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The Unspoiled Rural Beauty of Bells Bend

A small stretch of land in the northwest corner of the county, Bells Bend is one of Nashville’s most treasured outdoor spaces—and fiercely protected by its residents.

Written By:  Nancy Vienneau

Photographers:  Mark Boughton

Whooping Crane Farm

If Nashville had a backyard, Scottsboro-Bells Bend would be it—a sweep of unspoiled rural beauty, unexpectedly close by. A drive to this corner of Davidson County takes 15 minutes, but the shift from pounding urban beat to gentle pastoral hum makes it feel like light years.

Bells Bend Farm

When I make my first trip there one hazy fall afternoon to meet Eric Wooldridge of Bells Bend Farms, I arrive early, overestimating the distance. I wait for the farm manager in the shelter of an open work shed and kitchen, built by a creek. All is still, except for the rustle of dry grass and the distant whirring of a tractor. On a counter by a sink are baskets of late summer tomatoes and peppers. In a corner sits crates of butternut squash and small white pumpkins. Two antiquated books, Systems of Hog Farming in the Southeast and Agriculture for Beginners, have been left on the kitchen table, along with a hand-printed list of produce…and a cell phone. It’s a curious juxtaposition of old and new.

Soon the affable young Wooldridge arrives to take me on a tour of the farm. As comfortable handling a pitchfork as he is a fiddle, Wooldridge was raised in Scottsboro and returned nine years ago after college in order to farm the land. We jump into his silt-covered pickup to visit vegetable beds and pastures before taking to the fields on foot.

Trudging up a rise to a spot not far from where Wooldridge grew up, we stop by a sweet potato patch. The farmer reaches down and picks up a flint point that has been unearthed at a row’s edge—the ancient tool is evidence of this area’s inhabitants more than 5,000 years ago. We stand enjoying a quiet moment, handling an object potent with place and the passage of time.

It is rare for a city to have a large agrarian community so close to its core. Comprising 13,000 acres, Scottsboro-Bells Bend has a heritage of farming that reaches back centuries. Its divining point is the intersection of Ashland City Highway and Old Hickory Boulevard. To the north is Scottsboro and to the south is a peninsula looped by the Cumberland River, called Bells Bend. In the 1940s, eight dairy farms were among the scores of producing farms here. The region served as a breadbasket for Middle Tennessee and beyond—but like family farms across the country, it has since suffered decades of attrition. In many ways, the green expanse that stretched from the forests of North Scottsboro to the fertile bottomlands of Bells Bend faded away as Nashville’s forgotten backyard—until it came under the hungry eyes of development.

development over the decades

Worries of unwanted attention first swirled in the ’60s, as developers looked to Bells Bend as a potential site for Opryland—they eventually landed east of town instead. Then, around 1970, Eastman Kodak purchased 800 acres to build a chemical plant, setting off new waves of fear. These were allayed when Kodak shelved the plans. But the site came back up for development discussion in the late ’80s.

“The landfill—[that] was our real threat,” recalls Sharon Work, an elder of the Bend who has lived in Scottsboro her whole life and is now considered its unofficial historian. “If that had gone through, we’d be toast.”

Living in these bucolic environs is an insular yet interconnected web of families and friends. They know the treasure that is Scottsboro-Bells Bend. And, through years of uniting to fend off these forces, they’ve found the deeper treasures of community and purpose.

In 1989, under Mayor Bill Boner’s administration, the council voted to move the city landfill to the Kodak site, which lay deep within the fertile U-shaped bend. The fight to avert the disaster spanned two years. Neighbor Ray Bell organized a group called The Defenders of the Bend, and folks credit his slow-moving tractor parade and protests for helping to sway public opinion. Another neighbor, environmental consultant Barry Sulkin, located a number of unmapped underground springs that would have been imperiled had the landfill been created. Ultimately, it was the site’s proximity to the John C. Tune airport that tanked the deal—birds hovering over the pyramid-stacked landfill would have interfered with flight patterns.

