Ridgefield: Charles J. McClung’s mansion

Dr. Jim TumblinFeature, Fountain City

Charles J. McClung built Ridgefield, his white-columned home, on Black Oak Ridge with its unforgettable view of Fountain City and Greenway Gap. On a clear day the panoramic view also includes downtown Knoxville, House Mountain and the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Knoxville City Directory lists a Black Oak Ridge address for the Charles McClungs’ summer cottage as early as 1902, although they maintained a home at fashionable 1533 Laurel Avenue near downtown Knoxville until the late 1920s.

The present configuration of Ridgefield seems to date to 1924 but, in 2014, during a remodeling of the living room of the home, a penciled notation was found while stripping old wallpaper.  It read, “John Johnson/Paperhanger/April 3, 1914.” That would indicate that some rooms of the house were built and wallpapered as early as 1914.

Interestingly, the homes of Fountain City’s three McClungs occupied many acres on the crest of Black Oak Ridge: Judge Hugh Lawson McClung (1858-1936) who built Belcaro, Charles James McClung (1866-1932) and Ellen McClung Green (1872-1956), the wife of Judge John W. Green.

Judge Green’s papers contain photographs revealing that he had blooded riding horses and more than one buggy or carriage. It seems that an early Native American trail across the crest of the ridge had been converted to a farm road connecting the Charles McClung and Judge Green properties to the east with Hugh McClung’s Belcaro to the west.

Among the most distinguished members of the Franklin H. and Eliza Ann (Mills) McClung family was the oldest, Calvin Morgan McClung (1855-1919), who was a partner in the firm of Cowan, McClung and Company, a large wholesale hardware firm. He later purchased a controlling interest and became the president of C.M. McClung and Company in 1905. He held that office until his death in 1919. The wholesale hardware firm grew to occupy 4.5 acres of floor space in three buildings, making it one of the largest in the South with 500,000 items in stock from automotive and plumbing to sporting goods and farm equipment.

Calvin M. McClung contributed as much to the literary, educational and cultural life of Knoxville as any other person. Due to the generosity of his widow, Barbara Adair McClung, his collection of rare books and manuscripts, the product of many years of his intellectual life, now serve as the nucleus of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection at the East Tennessee History Center.

The ninth child was T. Lee McClung, an All-American football player at Yale and later Secretary of the Treasury of the United States (1909-1912) under President William H. Taft.

The youngest of the 10 children was Ellen Marshall McClung Green who would leave the bulk of her half-million-dollar estate to her husband for his lifetime and then to the University of Tennessee for an art museum. The beautiful Frank H. McClung Museum on Circle Park Drive with its impressive exhibits from all over the world is her memorial to her father.

Charles J. McClung (1866-1932), succeeded his older brother, Calvin M. McClung, as president of the C.M. McClung Co., one of the South’s largest wholesale hardware companies. (Photo courtesy of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection)

Charles James McClung, the seventh of the 10 children of Frank and Eliza McClung, was born in Knoxville on July 12, 1866. He received his elementary and preparatory education in local private schools and studied at the University of Tennessee for three years. He then entered Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and graduated in 1887. He successfully passed entrance exams to Yale University; but for health reasons chose to return to Knoxville and associate with his brother, Calvin M. McClung, in the wholesale hardware business.

When the business was incorporated in 1905, he was made secretary and treasurer. He administered those offices with marked ability and advanced to vice-president. In January 1930 he was elected chairman of the board and held that position until his death. Considered to be one of the most progressive and efficient executives in East Tennessee, he chose private citizenship over public office. A Democrat with independent leanings, he supported the efforts of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce to the benefit of the business community. He was a member of the Cherokee Country Club, the Tennessee Historical Society and St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Anna M. Gay (1867-1956) and Charles J. McClung were married on January 5, 1911. She was the daughter of Andrew H. and Mary Dickinson Gay of Plaquemine, Iberia Parish, Louisiana, where her father was a cotton planter. Interestingly, her maternal great-grandfather, Charles Dickinson, was killed in a duel with Andrew Jackson, and her brother, Edward J. Gay, was a U.S. senator from Louisiana.

Anna Gay attended Augusta Female Academy in Staunton, Virginia, where she met her future sister-in-law, Ellen McClung, who would marry Judge John W. Green, venerable Knoxville lawyer and community leader.

Although she and Charles had no children, several lively nieces and nephews visited them often and enjoyed the extensive woods and gardens at Ridgefield.

The McClungs spent the month of February in Florida, usually making the trip down by train. The family chauffeur brought their car down later, as Charles enjoyed motoring to various places of interest while there. It was in Miami Beach on February 10, 1932, that he suddenly fell across his bed soon after arising and never regained consciousness. He was brought home for burial in Old Gray Cemetery after funeral services at Ridgefield.

The public-spirited Anna G. McClung chose to remain at her home, stayed active in the First Presbyterian Church and entertained her family and friends in her gracious Old South manner. She supervised those who tended the gardens and grounds and visited often with her sister-in-law, Ellen McClung Green, at nearby Ridgeview II.

She survived her husband by 24 years, but succumbed on Nov. 22, 1956, having suffered a stroke 10 days earlier. Mrs. McClung had been president of the Women’s Auxiliary at her church and was a member of the Colonial Dames, Knoxville Garden Club and the Blount Mansion Association, where she was a board member. Her services were also held at her home and she was laid to rest in the family burial plat at Old Gray Cemetery.

The McClungs will long be remembered, he for his kind, courtly manner, immaculate personal appearance and business acumen; she for her keen interest in her family, church, gardens and her love of history.

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