an invite to John Quincy Adams’ funeral, Polk’s official notification of election and more.

Square Market & Cafe is a perfect pit stop on a day trip to Columbia. PHOTO BY CILLEA HOUGHTON

Square Market & Cafe is a perfect lunch spot on a day trip to Columbia. PHOTO BY CILLEA HOUGHTON

After a hearty dose of history, we headed to the downtown square for lunch at Square Market & Café for a meal that did not disappoint. The chicken salad hit the spot, as did the homemade strawberry lemonade. An adorable café, Square Market has an expansive menu and a fabulous dessert menu that consists of treats like blackberry cobbler, Jack Daniels chocolate pecan pie, their signature key lime pie and more.

Though closed, we had to stop by the beautiful Athenaeum Rectory just around the corner from the Polk house, which served as a rectory for the Columbia Athenaeum girls’ school in the 1800s and early 1900s. Its stunning Gothic and Moorish architecture are a sight to see with even more interesting details inside. Every year, the Athenaeum hosts a full week 1861 Girls School, where young women between the ages of 14 and 19 learn the ropes of being a southern belle in the 19th century, experiencing everything from needlework to etiquette and penmanship.

And a trip to Columbia wouldn’t be complete without stopping by Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse & Bakery, a quaint country diner co-owned by the late Joey Feek and her sister-in-law Marcy Gary. Although we sadly didn’t make it before it closed shop for the day, we managed to snap a few pictures of the picturesque 1890s former mercantile store that offers everything from southern fried chicken to decadent desserts like the Elvis Cake. We look forward to grabbing a bite on our next trip to Columbia!

 

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