The fate of the site was only temporarily settled during the next administration, when Mayor Phil Bredesen decided to purchase the land, making it city-owned acreage. Nothing, one way or another, would happen to it without metro input. But it was Mayor Bill Purcell who eventually came to understand the power of this small but mighty piece of the county. Sulkin had an opportunity to show Purcell around the land, and the mayor shifted the designation, moving it from the planning commission to the parks department. The 808 protected acres became Bells Bend Park and opened to the public in 2007, offering access to an outdoor center, a nature library, the historic Buchanan House, and six miles of hiking trails.

But challenges continued to arise. In 2000, the residents lost an appeal in the state supreme court to the Harpeth Valley Utilities District, which wanted to build a sewage treatment plant in Bells Bend. They did strike a compromise, though—the plant was built, which means sewage is now treated in Bells Bend. The kicker? It’s all sent back to Harpeth Valley, with the assurance that sewage service would never be provided to Bells Bend itself. That lack of infrastructure became an added a source of protection—if sewage service were put in place, it would serve as a gateway for developers, removing a prohibitive cost barrier.

“People didn’t understand why [we] wouldn’t want a sewer system,” says Work. “But bringing that in would unleash other changes that would forever alter our community.”

A proposed development in 2005 would have done much worse. Bells Landing, a cluster of 1,200 residential units mixed with retail spaces planned at the end of a five-mile two-lane road, was to be built on 835 acres optioned by an investment group. While the model called itself a “conservation development subdivision” and allowed a surrounding buffer of green space, it radically diverged from the Bend’s intrinsic character and density.

“This is a rural community,” says Sumter Camp, a resident for 20 years. “There are maybe 350 households in all of Scottsboro-Bells Bend. Quadrupling that at the end of Old Hickory Boulevard—it was unthinkable.”

After the project was defeated, the community realized it needed to come together in a stronger, more organized way.

We’d been told repeatedly, ‘Progress means change. There will either be planned conservation subdivisions or the conventional suburban model of one home per every two acres,’” Camp recalls. “And we thought, Why does it have to be one or the other? Why are there only two choices?”

The Third Vision

This is where Barry Sulkin’s wife, the late Minda Lazarov, formed the concept of the Third Vision for the community. It gave the residents new perspective. The Third Vision acknowledges that, yes, change is inevitable, but the community can embrace and shape it in ways that honor the integrity of this special place. Lazarov asked: Going forward, what did the community envision? The residents had many ideas, which ranged from building a modest town center at the crossroads of Ashland City Highway and Old Hickory Boulevard to creating educational opportunities focused on the area’s historic and archaeological sites. Ever at the forefront was a commitment to agriculture. In 2006, they connected with metro planning to create a blueprint of preservation development for the area.

Brenda Butka, who has lived in Scottsboro since 1983 and still considers herself a newbie, made yet another push: an organic farm. To that end, she and her husband Tom John offered their land. And Kathleen Wolff, who made Scottsboro her home in 1979, asked her son Eric Wooldridge, who was then coming out of college, to help get it started. They also enlisted Jeff Poppen for advice. Widely known as The Barefoot Farmer, Poppen is a longtime biodynamic farmer revered for his expertise and mentorship. First, he directed the team to build a deer fence—an environmentally friendly necessity to protect crops from natural predation.

“We had no idea how we were going to accomplish that,” says Tom John. “But people came together. Someone donated the 11-foot posts. Forty neighbors and strangers showed up to do the labor.” Over a long, snowy weekend in the winter of 2007, a fence-raising took place. “I don’t mean to seem all Pollyanna,” John continues, “but that fence-raising signaled something big.”

may town center crisis

The creation of Sulphur Creek Farm started what has become a renaissance for the area, prompting a call to other young farmers to put the land to use with sustainable practices. As Wooldridge worked the land, the volunteers began to arrive: friends, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms members, interns. In time, someone showed up with a casserole, another armed with a fiddle.

“Before you knew it, there was work-sharing, a potluck, a square dance,” says Butka. “In its organic way, the community had arrived.”

The success of that first farm opened up the promise of another. But just as these farms were gaining steam, the Bend was presented with its greatest challenge to date: May Town Center. For two years, community members had been working closely with metro planning, making extensive studies of the land and its history, geology, and biodiversity in order to bring to light the residents’ Third Vision. All seemed to be moving in a positive direction, until a fateful meeting in February 2008.

