The Phipps Come to Rotherwood

View of Rotherwood sometime during the 1920s.

Tracing Rotherwood’s ownership is a formidable task, but it’s possible to create a general outline. Ross sold the property to the Phipps family in 1847, a transaction recorded in the Rogersville Courthouse [Ledger S, Page 81]. The recording was done on November 28, 1847. Joshua Phipps gave Ross $17,000 for 1,900 acres of land.

The Phipps family never lived in Rotherwood prior to the Civil War. Several historic sources state there was once a historical marker near Rotherwood Bridge that attested this fact. The marker stated Ross built Rotherwood on the north side of the highway, but that house burned. Joshua Phipps later built Rotherwood Mansion on the south side of the highway. The erroneous ownership information on the house was traced to the period when the Kingsport Improvement Company owned the property.

The Phipps family didn’t waste the ruins of the old house. The surviving foundation brick and chimney stone were used when a neighbor expanded their older log home. The location of the log house is unknown, but it was originally built by Mr. Ferdinand Clyce in the 1800s.

Author Frank Netherland, of Church Hill, authored an editorial in the Kingsport paper in 1968. The article accompanied his book, titled History of Ross Silk Factory & other events of Rotherwood, TN. He was a direct descendent of Joshua Phipps and his first wife, Abenida. Netherland stated the Fred McConnell home was built precisely atop the old Rotherwood house. At that time, you could walk around their yard’s outskirts and find pieces of bricks from Ross’s old house. The second Rotherwood Mansion was constructed somewhere around 1850.

The General Assembly for the State of Tennessee passed an Act in 1856. Joshua Phipps and John L. Lampson owned a tract of land on the North Fork of the Holston River. The land, its buildings, and goods were all dedicated to a new venture, “Rotherwood Classical Seminary.”

The Seminary

This slight omission of history was recorded in the Acts of the State of Tennessee Passed at the General Assembly, published in 1856. John L. Lampson was president of the seminary while Joshua Phipps was co-owner. The legislation gave them permission to appoint members to a Board of Trustees, up to seven members. The President and Board Members were to decide on professors, tutors, and staff as they deemed fit.

Every member on the Board of Trustees was to be sworn under oath by a judge or Justice of the Peace to uphold his position with due diligence. Any property, money, or goods bequeathed to the seminary were to be managed by the Board. The act passed on January 15, 1856.

Lampson is relatively unknown in Kingsport, but his career didn’t stop with Rotherwood Seminary. He went on to become the Professor of Latin from 1882 through 1899 at the Peabody College for Teachers, which eventually became Vanderbilt University. Many of the seminary’s alumni went on to pursue higher learning at such facilities as Emory and Henry in Virginia, or the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. The seminary’s principal was Dr. Lemon Bennett. Bennett was a Dartmouth graduate, who went on to settle in Iowa.

It is believed that the Rotherwood mansion was the seminary until the ravages of war came. No other structure large enough to accommodate students was known to exist on the property. There is also no mention of the seminary after the war.

Deconstructing Rotherwood Legends

Joshua Phipps was born in Hawkins County, in 1801. Ann Bachman Phipps, his third wife, was born in Sullivan County, in 1827. Wherever the seminary was located, Joshua only saw a few years of its operation. He died on July 3, 1861, and his will was proven in August. He left all of Ross’s old lands, including the Rotherwood Mansion, to his wife. His interests in the seminary went to his son and son-in-law.

Legends abound of Phipps sociopathic tendencies and his wicked relationship with his voodoo madam at Rotherwood. In reality, he didn’t live but a few years after purchasing Ross’s lands. He was 60-years-old upon his death, in an era when men were lucky to see 40. He bequeathed his wife the “Rotherwood Mansion,” but states his home was, “south of Stage Road from the ferry landing.” His exact phrasing was:

*”I will and devise to my wife Ann Phipps during her natural life all the lands purchased by me of the bank formerly owned by Rev. F. A. Ross, lying north of the stage road running from the present ferry landing, including the Rotherwood Mansion, but excepting the factory property now owned by William Powel.”

*”I will and devise to my son William Joshua McKinney Phipps, commonly called ‘Mack Phipps’ the remainder of the tract of land on which I now live — lying in Hawkins County, south of the stage road, running from the present ferry landing, after taking off that portion of the same heretofore devised to Ida and Robert G. Netherland.”

