John Shearer: Being The First Visitor To McDonald Farm After Park Dedication

  • Tuesday, April 23, 2024
  • John Shearer

This past Monday – more than a week after the part of McDonald Farm featuring the old homeplace and surrounding barns was dedicated as a passive park with a Saturday of activities – I decided to visit these pastoral grounds in Sale Creek.

Needless to say, I was taken aback when I hopped out of my car and walked up to a couple of women workers, and they told me I was the first visitor since it had opened as a park following the initial activities. They told me that a few days of rain the previous week had probably kept people away.

They were also still in the process of putting out some signage. As a result, I had come in the entrance where the workers do instead of entering from Coulterville Road by the metal gates on the south side of the larger of the two caretaker/tenant-style homes.

Once all that was realized and one of the women explained that the current park space was simply the fenced area surrounding the old family homeplace and farm buildings, I had a wonderful time on this sunny late morning with blue skies.

I certainly had a feeling of being at a new place. That is, even though I had visited the grounds several times in the 1980s and ‘90s when I was working at the Chattanooga Free Press and publisher Roy McDonald and later his family would invite the staff up on a Sunday afternoon in the summer. Barbecue would be enjoyed, I think, and visitors could swim or play tennis in the now-drained pool and now-overgrown court, respectively, on the north side of the homeplace.

Due to the fact Sunday was the staff members’ day off from a long work week at the paper and because of the long drive to get up there, maybe only 10 or 20 percent of the workers at the most would come. But it was certainly a nice gesture on the family’s behalf.

I remember back then admiring the pretty homeplace and the setting amid farmland and a handsome section of Waldens Ridge a few hundred yards to the rear. I never imagined I would be a part owner of this land, as I guess I now am as a Hamilton County resident.

However, despite the peaceful setting on the day I was there amid the two or three workers, including one person mowing grass on a large tractor, McDonald Farm has been anything but a tranquil issue. While the homesite grounds are being preserved as a park open on weekdays for visitors and on the weekends just for scheduled events, what to do with the rest of the roughly 2,000 acres has been up for debate.

Should a good chunk of it be turned into an industrial park, or should it become a completely preserved area or maybe have other uses like residences of some sort? That has been almost as hotly debated among local residents as this fall’s presidential election. It has become a choice of more employment opportunities versus more recreational enjoyment opportunities.

Some citizens have pointed out that the $16 million spent in the 2021 county purchase plus an additional amount over $2 million for initial maintenance and engineering work would only be worthwhile if the money is spent to develop most of the 2,000 acres into industrial parkland. After all, that is what many county officials thought the purchase was for.

But some have said one cannot put a price tag on beautiful land among a mountain ridge and creek and a historic farmstead in terms of the soul-soothing rewards that can be enjoyed for many generations.

Giant land areas becoming parks in urban communities are not unprecedented in Tennessee. Edwin and Percy Warner Parks just nine miles from downtown Nashville comprise 3,100 acres of forest and field land, while Shelby Farms Park by Memphis comprises 4,500 acres on the eastern side of the county.

The Chattanooga area also already has some large tracts of protected greenspace controlled by various entities, including Greenway Farm in Hixson, Reflection Riding by Lookout Valley, and the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, among others. About the only area that does not have a large piece of greenspace – and some might say is needed with all the rapid development – is apparently the Ooltewah/East Brainerd area, other than the area around Collegedale Commons.

McDonald Farm covers the north part of Hamilton County and would give greenspace to that area. While Sale Creek has not been heavily developed, Soddy-Daisy just south of it is has been growing at a faster clip for four decades. As a result, development might come in the near future to Sale Creek, too.

Actually, it is already happening. I noticed a small hillside alongside U.S. 27 below Sale Creek being leveled, and some apartments are going in just below the farm where an old packing house-type facility is, perhaps from the old peach growing heydays.

One drawback to McDonald Farm right now regarding the rest of Hamilton County is that it is a good drive to get up there for most residents. I live near Northgate Mall – closer than most local residents – and it still took me slightly more than 30 minutes to get inside the farm parking area. And that did not include when I for some reason took a wrong turn and ended up driving through the parking lot of the architecturally uninspiring North Hamilton County Elementary School to turn around.

Once at McDonald Farm and after I introduced myself to a couple of the workers, I began slightly jogging around to take pictures. For me a visit to a park is usually always done in connection with a light jog, so I also began stretching my legs out on a picnic table, probably creating a double take from the staff.

I went first near the handsome McDonald home and, of course, saw the beautiful giant boxwoods and trees surrounding it amid some soft grass. The large farmhouse had a still-lived-in look and was a contrast to the drained swimming pool and old tennis court with a few weeds and minus a net.

I understand that Roy McDonald – whose ancestors had owned land in Sale Creek before him -- had lived in the home until maybe about the last couple of decades of his life. He was there at a time when he had the Home Store as well as the News-Free Press.

