Friday, April 5, 2019

From a Circuit Rider’s Home to a Tennessee Century Farm: The Story and Legacy of Isaac Conger’s Beech Lawn Farm

By Dr. Kevin Cason

During the early 1800s, Tennessee was still in its early stages of development. As people began to establish new communities and lives in the newly created state, religious denominations began to filter into the new frontier. For Methodists, the most effective way to grow the denomination and establish new members was to have circuit riders who traveled to different places to preach. The system of having circuits was ideally suited for Tennessee’s scattered population during the 1800s. A circuit involved as much as 500 miles and took five to six weeks for a minister to cover. The services were held in a variety of places including cabins, sheds, taverns, and even in the outdoors under trees.

Circuit Rider, Harper's Weekly, October 1867.

One of these circuit riders was Isaac Conger who established a homestead in present day Lincoln County in the 1800s. At the time Isaac obtained the land grant for his property in 1808, the land was still part of Bedford County, Tennessee. After obtaining the initial 152.5 acres of land, Conger continued to obtain more land adjacent to the property. According to land grant records, from 1818 through 1827, Conger gradually purchased land and eventually accumulated 1,000 acres. Initially, Conger built a small stone cabin on the property as a place of residence. However, he soon turned his attention to building a two-story Federal style brick house for his wife and family.

Isaac Conger Land Grant, Book Y, page 484, Grant #1905
Record Group 50, Land Grants, Tennessee State Library and Archives

While he was busy with his farm and building his house, Conger also served as a Methodist circuit rider. Conger’s circuit included rounds through Lincoln, Bedford, Moore and Coffee counties in Tennessee. At the Tennessee State Library and Archives, Isaac Conger’s diary provides his personal thoughts and experiences as a circuit rider preaching the gospel to various communities while also enduring long travels and different types of weather.

Isaac Conger Diary, 1813, page 1.
Tennessee State Library and Archives

As a result of the circuit riders like Isaac Conger, the Methodist movement grew and many churches were established in Tennessee. Eventually, William McKendree, Bishop of the Western Conference of the Methodist Church, and Francis Asbury devised a plan to make a general governing organization in Tennessee. In 1812, they officially created the Tennessee Conference of Methodists.

As time moved along, the legacy of Isaac Conger continued as his land, farm and house were passed through several generations. The founders’ only surviving child, Sion Moores Conger, inherited the farm in 1847. In the 1880s, two of Sion’s sons, Dixie and Charles bought out the farm’s heirs and created a stock farm of selling mules, cattle, sheep and hogs. In 1911, Charles died and Dixie continued the farm. In 1929, Dixie’s son John Beall Conger joined him as partner. The father and son continued to work the land together until Dixie’s death in 1953. After Dixie’s death, John Beall Conger continued to manage and live on the farm.

During the 1970s, the farm and homestead received other notable recognitions. In 1973, the “Isaac Conger House” was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural significance and for its historical connection to Isaac Conger. In 1976, the farm received another distinction by becoming an official Tennessee Century Farm. This program honors farms that have remained in the same family and have had continuous agricultural production for 100 years or more. The “Family Land Heritage-Century Farms” program was established by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture as a way to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. Farmers were asked to fill out applications that told the history of their farm and provide documentation that proved the continuous ownership of their farm. In 1979, the 637 farm files that included the Conger’s Beech Lawn Farm were loaned from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture to the Tennessee State Library and Archives for microfilming. Eventually, the microfilmed files became State Record Group 62 and part of the Library and Archives microfilm collection.

Beech Lawn Farm, Lincoln County.
Record Group 62, Tennessee Century Farms Microfilm Collection. Tennessee State Library and Archives

Today, the farm that was established by Isaac Conger continues to remain in the family and serves as a reminder of the important agricultural legacy of farm families who have continuously owned and farmed their land for at least 100 years. The farmhouse that was built by Isaac Conger also serves as a significant historical landmark for a notable figure that felt a calling to spread the religious word to people in frontier Tennessee.

Isaac Conger House present day view on Beech Lawn Farm, Lincoln County, Tennessee.
Clipping from Conger Vertical File. Tennessee State Library and Archives

For more related to this topic see:

  • Isaac Conger Diary, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
  • Herman A. Norton, Religion in Tennessee, 1777-1945 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981).
  • Carroll Van West, Tennessee Agriculture: A Century Farms Perspective. Nashville: Department of Agriculture, 1986.

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

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