As for his “brutality,” he mentions several servants in his will:

*”I enjoin upon the Guardian of my son Mack to take good car[e] of my old servant Andy, that he be not overworked or exposed, but be employed in the oversight and feeding of stock, attending to the fields, etc., lighter duties suited to his age and faithful character.”

And did he beat and murder his slaves as frequently as lore states? We only have this excerpt to consider:

*”As it may become necessary for Mack Phipps to dispose of his negroes from time to time for misconduct, power is hereby conferred on him to sell or exchange such negroes as may become refractory….”

Beyond Joshua

The house that sits at Rotherwood today is called “Rotherwood II.” Joshua Phipps never lived there, although eventually his family lived there for a time. Life was far from good after the war.

Anne Phipps filed a bill with the Tennessee Supreme Court seeking her dower in real estate in 1866. It went before the court in 1871. The Rotherwood estate was insolvent and nearly bankrupt. Like many widows in her position, Anne had a child and no way of supporting him. Joshua’s will left a number of executors, two of them were their children, but Anne claimed she had no idea how much debt Joshua had accrued. Joshua named Joseph B. Heiskell [family friend and attorney], Frank L. Phipps [son], and Robert G. Netherland [son-in-law] as executors.

In the court documents, Anne declared the slaves were emancipated and that soldiers had plundered the home. The home’s slaves totaled $8,000 in value, which would’ve been a handful, much less than what lore suggests were at Rotherwood.

Anne wanted an allowance from the estate to survive on. She claimed the executors wouldn’t tell her the will’s details and she had no knowledge of how indebted the family was. Since the executors were a family friend, as well as the children, she wouldn’t accuse them of fraud. The court viewed this harshly. Heiskel, the family attorney, told her she had two years to file a dissent and contest the will if she encountered problems. In truth, she only had one year.

The court sided with Heiskel, even though he admitted it was possible he made a mistake. The court judged her memory was “colored and warped.” They then coldly stated it was better for a few widows to suffer than for them to have no law.

Faced with no alternative, Anne remarried in 1867. Her second husband was Calvin Waterbury, but any marital bliss was short-lived. Waterbury died at Rotherwood in 1874. Just like Joshua, Anne married a third time, although little is known of him. His name was Lyon.

Joshua was said to be the most extensive and successful planter in upper East Tennessee, who owned over 11,000 acres of land at one point. We know he owned a good amount of real estate, including rental properties within Kingsport. His will mentions the Hugh Leeper farm, the James Leeper farm, the Samuel Henderson farm, the Ripley place, Camp Ground lands, Hamilton lands, as well as a mill tract and some island factory property. His first wife was Abenida Leeper, so the Leeper lands were probably familial properties.

Regardless of what he owned, however, his family financially suffered after his death. The court documents Anne filed seeking her dower mention she received $8,000 upon Joshua’s death. Today, that would be $204,501. It’s certainly no small amount, but couldn’t even pay off many homes today.

Joshua’s will mentions farms and lands, but makes offers no indication of specific agricultural interests. It appears he was much more of a real estate developer than any kind of planter or farmer. His success is also debatable, as he left his wife and son in poverty.

As for his brutality, he isn’t mentioned in any pertinent abolitionist or anti-slavery materials currently available. There’s also no documentation on any mistress, voodoo-wielding or not, or the story surrounding his death of flies or the hound of hell.

J. M. (Mack) Phipps was listed in Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee in 1886. Mack lived at Rotherwood with his family and mother, Anne. Frank. L. Phipps died at the nearby estate called “Solitude,” in 1878.

The Phipps sold Rotherwood around the turn of the Twentieth Century, but they weren’t through with it. In 1948, the lore against Phipps was unleashed in a public forum. The Phipps family strongly opposed stories told by Mrs. Mark W. Potter to the Kingsport News. The family wanted to correct the story because they feared false information would become accepted as fact. Unfortunately, they were correct. The stories were wild and sensational, mentioning slave rings and rampant cruelty.

Mrs. Potter is believed to be the formal originator of both Joshua Phipp’s “cruelty” and the legends of “rings in the basement.” Potter simply said it was stories she’d heard in her family. The Phipps family refuted the stories and stated there were no such devices anywhere in the house, or on the property.

They also stated Ross never even lived in the house they built. The family further stated the stories were propaganda fabricated by Union sympathizers, possibly to justify the looting of the house during the war.



(Comprehensive sources will be provided at the end of the series)




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