Nashville Zoo at Grassmere: How the Historic Home is Preserving Tennessee’s Livestock History

by Jon D. B.

For Grassmere’s Historic Site Manager, Tori Mason, tending their historic farm isn’t just about preserving Nashville‘s past, but educating our future.

There would be no Nashville Zoo as we know it without the legacy of Grassmere. There would be no Nashville proper without historic homesteads like Grassmere, either. And it takes passionate souls (or history nerds, as she’ll tell you) like Grassmere Historic Site Manager Tori Mason to ensure neither of these facts becomes lost to history.

‘It’s eye-opening how many kids come out here to the farm and discover that milk doesn’t come from the grocery store’

“It’s eye-opening how many kids come out here to the farm and discover that milk doesn’t come from the grocery store. Eggs don’t come from the grocery store. The clothing we wear doesn’t come from the store,” Tori smiles from the home’s impressive back porch as she looks out towards the farmland. “To see children experience the concept of milk and eggs and wool for the first time is such a big part of us helping educate the public here with the Grassmere Historic Farm.”

Grassmere Historic Farm, Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. (Jon D. B., Outsider)

One of the oldest homesteads in Davidson County open to the public, Grassmere Historic Home (also known as the Croft House) was built in 1810 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Homes. It remains the striking focal point of Grassmere Historic Farm; an educational wonderland for Nashvillians looking to learn more about our area’s agricultural past.

Tori considers education about agriculture one of the most important aspects of her fascinating job. “We’re teaching these kids – our future – the basic things that you and I take for granted. Milk comes from a cow. Eggs come from chickens, and wool comes from sheep.”

As hard as it is for older generations to imagine, there will come a time when this knowledge is a forgotten relic. But not if Tori has anything to say about it.

Grassmere Preserves the Agricultural Past that Helped Build America

“In Nashville’s past, and the same can be said for most of the South, almost everything that your family needed you either made or grew. There were very few things that would’ve been bought, for many reasons,” she continues. “And families accomplished this largely through animals. Through livestock.”

Historic Site Manager Tori Mason discusses livestock feeding with Contact Keeper Dakota on the Historic Farm. (Outsider, Jon D. B.)

One of the ways the historic farm keeps this history alive is through a Nashville Zoo hallmark: endangered species conservation. When we think of endangered species, we typically think of exotic animals like the Sumatran tiger or clouded leopard (two species our zoo leads conservation work for). But domestic breeds like livestock can also be endangered. And this is the case for the majority of animals on Grassmere’s Historic Farm.

“We have such wonderful animals here on the farm that visitors can come see up close,” Tori offers. “We have unique breeds of cattle, sheep, donkeys, a miniature horse, pigs, goats, you name it. Quite the variety,” she smiles.

“But its the heritage breeds we have that we are helping preserve. We have four distinct heritage breeds. This denotes a breed that’s been around for a very long time that is also considered endangered or threatened. There’s a great organization, The Livestock Conservancy, that oversees such endangered livestock breeds. And here at Grassmere, we have American milking Devon cattle, Costwold sheep, belted Galloway cattle, and Sicilian donkeys registered with the conservancy.”

American Milking Devon Cattle: Remarkable Relics of Tennessee’s Agricultural History

Each of these species saw use across America as European immigrants settled the continent. “But the two that would’ve seen use on a Tennessee farm like ours in the 1800s are the Devon cattle and the Cotswold sheep,” Tori explains. “Both are English breeds, but came over to the United States at different times.”

As for the Devon cattle, “This breed actually came over with the first batch of English pilgrims and has been here since the start of English colonization in the 1600s,” Tori adds.

Endangered American Milking Devon Cattle bull. A Sicilian donkey buddy stands alongside at Grassmere Historic Farm, Nashville, TN (Photo credit: Jon D. B., Outsider)

These enormous, hardy cattle saw widespread use across the American South as the country was built. Here in Nashville, Devon cattle were a big part of homesteads and farms like Grassmere. As their name implies, the breed did provide milk to some extent. But the remarkable hardiness of these big ol’ bovines is the real reason for their initial popularity.

“These are big, big cattle, so they were worked like oxen to pull enormous farm equipment. They really formed the backbone of manual labor on homesteads, something Grassmere needed throughout the 1800s. But as soon as technology outpaced them with the use of tractors and machines, people stopped breeding and keeping Devons. Today, they’re facing extinction as a result.”

By the turn of the 20th century, Devon cattle faced another threat: The Shorthorn, “a more productive multi-purpose breed,” as the Livestock Conservancy describes. As more and more farmers sought Shorthorns over Devons, the breed became a rarity outside New England in the 1900s-on. But thanks to Grassmere, the breed has representation and protection in modern Nashville.

Grassmere’s Cotswold Sheep Were Once ‘The Most Popular Sheep Breed in the Country!’

“And then there’s the Cotswold sheep; a huge part of Tennessee’s early history, too,” Tori continues. “They came over to America in the 1830s. And by the later 19th century, they were the most popular sheep breed in the country!”

As the Conservancy describes, the Cotswold is a longwool sheep breed from the Cotswold Hills in the west of England. Their history stretches back over 2,000 years in this region to the time of the Roman conquest, and became an integral part of the American colonization, as well.

But as agriculture progressed, the majority of Cotswold herders would begin crossbreeding them with other species for meat and fleece purposes in order to meet demand on both fronts. Pure-bred stock animals went out of style as a result, leading to the near-extinction of Cotswold sheep by the mid-1900s.

“These are an endangered species, and I think that’s important to recognize,” Tori offers. “Our zoo here in the city isn’t only helping with the conservation of exotic species like Sumatran tigers and clouded leopards, but with the preservation and conservation of incredible, important livestock breeds like Cotswolds, as well.”

Today, Cotswold sheep have found a second life as fiber crafters rediscover and seek out their wool. And one way the Grassmere team aims to keep Nashville’s livestock history alive is their very first ‘Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em’ program. This year, the program will offer heritage breed wool to Tennessee artisans for the first time in history. A full circle moment for Nashville agriculture if there ever was one.