Whether your taste leans toward visiting a unique antique porcelain collection or taking a walk on the wild side in a safari park, you can do both, amazingly enough, on a day trip in rural west Tennessee. Who knew?
Our great Memphis friend Conley Barclay has been telling me for ages that I needed to visit two small towns north of Jackson, near and dear to her family’s heart: Trenton and Alamo. Conley has a number of relatives in this neck of the woods and kindly offered to plan a wonderful tour for myself and my husband. And so, with Ms. Barclay as our chauffeur and well-experienced guide, we headed off to the northeast earlier this summer.
Our first stop was in Trenton, Tennessee — the county seat of Gibson County, almost exactly one hundred miles from Memphis. Trenton has long been notable for its peculiar city speed limit of 31 miles an hour. The 1950s citizens of this little city were apparently early adaptors of the metric system, since 31 mph is the exact equivalent of 50 kilometers. Of equal interest to Memphians: Trenton is also the birthplace of beloved longtime Channel 5 weatherman, Dave Brown.
But most importantly, Trenton, Tennessee, is home to the largest collection of rare antique porcelain night-light teapots in the world. Conley Barclay’s great-aunt, Dent Partee, is in fact the docent of the Trenton Teapot Museum which just happens to be in a glass-walled wing of the Trenton City Hall. Mayor Ricky Jackson was on hand to greet us, as was Gary Smith, intrepid photographer/sports editor from the Trenton Gazette which published our photo several days later. (It must have been a slow news day; nonetheless, our Memphis magazine delegation was very flattered!)
Partee gave us the grand tour of the collection of porcelain veilleuse-théières (night-light teapots) which had been gifted to the city by Dr. Frederick Freed. Raised in Trenton, Freed lived for many decades in New York City, where he was an obstetrician at Bellevue Hospital and on the faculty of NYU’s medical school. Over a 45-year period, he collected some 650 of these unique little teapots, while traveling all over Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
As the story goes, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City was very eager to have these pieces, but Dr. Freed in 1955 chose to make Trenton the repository of more than 500 of his nightlight teapots. And so began one of America’s most unusual museums.
These vessels come in two parts — they consist of a small, decorative teapot set over a column containing a short candle, a nut, or a wick floated in oil. These “tea lamps” were designed to furnish both heat and light.
Ornamental as well as practical, veilleuse-théières were used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in sick rooms and nurseries, to provide healing vapors and herbal teas — a kind of elaborate croup kettle, if you will. Four of the Trenton teapots date from the Napoleonic era; many are ornate, with forms of figurines or personages, and some have aristocratic insignias and crests.
Dent Partee is a retired school teacher in her nineties, and, as her great niece Conley Barclay likes to say, “She has always been a go-getter,” someone who does so much for everyone. This was evident in town, as all who walked into the Last Drop Café where we were lunching greeted Ms. Partee warmly. She is clearly the unofficial, much beloved mayoress of Trenton, to which title her daughter Dotty attests.
The little city holds its annual Trenton Teapot Festival every spring, at which time the Victorian-era Freed Home is open to the public. For further information about the museum and other things to see and do there, check out teapotcollection.com.
Back Road Surprises
The current park collection includes more than 700 animals, representing 100 different species, and the Safari Park was recently expanded to 110 acres by popular demand.
Our next stop was the Tennessee Safari Park, just 20 miles to the southwest from Trenton in Alamo, the county seat of Crockett County, on the little road heading back toward home. You may have seen billboards around Memphis advertising this park, and as the signs say, it is only 80 miles away.
A three-acre park just outside of Alamo opened to the public in 2007; it is family-owned and operated on the antebellum Hillcrest Homestead by Claude May (another Conley Barclay relative) and his two sons, Claude and John Wesley. The Mays and Conley families settled in this area before the Civil War, and the Mays still farm over 200 acres. For decades, the family had been accumulating exotic animals on the property, everything from zebras to peacocks.
Claude May admits that the park’s origins came from his own love of nature. He says he “had honestly anticipated success” when he opened to the public, but the Safari Park has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
The mission of the park is to demonstrate the importance of wildlife preservation for future generations through conservation and education. In addition to passing visitors like ourselves, school and youth groups are regular visitors to this unusual wildlife preserve in western Tennessee.
Megan Collins, a Memphis friend of mine, told me the park reminds her of the book, We Bought a Zoo. As for me, I had once been to the famous Woburn Safari Park in England, and while this was a smaller Tennessee version, I did know what to expect.
The drill is to pull in and buy a feed bucket, and as you drive through the park at 5 mph, some of the animals come up to the car and you find yourself up close and personal with bison, zebras, antelope, ostriches, emus, and many other animals. You can literally feel the swoosh of the giraffes’ long tongues when you offer them carrots from your cup!
The current park collection includes more than 700 animals, representing more than 100 different species, and the Safari Park was recently expanded to 110 acres by popular demand. There is also a walk-through component to the park — there’s no danger of grizzlies lurking in the bushes — as well as a petting zoo and gift shop. It is open all year round, seven days a week; check out all the details at tennesseesafaripark.com. The park seems, er, wildly popular for families, getting five-star ratings at websites like tripadvisor.com and yelp.com.
My husband and I are so grateful to Conley Barclay for her family connections and for making this road trip both possible and highly entertaining. We loved the long, straight two-lane blacktop roads passing by family-owned farms and pretty agricultural countryside, and enjoyed passing through whistle-stops with whimsical names like Frog Jump, Three Way, and Nutbush.
The trip was truly a mixed metaphor, as in a single day we went from the rarified world of porcelain teapots in Trenton to the menagerie extraordinaire gathered at the Tennessee Safari Park outside Alamo. The two stops provide a wonderful and easily-accomplished one-day autumn road trip, for any Memphian with a sense of adventure and curiosity about out-of-the ordinary places. Enjoy!