Dixon Springs can crow about its celebrated poultry queen
The name of chicken fancier Nannie Burford Bridgewater has nearly been forgotten but for a devoted band of citizens with strong sentiments for all things related to the tiny town of Dixon Springs.
The bird woman, who once cackled, "I was ever a lover of soft-winged things," was also known as Mrs. Samuel Chambers Bridgewater, Mrs. S.C. Bridgewater, or simply Mrs. Bridgewater.
Starting from scratch with one rooster and two hens in 1904, by 1910 she had created a line of world-famous Buff Orpington chickens. These golden beauties have been referred to as "the golden retriever of the chicken world."
Her prize-winning cocks, cockerels, pullets and hens captured honors at poultry shows across the nation and the world including events in such sites as Atlanta, Ga.; Louisville, Ky.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Chicago, Ill.; Madison Square Garden in New York City; and the Crystal Palace Show in London, England.
From her Joyous Garde Poultry Yards in Smith County, Mrs. Bridgewater bred some of the most expensive chickens in the South. She valued her prized hen, Emily, at $5,000. A trio of a rooster and two hens from her coop fetched from $50 to $200 a set. She sold eggs for a dollar apiece.
The gallinarius (Latin for chicken keeper) gave names to many of her favorites over the years. These included Leopold the King; Agnes, the grateful; Helen of Troy; Teddy Roosevelt; Elizabeth the Queen; Edith, the true one; Kate Sullivan, the faithful; Frances, the Mother Bird; Mame, the fair one; Minnie Guill, a fine lady; Mary Beaufort, queen of beauty; and Alice, the noble.
As for the revival of tributes being paid to the late poultry breeder, local historian John Oliver, who lives about six miles from Mrs. Bridgewater's hometown, said, "In the late 1990s, a group of people got together and formed the Dixon Springs Preservation Association. That group started having fundraisers such as an ice cream social, BBQ luncheon and spaghetti supper on Memorial Day weekend and was able to buy the old bank and restore it.
"Since then, some people in the community have purchased several other buildings like the old hotel and country store and have allowed us to use them.
"Then we found out that Nannie Burford Bridgewater was a world-famous raiser of Buff Orpington chickens. So we decided to have an event. Nashville had the Swan Ball, and Hartsville has the Goose Gala.
"We decided to have Mrs. Bridgewater's Chicken Extravaganza. We have people bring their chickens, and we award prizes," Oliver said of the event, which was hatched in 2013.
This year the festivities begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 20, in the heart of Dixon Springs, just off Highway 25 (about a 40-minute drive from Lebanon). Highlights include a chicken and egg show, a quilt show and a barbecue chicken-sandwich luncheon.
Mrs. Bridgewater and her husband, Dr. Bridgewater, were born and raised in Dixon Springs and married here April 27, 1887. The physician graduated with a medical degree from the University of Nashville in 1877 and set up practice in his hometown. It later was reported that he had the largest country practice of any doctor in Tennessee. In the early 1900s, he also served as president of the Dixon Springs Bank.
Noted Oliver, "The couple had no children. I guess she was bored, and so she started fooling around with the Buff Orpington chicken, a really cool breed of chicken, a good egg-laying chicken and good eating. With the money she earned from her chickens, she built a house still standing in Dixon Springs. She boasted, 'This is the house that chickens built.'
"They say she was quite a character, friendly and outgoing. She boasted that her chickens were known the world over. She wrote a book about Buff Orpingtons and gave one to Tennessee
Senator Robert Love Taylor. He gave it to the president of the U.S., and he assured her it was in the library at the White House."
Indeed, note the documentation in the two letters that follow.
From the White House, June 21, 1910
My dear Senator Taylor: I have your courteous note of June 15th, transmitting the attractive brochure on "Birds and Hedgerows," which has been dedicated to me by the author, Mrs. Nannie Burford Bridgewater, and same shall have conspicuous place in the White House. May I ask you to convey to Mrs. Bridgewater an expression of my cordial thanks for her remembrance of me?
Sincerely yours, Wm. H. Taft
From United States Senate, Washington, D.C., June 24, 1910
My dear Mrs. Bridgewater: I have the very great pleasure to hand you the reply of the President, acknowledging the receipt of the hand some edition of "Birds and Hedgerows." He expressed to me personally his great pleasure in the booklet and it will have a conspicuous place in the White House.
Complimenting you upon its handsome appearance, I am,
Cordially and respectfully, Robert L. Taylor
In 1913, Mrs. Bridgewater's pen took first honors at a Boston, Mass., show, and she won first prize pen at a Madison Square Garden show that same year. She and her birds captured scores of trophies and loving cups, but, alas, they've flown the coop as there is no knowledge of their present whereabouts.
She sold her poultry across the country, and the baby chicks from her finest matings went for $1.50 each in lots of 20. After shipping 50 chicks to Canada, she received word from one pleased customer who wrote, "All 50 of the chicks purchased of you lived and are now growing like weeds."
