By Jane Slate
Prominent Tennessee historian Eleanor S. Williams is no longer with us, though her decades of outstanding scholarship, community commitment and leadership leave a legacy that lives on. Eleanor’s 30 years of service as the Montgomery County historian, among many other activities, leave a rich and copious archive for future historians to build upon.
Eleanor loved history. Her first two books were in collaboration with the extraordinary Miss Ursula Smith Beach, her mentor. Both ladies passionately opened the doors of life as lived. My favorite book is Homes and Happenings (Oxford, MS: The Guild Bindery Press, 1990), the second of four books sponsored by James T. Mann, President of First Federal Savings Bank, who led the campaign for additional sponsors.
Eleanor’s preface stated that “Homes and Happenings was written to preserve events that have influenced Clarksville and Montgomery County.” Mann wrote that “homes… as well as events… have helped shape and develop our community.” They were of one mind. The book reflects the storytelling talents expected of Southerners and features dramatic narratives of residential and commercial architecture, wharf boats and steamboats, covered bridges, waterworks, tobacco houses, floods, railroad successes and catastrophes, the first automobile to appear in Clarksville in 1902, the 1919 Word War I Victory Parade led by Commander Oscar Beach and much more. She held a deep appreciation for moments in Clarksville’s history, big and small.
Eleanor in York, England on a long tour of sites, 1997
Eleanor and Barbara Briggs touring the Colosseum in Rome, 1986
Eleanor Ruth Shepherd was born on May 23, 1931, to James Edward (1906 – 1979) and Lyma Taylor Shepherd (1902 – 1979), both from Stewart County. Married in Clarksville in 1928, they established their family and careers. James Edward opened a downtown restaurant and found a home on Main Street. In 1935, he moved to Palmyra Road for another position as a chef, and Lyma worked in shirt manufacturing. The family returned to downtown Clarksville after 1940, where James Edward and Lyma established a cafe on Third Street. They lived at 244 – 246 West Avenue, where the APSU campus is today.
Eleanor was outgoing in school, church and clubs. At Clarksville High School, she was voted “#1 best prospective wife,” “#2 most intelligent girl,” and “#3 most original girl.” She earned “Purple and Gold Letters” for editorial work on the yearbook. She was active in speech, debate, theatre and Red Cross projects. She was tapped for the National Honor Society by Chairwoman Miss Marie Riggins. The Society, “built on scholarship, leadership, character and service,” was the perfect fit for both the indomitable Miss Riggins and the resolute Eleanor, who already carried a sense of purpose.
Following her marriage to Frank Patton Gracey, Jr., Eleanor graduated from CHS in May of 1949. Frank, enlisted in the Navy, was already in California. Like other Gracey sons, he was named after the patriarch Captain Frank Patton Gracey (1834 – 1895) who fought valiantly for the Confederacy. The Captain had one son, Julian F. Gracey (1858 – 1929) who died two years before the birth of great-grandson Frank. Julian identified himself a capitalist in the 1900 Census. He proved it by the numerous businesses the family developed, such as river boat transport, regional railroads, tobacco warehouses, freight agencies, coal distributors, construction and more. The Gracey legacy is well published by historians interested in Montgomery County’s momentous years from the Civil War to World War II.
While Frank was away in service, Eleanor worked as a stenographer at a Clarksville law firm. The Leaf-Chronicle “Personals” column reported Eleanor’s 12- hour travel by airplane to visit Frank in Long Beach, California, and later noted her trip to be with him in Norfolk, Virginia. Their first child Eleanor Gayle was born in 1951, followed by Donna Patricia in 1953. Eleanor joined the local chapter of the International Homemakers Federation, Beta Sigma Phi. Her inaugural dinner dance was held at the Clarksville Golf and Country Club. She worked in the Montgomery County Cancer Fund Drive, NSO Club events and other community activities.
By 1955, the young couple parted ways. Eleanor and her daughters stayed with her mother Lyma and grandmother Helen Cobb Taylor (1882 – 1959), where she deepened her Clarksville roots by participating in First Baptist Church and local associations. Charles Edward Bryant, Sr., author of The Ramblings of a Tennessee Boy, introduced Eleanor to James Warren (Jimmy) Williams—a most engaging farmer and owner of the successful Springfield Glass Company. They were married in 1957 at First Baptist Church where they remained active for the rest of their lives.
