Friday, June 4, 2010

Cuba business funded Grassmere; Castro revolution turned it into Nashville Zoo

Croft House at Grassmere
Photo by Jeffrey Peeden.  Licensed via Creative Commons.
Jenny Upchurch of the Tennessean reports here on the bicentennial celebration of the Grassmere house at the Nashville Zoo, including its ties to Cuba. The Zoo would likely not be at the Grassmere property if it were not for Cuba.

According to the article, the Crofts were the fifth family to live at Grassmere, and the patriarch of the Croft family had a sugar plantation in Cuba.  Sisters Elise and Margaret spent most of the year in Cuba, returning to Grassmere only in the summers.  Part of the reason the Croft sisters could hold onto Grassmere for so long was income from the plantation in Cuba:
The sisters moved back to Grassmere permanently in 1931, living comfortably on the income from the farm and Cuba holdings.
The income from Cuba ended when Fidel Castro took over the island nation:
The sisters’ income from Cuba vanished with Fidel Castro’s revolution [in 1959], and they struggled to pay property taxes on the increasingly valuable land.
With income dwindling, Elise and Margaret Croft needed an exit strategy, and they decided to donate the land on the condition that they could live there until their death.  That donation led to Grassmere becoming the Nashville Zoo.

The impact of life in Cuba on Elise and Margaret Croft was a subject of differing opinions.  Their mother seems to have had the opinion that it was unrefined:
“Their mother felt Cuba was not the most marvelous place to bring up two young ladies, so each summer she brought them back here or (took them) to London or Paris to go to galleries and cafés,” Joe Thompson Jr., a distant relative of the two, recalled in a 1986 interview.
But the sisters' friend, Ruth Warner, thinks living in Cuba expanded their horizons:
“They were refined Southern gentle ladies. But with their time in Cuba, I think they were a little bit exotic. They were very connected to the land, very literate, and had some more international perspectives.”

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