East Nashville has become an epicenter for the ever-growing — or over-publicized, depending on whom you ask — back-to-basics movement, with the term “artisan” being used to describe providers of everything from belts and ties to metalwork and meat butchery. For the most part, these people, and this movement, have been lauded. Who doesn’t like the concept of things made logically, lovingly, and locally?
And yet, the movement rankles some. Artisan-style bacon bigshot Allan Benton once told me (good-naturedly) that while the term “artisanal” might have helped him sell a few extra slabs, he still felt rather “of a sort” about the descriptive: “I mean, my parents, everything they did was artisanal. By necessity.”
Which is another way to say that nobody is reinventing the wheel here, as admirable as his or her intentions might be. Then again, the wheel still works as well today as it did eons ago.
But what if I told you Nashville had an artisanal bottled water company? That’d be kind of cool, right? What if I told you the company delivered the water in an old-timey wagon, straight to your front door? That those deliveries — of fresh water that bubbled forth right here in East Nashville, out of the actual ground, bottled in actual hand-spun crockery — came every day except Sunday, ’cause Sunday’s when they have a co-ed kickball game? (Er, church?)
Sounds too good to be true, right?
Well it is, and it doesn’t. Exist, that is. But it did.
These hip-before-their-time H2O purveyors were called Lockeland Springs Water, the “spring” in the title being what’s called a pioneer spring. This pioneer spring served what was called Lockeland Mansion. The mansion, formerly located on the site that’s now the Lockeland Elementary Design Center, was named by Col. Robert Weakley in the 1790s after his wife’s maiden name. Until it was folded into Nashville in 1905 (or 1906, depending on whose account you believe), Lockeland was its own separate entity, used as a country getaway for people living in the far-off environs of, say, Midtown or West End.
Anyway: fresh clean air, and crisp, cool running water. Idyllic, right? Well, as usually happens with good things, someone came along — the aforementioned Lockeland Springs Water company — and saw money to be made. The springs on the old Lockeland property, as it turned out, boasted dissolved lithium salts. A speculator named James Richardson bought the old Lockeland mansion and eight of its acres in 1900 and bottled the water, touting it as a general elixir and balm, good for what ailed you, headaches to heart trouble. Richardson prided himself on the quality of both his water and his business, as the advertisement at the end of this story indicates.
His pride was not misplaced: The water won the grand prize at the St. Louis Exposition (you know it as the World’s Fair) in 1904, for its “unique mineral composition and salubrious quality.”
Then something happened (no one quite knows what), and the land lay fallow for a time. It became a big tangle of privet and bush honeysuckle, and as years passed, the farmland became subdivisions, and the little parcel passed hands from private to public and back again. And some people, who you’ll meet below, took a look at the land and the spring — springs, actually — and the crumbled bricks and old cistern tanks, and saw something there: an opportunity. And Metro Parks agreed with them.
They saw an opportunity to add another park to the city, one designed more for contemplation and intellectual curiosity than hosting cookouts. One that could be used as a learning center, a hands-on environment that can be used as a vehicle to teach ecology, science, history, biology, and archeology. One that could bring an already rather close-knit neighborhood even closer.
As Jim Polk, a Holly Street resident, former biology teacher and learning specialist — as well as co-chair, with Bo Daniel Parr, of the Lockeland Springs Neighborhood Association Lockeland Springs Park Project — will tell you, even show you if you have the time, there’s more here than meets the eye. Because once you get a sense of what a neighborhood’s past is, it’s amazing the perspective it can give you on the future.
Parks are where we go to relax, unwind, and re-energize — to take a little vacation from life for a few precious minutes. Lockeland Springs Park, as it stands now, is not a little-vacation kind of park. It’s tree-canopied, sun-dappled and pleasant enough, but uprooted logs lay where bridges ought to (and used to) be, and there are no real trails yet.
However, if you look closely enough, Lockeland’s evolution is evident.
Conspicuously absent today are the aforementioned privet and bush honeysuckle, each bush hand-pulled by students, volunteers, or both. Dozens of little trees and bushes, obtained from the State of Tennessee for nothing more than the asking, are covered in a plastic mesh (young plant life is something of a delicacy for deer). Bits of glass and crockery — many dating back to the turn of the century or before, some bearing the Lockeland Springs Water markings — dot the landscape.
It’s tedious work, to be sure. But it’s a thoughtful pace he’s after, says Polk, noting that he and the other folks behind the park’s renaissance want to preserve a sense of, if not grandeur, something greater than ourselves.
This means getting it right, and sometimes moving forward in a slower fashion than some might like.
“From my perspective … a longer time frame has its positives, since the area and its ecology are in several ways quite fragile,” Polk says. “Removal of the invasive brush from the valley has both positive and some potentially costly effects to the soil, aquatic, and streamside ecology. The valley slopes are steep and subject to erosion if not dealt with cautiously. The valley floor consists of a thin layer of soil interspersed with stone and rubble, which is in many places often covered by water. The birds and other animals present live on the available food sources including the seeds of the same invasive plants we are attempting to remove. Though we are replacing honeysuckle and privet bushes with native species of nut, fruit and berry trees and shrubs, the new plants are of course much smaller than those being removed, and will require time to develop the root systems needed to increase the stability of the soil and begin to bear additional food for, hopefully, increasing animal populations. We have visitors arriving daily to use and enjoy the park in its current state, of course. [But] time, perhaps a couple of years, will be needed for volunteers to first find, apply for, and then gain the necessary funding and then to install such envisioned improvements.”
