Nashville Zoo’s Grassmere Historic Home and Farm: How it Grew From a Local Hidden Gem to Music-City Must See

by Jon D. B.
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Tucked into the southwest corner of the Nashville Zoo is the house where it all began: Grassmere, a historic homestead that reveals much about our city’s past, and everything about one of Tennessee’s best attractions.

Over one million visitors trek the Nashville Zoo each year. Many of us are locals who grew up with the zoo; a place with humble beginnings. And in less than three decades, we’ve watched it grow from a small, private operation located 30 minutes northwest of Nashville to an AZA-accredited facility and leader in international conservation and research efforts.

But none of this would be possible without the house at the heart of it all, Grassmere. Built in 1810, Grassmere Historic Home, or the Croft House, is a National Register of Historic Homes landmark. It’s one of the oldest homes in Davidson County open to the public, and remains the focal point of Grassmere Historic Farm. And one person has been with The Nashville Zoo at Grassmere since day one: Tori Mason.

Historic Site Manager Tori Mason stands outside the Croft House, Grassmere Historic Home. (Photo Credit: Jon D. B., Outsider)

Tori is Historic Site Manager of Grassmere, a position she upholds with tremendous heart. She began as a zookeeper with the Grassmere Wildlife Park in the mid 90s, which is why her colleagues joke that Tori “came with the property.” In other words, she’s been with Grassmere longer than the Nashville Zoo itself. And she continues to grow it into an absolute must-see for any who care about Nashville; local or passer-by.

‘Grassmere stands as a testament to Nashville’s varied Southern history’

The Croft House – an impressive display of 19th century architecture – was previously open seasonally for guided tours. But thanks to recent changes, visitors can now tour the house and outdoor aspects year round. This includes the Historic Farm, heirloom garden, family cemetery, and a phenomenal new addition spawning from Tori’s leadership: the Morton Family Exhibit.

“But first, you’ve got to find us,” Tori smiles. “We’re kind of hidden. But if you see the Zoo’s carousel, take a right, and look for the wooden Grassmere sign. We’re up the hill behind the carousel.”

Without knowing it, Tori hits on the historic site’s “hidden gem” status. Of the millions that visit the Nashville Zoo each year, the majority remain unaware that so much of that land’s history is intact on campus. Which is exactly why we scheduled a day to talk all things Grassmere and ensure Outsiders know of one of the best historic sites Nashville has to offer.

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The Morton Family Exhibit, curated by Tori Mason’s team. (Photo credit: Jon D. B., Outsider)

In 2022, Grassmere stands as a testament to Nashville’s varied Southern history, and tells the story of the people who helped build it in a way few others can in the American South. The Morton Family Exhibit, for example, guides visitors through the family farm’s Black history post slavery – something that would have been impossible without the tireless research of Tori and her team. And the cemetery directly behind the Morton Cabin holds the bodies of 20 enslaved individuals discovered in unmarked graves, then “reinterred with reverence at this site on the 12th of June, 2014,” as the entrance plaque reads.

Grassmere Historic Site Manager Tori Mason Strives to Tell ‘The whole story and the whole truth’

This also comes as part of Grassmere’s dedication to “the whole story and whole truth,” as Tori puts it. Visitors have long been able to tour the manor, with its pristine 19th century relics. Or walk the historic gardens, farms, and see heritage livestock breeds up close. But today, the site’s Nashville history feels far more complete.

Under Tori’s guidance, Grassmere continues to move forward in leaps and bounds alongside Music City’s own remarkable growth. And in doing so, she honors the legacy of the property’s last familial owners; their own legacy as steeped in this one-of-a-kind city as any.

View of the Croft house at Grassmere, looking from the front drive. (Tennessee Virtual Archive, Grassmere Collection, 1786-1985)

“When you tour the house, you’ll see lots of photographs of Margaret and Elise Croft on the second floor,” Tori tells me from the historic home’s peaceful second story balcony. The Croft sisters, as we know them now, are legendary to Nashville Zoo staff. It is their dedication to animals and conservation that brought about the zoo we know today.

‘Margaret and Elise loved animals so very much that they didn’t want to see their wild land turned into a commercial development or a neighborhood’

“Margaret and Elise loved animals so very much that they didn’t want to see their wild land turned into a commercial development or a neighborhood. So in 1964, they came into an agreement with the Children’s Museum of Nashville to let this land remain a nature center after they passed away. The museum [which Nashvillians know as the Adventure Science Museum today], opened up Grassmere Wildlife Park here in 1990,” Tori explains.

Elise Croft and Doug Cotton with horses outside the Croft House, Nashville, TN. (Tennessee Virtual Archive from the Grassmere Collection, 1786-1985)

Unfortunately, low foot traffic led to the wildlife park closing by 1995. And when it did, the Croft sisters’ land became city property. But the city still wanted to honor that original agreement with the Crofts. To do so, it would have to remain a nature center; something Nashville was bound to by their will.

‘Come experience the beauty of the historic farm, and learn the rest of the story as to why there’s a zoo around this remarkable house

Regardless, the city government was good to its word. “They invited the Nashville Zoo to relocate from Joelton to this property in 1997,” Tori continues.

The Croft House in May of 2022, Nashville, TN. (Photo credit: Jon D. B., Outsider)

“Now, in 2022, we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary of the zoo being on Grassmere property. And we’d love for you to come out and see this for yourself,” she offers. “Come experience the beauty of the historic farm, and learn the rest of the story as to why there’s a zoo around this remarkable house.”

As one of the few places keeping the history of Tennessee agriculture alive, any Outsider will appreciate Grassmere’s preservation of the family farm lifestyle, heritage livestock, and farming techniques. But thanks to the phenomenal work of Tori Mason and her team, there’s a whole lot more Music City history to discover in 2022.

Outsider.com