“That’s when we were introduced to Tony Giarratana,” says Camp of the real estate developer who was hired by Jack May, owner of 1,400 acres in Bells Bend. “We were blindsided when he got up and gave this PowerPoint on behalf of the May family.”

The presentation detailed a mega-development called May Town Center, which would have created a $4 billion alternate downtown, comprising 600,000 square feet of office and retail space, more than 8,000 condominiums, nine corporate campuses, and a skyscraper. Suddenly, a giant hole was blown into the blueprint that the residents had been rallying behind to keep Bells Bend rural.

“It was shocking,” says Sharon Work. “And a betrayal of everything we’d been working for.”

Over the ensuing months, pushback from Scottsboro-Bells Bend, as well as neighborhood groups throughout the city, was impassioned and informed. In August 2008, the planning commissioners deferred judgment on the land-use and zoning change for May Town, pending further study. That gave the community a window to further marshal its forces. They learned that the true costs—infrastructure, bridges, public services—were not accurately addressed in the May Town proposal, and that brought up other questions: What were the environmental impacts? Did the development support Mayor Karl Dean’s green ribbon plan to reduce the city’s carbon footprint? How would May Town affect downtown, struggling at that time, in the economic downturn?

On June 25, 2009, the planning commissioners reconvened. Opponents packed the room. After six heated hours, they voted—and by one vote, the May Town Center plan failed. Councilman Lonnell Matthews could have presented the proposal to the council, who, by super-majority, could have overridden metro planning. But the votes were not there, and Matthews withdrew.

farming renaissance

At last, there was room to breathe and flourish. Concurrent with the defeat of May Town was an upswing of farming in Scottsboro-Bells Bend. Mentored by Poppen and aided by area elder farmers such as George West, Eric Wooldridge became committed to sharing his knowledge with a new generation of farmers. Over eight years, he has increased the network of Bells Bend Farms from one to four.

“This is the last rural corner of our county and has some of the highest quality farmland in our region if you look at a soil map,” says Wooldridge. “If Nashville works to protect it, we could provide much of our city's food supply while creating long-term, sustainable jobs.”

His friend and intern Kevin Sykes started his own biodynamic farm nearby, as did Peter Burns, another Bells Bend Farms intern. They eventually collaborated with neighbor Will Tarleton of Wiley’s Produce, forming Six Boots Growers’ Collective.

“I couldn't name all of the people who went way out of their way to help us,” Sykes says. “The community wanted us to work the land and produce lots of food. We’ve had people like Tom John and Brenda Butka who took us in while we farmed their land those first couple of years.”

Others in this new crop of farmers and advocates include Graham and Mary Lindsay Sherrill of Sherrill Homestead on Tidwell Hollow and the women of Humble Flowers: Tyler Skelton, Carrie Wisinski, and Kate Burrows.

“We aren’t doing this on our own,” notes Skelton. “We are supported by a collective, multi-generational vision.”

After decades of neglect, the Wade School on Old Hydes Ferry Pike has been renovated into a business and conference center for Millar-Rich, a nonprofit assisting individuals with intellectual disabilities, as well as a restaurant, bar, and event venue now called Old School Farm. The surrounding grounds are devoted to growing food sustainably.

Christie Craig, who runs The Farmer’s Florist and plans to open a farm stay at Whooping Crane Farm, was drawn to the area in part because of the close community. “The love for the Bend is contagious and gives you a sense of true responsibility for this place, [which is] something worth fighting for,” she says.

Today, through the Land Trust for Tennessee, more than 350 acres of the 3,000-acre Beaman and Bells Bend Park are forever preserved in conservation easements. The Beaman to Bells Bend Conservation Corridor works to unfold its mission to establish an outdoor recreational, agricultural, and residential conservation district. And that’s all well and good, but it does not ensure that other forces of development won’t press again. It will take Nashvillians committing to protect the resources in their own backyard.

 “We want people to hear ‘Bells Bend’ and recognize the name,” says Sykes. “We want them to know that it is Nashville’s rural preserve and there are many reasons to keep it that way, even as Nashville grows up.”

Wooldridge takes the vision further.

“We’ve got plenty of strip malls, high rises, and parking lots in every direction around us,” he says. “But not here, not yet. Let’s save this land for our children and grandchildren and imagine how they would appreciate such a gift.”

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