The couple built a new home on Jimmy’s 135-acre farm in Cheatham County, owned by the Williams family since the 1880’s. Jimmy adopted Eleanor’s two daughters. Though they lived outside Montgomery County, Eleanor paid fees for the girls to attend Clarksville schools and drove them in daily, where she had her own interests. Later, friends would joke that the Montgomery County Historian lives in the next county over.
Eleanor and her husband, Jimmy Williams
Gayle graduated from CHS in 1969; Donna graduated in 1971. They both married after graduation and presented Eleanor and Jimmy with grandsons. Gayle and Harry Lee Williams welcomed Wade and Jake; Donna and Jerome James Page welcomed James. During the 1980s, Eleanor loved to share that she was going to Austin Peay State University alongside her daughters. Gayle studied nursing and biology, Donna pursued business administration, and Eleanor formalized her interest in history. Like Eleanor, Gayle was action-oriented. She moved to Germany with her second husband Richard Moore. Following her master’s degree, she worked as a park ranger in Alaska and returned to Tennessee as a geographic expert for the State. Donna, smart and generous, taught business administration at Daymar College, and later worked for Montgomery County Child Protective Services.
Following her studies, Eleanor delved directly into local history. Working with Miss Ursula, she developed a series of three books, Nineteenth Century Heritage, Clarksville, Tennessee, 1989; the aforementioned Homes and Happenings, 1990; and Cabins to Castles, 1992, written by Eleanor and dedicated to Miss Ursula. In 1995, Eleanor published Worship along the Warioto, an inspired listing of organizations from 1793 “who established places of worship, many of which are still in existence,” as her preface stated. The title refers to the 1964 edition of Along the Warioto by Miss Ursula, a landmark publication of the era. Other publications include A Child’s History of Montgomery County and Henrietta Heritage.
More recently, Eleanor joined colleagues Minoa Uffelman, Ellen Kanervo and Phyllis Smith as editors for The Diary of Nannie Haskins Williams, A Southern Woman’s Story of Rebellion and Reconstruction, 1863 – 1890 (Knoxville: 2014, The University of Tennessee), a personal story that was noted in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, the popular PBS documentary miniseries.
“Collaborating with Eleanor on the Civil War diaries was a pleasure. She had an incredibly deep and expansive knowledge of Montgomery County history,” said Uffelman. “She knew family histories and connections plus she knew histories of churches and businesses. The breadth of her knowledge was invaluable in editing and annotating the books. She was a pleasure to work with and was a dear friend. She will be sorely missed.”
Ellen Kanervo, Minoa Uffelman, Eleanor Williams and Phyllis Smith received the
John Montgomery Historical Preservation Award in 2015 for The Diary of Nannie Haskins Williams
In addition to these publications, Eleanor was called upon regularly to consult on heritage projects, including the latest edition of Historic Clarksville: 1784 – 2004, published by Frank E. Lott and Jeffrey V. Bibb. She served on the Customs House Museum Board, Clarksville-Montgomery County Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, Friends of the Library Board, Montgomery County Historical Society as President and Editor, Historic Preservation Committee, Service and Sacrifice Committee for Veterans, Public Records Committee, Montgomery County’s Bicentennial Commission and the restoration of WWI Doughboy on Legion Street, along with decades of active membership in the First Baptist Church.
She spent extensive time traveling throughout the 1980s and 90s, spending time in Europe, the Mediterranean, United Kingdom, Israel and Egypt. One extensive trip involved river cruising with stops in capital cities, ranging from Dublin to Moscow. Eleanor the historian did not always adhere to established touring schedules, breaking away from the group to pursue her own adventures and finding ways to make the most of her journeys.
Eleanor’s natural strength was called upon when she put to rest her daughter Gayle Moore in 2015, her brother James “Shep” Shepherd in 2018, her daughter Donna Page in 2019, and her husband of 54 years, James Williams in 2020. Her former son-in-law Harry Lee Williams and his sons Wade and Jake closely cared for their grandparents.
“Grandmother was always there when we were growing up. She took us to First Baptist and did everything possible for our family,” said Wade. “It was our turn to switch places and take care of her.”
Though Eleanor outlived those closest to her, she maintained a life worth living to the end. Her dedication to local history was unmatched, and her service to Montgomery County is treasured by the community.