Polk says that park volunteers currently have an allocation from the Lockeland Springs Neighborhood Association to work with on smaller improvements such as signs, benches and tables, and tech-savvy ideas like QR code tags that folks can scan with their phones for more information on, say, a specific spring or brace of indigenous trees. Polk says almost all the work being done in Lockeland Springs Park is volunteer-based, with the exception of design by Metro Parks, occasional assistance from the Metropolitan Sheriff ’s office in removing brush, and the Parks maintenance crew mowing the entrance area on Woodland.
Rebecca Ratz, a park planner with Metro government, says that the Park Board assumed ownership of Lockeland Springs Park in July of 2010 “because of its high value as a cultural and natural resource, importance as part of Shelby Park’s watershed, and strong interest from the community in its protection.” For the previous 15 years, the park property had been overseen by the Metro Development and Housing Authority (MDHA), who were initially granted the property by a private citizen. That connection with Metro Parks doesn’t mean the cash is flowing at Lockeland as easily and effortlessly as the cool, clear water does, however.
“When Metro and its affiliated agencies are looking to dispose of property, the Parks department often land banks the property for future open space,” Ratz says. “In the case of Lockeland Springs, a group of neighbors spearheaded restoration of the area in order to get the property open to the public sooner. Many parks have ‘friends of ’ groups who work to maintain and beautify a park, but most are formed around established parks. With Lockeland Springs, the neighborhood group started from scratch and spearheaded the master plan process, community outreach, and monthly clean-ups.”
“There are so many opportunities that it can get overwhelming to think about doing all of it,” says Dr. Bo Daniel Parr, co-chair of the LSNA Lockeland Springs Park Project. “I imagine it will be a work in progress for a while. There are paths, and we have removed enough trash and invasives to actually get a sense of how the water comes out of the ground and how it flows. However, we are hoping to get some infrastructure placed and some additional educational support in the next two years.”
Parr says that the important thing is to make sure any future improvements are done with an eye on, well, the future. To remember that success will be measured not by the clock, but the calendar.
“This project came about very organically,” she says. “Most of us are neighbors who have been inspired in some way while in the springs and decided to work together to get it cleaned up. I believe Jim Polk and I started talking about it at the coffee shop one day. This was after it had been designated as a park. It was safe from developers, but it was just sitting there. Jim was interested in cleaning it up, and I, as a mother of two elementary-aged kids, was interested in using it as an educational opportunity. This property could be an amazing history and nature lab for the students of the elementary school and a natural sanctuary for wildlife and people. We decided to join forces and started having monthly cleanups and started introducing other people to the area. Bringing people to the springs has been a great joy for me. Everyone who visits the park gets inspired and instantly starts talking about ideas for improvement. To me, that is part of the magic of the springs — [they] bring out the altruism in everyone, and we all have something to offer.”
To that end, Parr is currently looking to get two grants for infrastructure and for education and perhaps an outdoor classroom over the next couple of years. In the meantime, Vanderbilt School for Science and Math scientist/instructor Chris Vanags has already engineered many “field trips” to the park, even in its unfinished state. Because of its unfinished state, to hear him tell it.
“I’m always looking for ways to involve our students in local field-based research projects. When I moved to East Nashville seven years ago, I fell in love with Shelby Bottoms and worked with Denise Weyer to design and implement a student-based long-term ecological research project in the park. Through this project, students have been monitoring invasive plant species, wetland soil characteristics and surface water quality at Shelby Bottoms and Lake Sevier. When Bo [Parr} took my daughter’s Brownie troop over to explore the springs, my wife, Loren, came back to tell me of this wonderful place, and we eventually made the connection to the headwaters of Lake Sevier.
“Bo brought me into the project and introduced me to Rebecca Ratz, which ultimately led to a project that brought in three of my students — Scherley Gomez, Sam Klockenkemper, and Rachel Waters — who did the initial mapping and chemical characterization of the springs and also designed and disseminated a survey to gauge community interest in the project and prioritize redevelopment of the park.”
Vanags says that he has since brought numerous classes to the springs to continue the original VSSM team’s work, and, to that end, will host a grouping of 48 students in June, variously conducting research and working, physically if need be, to restore the area to a more natural, pre-invasive, state.
Make no mistake: There is still plenty of work to be done on, and in, Lockeland Park. However, as the park is a living, breathing thing, there will always be work to be done, if it is indeed to survive. There will be upkeep to consider, as well as heretofore unseen challenges that will need to be navigated.
And yet, say the volunteers, the park is ready for you, right now. It’s ready for you to listen to the slow bubble of the springs, to smell the flowers, to feel the crunch of leaves under your feet. It’s ready for you to come see what has been done, and see what can be done. Anyone’s interest in and use of the park, they say, will be helping save a piece of our past with an eye toward future generations.
Volunteer Joel Daunic, father of 102.5 The Game radio personality Willy Daunic and proprietor of the non-profit “traveling summer camp for kids and active seniors” The Generation Connection, says that even if the water is not as restorative as Richardson might have advertised in the daily papers 100 years ago, the park’s charms work a certain kind of magic.
“With each cleanup I am amazed how much more pretty it gets. Many others say the same; especially who have already added its beauty to their walking or jogging regimen.”
Daunic — an indefatigable privet-puller according to Polk — notes that the best exercise that Lockeland Springs Park offers is perhaps the exercise of the mind; the “peace of ” variety in particular. He’s a longtime advocate for and resident of Lockeland Springs, and is proud of what the neighborhood has become. He also wants people to know what it was, and what it will be.
“Hearing people say how communities named themselves after landmarks that no longer exist — ‘Thousand Oaks’ for example — was all the ‘research’ I needed [to get involved],” he says.
Thanks to people like Polk, Parr, Daunic and others, the little wooded wetland, which has never stopped offering up its gifts, once again has a name. And at the same time, a neighborhood learns about its own.