As many old-timers remember, the Free Press had a larger circulation than the Times due in part to its greater resources, emphasis on local happenings and more conservative outlook that more greatly mirrored the Chattanooga area. Mr. McDonald was particularly anti-union, so it would be interesting or a twist of history if part of the land does become an industrial park and a union-friendly company opens there.

Regarding which paper was better journalistically, the reporters and editors at the time hotly debated that question, and it created some good local competition. The two papers merged in early 1999 after they were sold to the Walter Hussman family company.

McDonald Farm had continued to be run by the various family members until being sold to the county. It had been used as a fall/Halloween attraction for a period before that.

It was also the scene of a tragedy. On Aug. 22, 2011, McDonald descendant Michael Hennen and Hannah Barnes, the granddaughter of former Covenant College President Dr. Marion Barnes, were killed on the track while visiting the farm during the early dawn hours.

The train track does slice and meander through the farmland and across Coulterville Road multiple times like a creek made of steel, and an occasional passing train changes the tranquil setting briefly.

After I took a few pictures around the house, I jogged/walked over to the farm buildings and snapped some photos there, too. As a pleasant surprise, a donkey came up to greet me, while I could see some sheep and maybe other animals a few yards away in a pen. One sign said that people should take caution and that the animals might bite, but I could not resist gently patting the top of the head of this seemingly friendly critter.

I had seen some portable commodes scattered around the grounds, perhaps from the event the week before, so I was pleased to notice that one of the farm buildings was a permanent restroom facility for men and women. Besides a nice view and setting, perhaps the second most important amenity a park needs is a permanent restroom building, and the McDonald family had apparently long ago taken care of that.

I then jogged a little around the back grassland area of the roughly 50-acre park until I got to the back fence and paused. That was because the view went back across another expansive field beyond the railroad track and toward Waldens Ridge.

I literally stopped in my tracks because it was so soothing. Actually, I exercised my eyes while resting my feet and legs. It was certainly a great setting, particularly on this sunny day.

After that, I viewed the giant water tower on the grounds and some extra farm roof cupolas standing nearby before I went back to the front of the old homeplace near Coulterville Road. I then ran back and forth on the comfortable grass by the home and the road and even did my usual short stride or two to get my heart pumping and lungs working amid my otherwise very slow pace.

It was as if I was enjoying my own front yard, and a nice one at that. It was a beautiful setting, despite a somewhat noisy tractor in the field across Coulterville Road spreading seed or fertilizer or something.

This area in front of the home also seems like a great place to have a picnic, and I hope to do that sometime down the road, preferably after I have already run. While you cannot see Waldens Ridge in the distant rear from near the front of the home, it has its own magnetic beauty to capture one’s attention, making you not even miss the view of the mountain for a period.

Even if this 50-acre area ends up being all that is preserved of McDonald Farm, it will still be a gem for Hamilton County. But lovers of parks and greenspaces are definitely hoping for more land preservation. They hope it will maybe help Chattanooga become a richer community in intangible ways different from the financial returns from an industrial park, and it might encourage other investment by people wanting to live or work near a 2,000-acre preserve.

Regarding suggestions for the park, I would definitely put in a paved walking path on the outer rim of the current small tract, and maybe a few benches, too. I am sure county park officials are already at work planning such or similar amenities. And some more animals, including horses for grazing or riding, and regular tractor hayrides would also seem in order. And maybe some of the fields can become garden areas as well for residents to rent or use, like is done at Greenway Farm.

As I left the new park satisfied my body and soul had been nourished and thankful for getting to enjoy God’s blessings of nature and man’s architectural gifts with the buildings, I began heading south on Coulterville Road.

Within a couple hundred yards, though, I decided to turn left by the crossing train track near where the tragedy occurred, and I went up toward the McDonald family cemetery. I had actually visited it in the early 1990s within a year after Mr. Roy’s death to see his nice tombstone.

This time the grounds atop this small hill almost seemed closed off with a hard-to-open gate, but I found an area where part of the rail fence was down and entered. I respectfully looked at some of the graves, recognizing some McDonald and Exum family members’ names.

I found Mr. Roy’s grave and was surprised it was greatly covered with moss and mold and contrasted sharply with its shiny and new look I had remembered from more than three decades ago.

People always talk about what they want on their tombstones, and Mr. Roy or his family really took this saying to heart with a detailed description of his life. Below the name, Roy Ketner McDonald, and his birth date of Nov. 25, 1901, and death date of June 19, 1990, it states, “Son of Nannie and Frank McDonald. Founder and publisher of Chattanooga News-Free Press. Farmer, groceryman, and community leader. Distinguished by his victories over the impossible, his quiet generosity to those in need, and his love for God, country, and family.”

At the bottom is the verse from Psalm 121 that says, “My help cometh from the Lord."

Through Mr. McDonald's accomplishments and outlook, residents of Hamilton County now have a scenic stretch of farmland, the future of which is still in the planning — or maybe even planting -- process.

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This is the 44th story in an ongoing series looking at greenways or potential park space within Hamilton County. To see the previous story, read here:

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