Atlanta’s oldest house museum, The Wren’s Nest, was home to Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus tales and Brer Rabbit stories from 1881 to 1908. His stories inspired by oral storytelling traditions of African-Americans, formerly enslaved, are written in dialect. The Atlanta Constitution first published his stories in 1876 and his first collection of folk poems and proverbs published in the year 1881: Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings.
Yesterday I drove into Historic West End in downtown Atlanta for a visit to The Wren’s Nest. The first thing I saw on the front porch of this Queen Anne Victorian house was the mailbox where the wrens made a nest over a hundred years ago giving this house its name. And, on the museum website is a photograph of where some wrens still make nests in the mailbox. This is the same porch where Joel Chandler Harris penned many of his Brer Rabbit tales.
I walked up to the door, reading the instructions on the sign and rang the doorbell next to the mailbox. (Note: the sign reads: “Pease ring doorbell once for assistance. We’ll hear it alright.”)
Somehow, I felt I had traveled back in time when I entered arriving just in time to join the tour being given by Nannie. I learned everything surrounding where she is standing is exactly as it was when Joel Chandler Harris lived there. Those are the same entry way drapes, painting on the wall and staircase going up to the second floor. The only thing not original was the clock on the wall, but it is a close match. The other restored rooms complete with antique furniture are decor original to when the Harris family lived here. The tour included Joel Chandler Harris’ bedroom that looks untouched since 1908 and the place of his death. After reading more, a Wren’s Nest celebrity, about Nannie Thompson, Docent, who has given tours at the Wren’s Nest since 1999 and served as official Wren’s Nest housekeeper since 1996, I now realize I was in good company. Did you know that “Nannie knows more about the house than anyone and dares anyone of y’all to prove her wrong.”
Theodore Roosevelt during his reign as President of the United States befriended Joel Chandler Harris and wrote him many letters. There are letters from June 9, 1902, October 24, 1907 and June 15, 1908, just to name a few. In some of them he talked about his younger children’s pets and about reading some of all his stories to the children over again.
This photograph reproduced for the Joel Chandler Harris commemorative postage stamp in 1948, marked a hundred years from the date of his birth.
And, now let me tell you about Akbar Imhotep, one of the Wren’s Nest Ramblers story-tellers who spun one of his favorite Uncle Remus yarns in front of an eager audience. Today’s story was the Tar-Baby story and all about Brer Rabbit. When telling the tale, he stopped long enough to ask the audience how did fox and bear know that tar-baby wasn’t going to say anything…(silence.)…and then, I answered: “He hasn’t found his voice yet.”…Akbar…”That’s a profound one. Thank you. Let me write that one down.”
His enjoyable performance ended with the Uncle Remus story about how rabbit lost its tail. If you haven’t heard that one, then perhaps you might want to read the original story or better yet; attend one of the live performance given by Akbar, the very skillful story-teller.
I wanted to stay and learn more, but visiting hours were over. As I walked down the path on top of engraved pavers, I again felt like I was reliving history.
If you ever get a chance to visit this museum, please do so and enjoy traveling back in time.
Written and Photographed by Mary Gilmartin, January 13, 2013