The front page of the Jan. 21, 1910, Atlanta Georgian newspaper praised Mrs. Bridgewater and her birds to the high heavens as the headline crowed: SHE BEAT THE INVENTOR OF ORPINGTON CHICKENS. The subhead below added: Mrs. S.C. Bridgewater, of Tennessee, Has Created Sensation at Poultry Show With Her Fowls.
The story reads: "She beat the man who invented the Orpingtons?"
This is the phrase that is going from mouth to mouth at the Atlanta poultry show, followed by the exclamations of congratulations for "the best sportsman of them all."
Mrs. S.C. Bridgewater, of Dixon Springs, Tenn., proprietor of the Joyous Garden Poultry Yards, whose pen of single-comb Buff Orpingtons took all prizes offered for that class at the Atlanta show, and won over the superb exhibits of William Cook & Sons, of Scotch Plains, N.J., originators and world breeders of Orpingtons.
Mrs. Bridgewater poised before the camera for The Georgian with The Duke of Wellington, the winning Buff Orpington cock, and Kate, the prize hen, the pair capturing the special silver cup for the best cock and hen given by the Orpington Club of America.
Her pen of five fowls of which the two shown in the picture form a part, created a sensation among the poultry men at the Atlanta show as soon as they were cooped. About their cages the greatest crowds have congregated, and from the first it was almost a foregone conclusion that hers were the prize winners.
Experts have pronounced this pen the best of its class in America today. It is valued at $2,500.
She manages her own poultry yards ... She began her poultry business five years ago in a small way and her achievement is remarkable among the Southern poultry men.
Historian Oliver shared a bit of history about Dixon Springs, which sits 11 miles west of Carthage and one mile east of the Trousdale County line. The small town was at its peak years from 1890 to 1919.
"Tilman Dixon was the first man here. He built his home, Dixona [circa 1787], near to a spring on Avery Trace. That is where Dixon Springs got its name," said Oliver.
"Dixon Springs was a prosperous little community at one time. In the 1870s and 1880s, there was a bank, a couple of general stores and a school. It had a successful county fair in the late 1880s.
"The town fell on hard times. The bank went under in 1931, but that did not happen because of the Depression. One evening the clerk closed up and left with the money, and the bank never recovered. The clerk was caught, but by that time most of the money was gone."
As local businesses dried up, the school closed, and the store, known most of the 1900s as Cox's General Store, shut its doors in the 1970s.
It was purchased by a local man in recent years, who allows the Dixon Springs Preservation Society to use the building as the headquarters for Mrs. Bridgewater's Chicken Extravaganza. On a section of wall inside, a flock of photographs captures the grand bird lady's image surrounded by a bevy of her favorite fowls.
On the other side of the room nestles a small menagerie of paintings and glassware that either bear the images of or are shaped like chickens and roosters.
"Every time I go to a flea market or yard sale or antique mall and see a chicken for $2, I buy it," said Oliver, who compiled the collection.
Other vintage structures still standing from Dixon Springs of a century or so ago include the Village Inn, site of a murder; the circa 1930s drugstore/post office; and the two-story Peoples Bank of Dixon Springs. The latter two buildings were constructed of rusticated concrete block. The bank retains its handsome original tile floor and built-in vault, while a teller's counter, rescued from an antique store a few years ago, fits in perfectly.
As for what happened to the community's most famous lover of "soft-winged things," Mrs. Bridgewater died from a heart attack in a Nashville hospital on April 17, 1933, at 71 years of age. She was buried beside her husband, who passed away in 1926, in Dixon Springs Cemetery.
Her obituary in The Carthage Courier reported, "She seemed to have a vivid premonition of the near approach of death. Before going to the hospital she had her house all set in order for a funeral occasion. Mrs. Bridgewater was possessed with an unusual vocabulary and could express herself in splendid English without taking time to assemble words. She enjoyed a wide acquaintance, reaching many sections of the country."
Oliver discloses a final nugget about the bird woman of Dixon Springs, renowned for her prestigious feathered creatures.
"She was known to touch up the feathers of her chickens with white wash," he said.
Too late to call foul.
Sources for this article include A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans (1913), written by Will Thomas Hale and Dixon Lanier Merritt
Mrs. Bridgewater's Chicken Extravaganza
The event begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 20, in the heart of Dixon Springs, just off Highway 25 between Carthage and Hartsville. A dinner of BBQ chicken sandwich, baked beans, cole slaw, brownie and soft drink will be served 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for $6.50. The chicken show will offer cash prizes in several events for youth and adult divisions including best pen of pair of hen and rooster, best rooster and best exotic breed; and in youth division only for biggest egg, prettiest display of 12 eggs and best original chicken-themed artwork. Registration for chickens begins at 9:30 a.m. Chickens must be in pens. Judging will be from 11 a.m. to noon. Awards will be given at 1 p.m. A quilt show competition for oldest quilt, prettiest quilt and prettiest applique will be held inside the 1870s church building. There will be live music and vendors will offer jams, jellies, woodwork, artwork and antiques.