Friday, November 30, 2018

Tennessee Connections to the Tropics: the Croft and Dallas Families

By Jennifer Randles

When doing historical research, have you ever wished you could talk to the people who wrote the documents you are using, or visit the places where they once live? I recently got the chance to find out while traveling for research on the Grassmere Collection. This October, Tori Mason, Historic Site Manager at the Nashville Zoo, and I set off on an adventure to record an oral history in Miami and walk in the steps of Elise and Margaret Croft in Cuba.

The Grassmere digital collection is a sampling of the larger collection housed here at the Library & Archives. The Grassmere Collection, 1786-1985, centers around five generations of the same family that lived at Grassmere Farm in Nashville. The home is one of the oldest residences in Davidson County open to the public, and the property served as a family farm for 175 years. Margaret and Elise Croft willed the Grassmere property to be used as a nature preserve upon their deaths, and the Croft home is now managed as part of the Nashville Zoo. While working on this collection, I became fascinated with the Croft sisters and their lives, particularly their life in Cuba in the early 1900s.

1955 Advertisement for Antillian & General Concrete Construction Companies.

William Croft moved to Cuba shortly after the Spanish-American War to found the General Concrete Construction Company of Cuba, which made reinforced concrete chimneys for the sugar industry. He brought his wife Kate and daughters Elise and Margaret to live on the island a few years later. In 1925, Mrs. Croft, Elise, and Margaret moved back to Grassmere, while Mr. Croft remained in Cuba to run the business. After Mr. Croft’s death in 1938, Elise and Margaret owned the company until the Cuban government seized their property in 1961. This aspect of the collection sparked my interest, as it is unusual to find material on the Cuban Revolution in a collection about Tennessee. In particular, the letters from Bradford Dallas stood out, as they give a glimpse on what it was like to live in Havana during the Revolution.

1958 letter from Bradford Dallas to Elise Croft.

Bradford B. Dallas, now 94 years old, was born in Havana to Charles F. Dallas, a native Knoxvillian. Both Bradford and his father attended the University of Tennessee for engineering. Charles Dallas founded the Antillian Construction Company in 1917, and Bradford managed both Antillian and the Crofts’ General Concrete from 1953 to 1961. Bradford’s vivid letters detail the change in political climate on the island during these years. In the first of these letters, he discusses the political changes on the island, noting that “things have not been as bad as the newspapers in the United States have said.” Only three years later, he notes that he barely escaped Cuba with his life, saying “we will have nothing left when we get back there. If and when!”

While researching Bradford for the digital collection earlier this year, I found what appeared to be his phone number and sent it to Tori- who made the leap and called Bradford himself! This first contact led to conversations with his son, Bob, who arranged a visit to Miami in early October for an oral history interview. Joining Bradford and Bob for the interviews were Bradford’s wife Sonia and his youngest daughter Christine. They were all fantastic hosts who treated us like family and kept our interview with Bradford lively.

Bradford Dallas discusses the procedure for building reinforced concrete chimneys.

We covered many topics over our time in Miami: stories from the Cuban Revolution, his dramatic escape from Cuba (he flew a plane back to Miami, taking his slide rule with him!), his experience growing up on the island, managing the construction companies, concrete chimney building, his family history in Tennessee, and his relationship with the Croft sisters.

Bradford Dallas points out his office location on a 1951 map of Havana. Bob Dallas conducts research in the background.

One of the highlights of our trip was working with a large 1951 map of Havana I printed. We brought this along with photos and documents from the collection to help guide the interviews along. We rolled the map out on the table and Bradford marked several locations on it. I marked the same locations on a smaller version of the map we took with us to Havana. Bradford has a great sense of humor and shared many fascinating stories, and I feel so fortunate and grateful to have been able to record them for the future. We ended up with around three hours of oral history, and plan to release excerpts from it on TeVA in the future.

Once we wrapped up the interviews, Tori and I got ready for the next leg of our trip: Cuba! Since we were already traveling, we decided to take a leap and head to Cuba to see some of the places we’d researched for ourselves. We had about 48 hours in Havana to track down the locations on our list and take photos. We knew 48 hours would be tight, so we hit the ground running!

Sonia and Alejandro match old streets with their new names.

Once we arrived in Havana, we in at an apartment in Vedado, the neighborhood where the Croft family lived. We told our hostess Sonia what we needed to do and she arranged for her son Alejandro to drive us in his 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air the next day. Using a smaller version of the 1951 map, they compared the old and new street names and planned out a route for our big day out.

Image of Croft House at 419 Calle 19, in front of current buildings at that address.

Hand-colored print / current-day pillars on Calle 19.

Our top priority was going to the Croft family’s home at 419 Calle 19. There is a lovely hand-colored print of the house in the digital collection, and we had hopes that it was still standing. Sadly, it was not standing, but the pink concrete posts nearby do look a lot like the ones in our image! Despite our disappointment, we ventured on, knowing that we were treading where Elise and Margaret once walked.

Elise & Margaret Croft at the Chinese Embassy / Chinese Embassy badminton courts.

Since the Crofts socialized with members of multiple legations, we made sure to visit some embassies. We saw the ball courts at the Chinese embassy, where the sisters were photographed playing badminton. We could not get inside, but we did get to see the tops of the nets from the street. We then visited two locations Bradford had marked on the map: his 1960 residence on Calle 28 and his father’s 1953 residence in a neighborhood near the world-famous Cabaret Tropicana.

Presidential Palace / Museo de la Revolución.

Bank of Nova Scotia building, Calle Cuba & O’Reilly.

That afternoon, we headed to old Havana (La Habana Vieja). We saw the Spanish Embassy, the former Presidential Palace (now Museo de la Revolución), the construction companies’ office building on Calle Cuba, and finally the neoclassical Bank of Nova Scotia building, where William Croft had an office until he died there in 1938.

Masonic Mausoleum in Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. Charles F. Dallas, Jr. and Sr. are buried here.

The next morning, we made one more outing before leaving the island to find Charles F. Dallas’s gravesite in Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. One of the largest cemeteries in the Americas, it is truly a “city of the dead,” spanning over 140 acres and containing over 1 million interments. With the help of the cemetery staff, we found the mausoleum where Bradford’s father (d. 1953) and brother (d. 1934) are buried. We continued taking photos in the cemetery until we were exhausted, and then headed back to the airport.

In the end, we brought back a fascinating oral history, documentation on the Croft and Dallas families’ lives in Cuba, and tons of photographs. Looking back through the collection and listening to the interview, I get excited when I recognize many of the places we visited in person. It has been a truly rewarding journey, and I feel fortunate to have been able to contribute to and help preserve the Croft and Dallas families’ stories. Learn more by visiting the digital collection at

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

No comments:

Post a Comment