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The historic Dent House is shown in this 2014 staff file photo.

The Dent House on Bonny Oaks Drive is the last standing antebellum home in Chattanooga. It housed a well-known orphanage from 1898 until 1988. I have operated a full-scale restaurant specializing in afternoon tea there for the last three years and value the location's rich history.

Railroad contractor Jarrett Dent moved to "Tynersville" in the mid-1850s to expand the Western and Atlantic Railroad. As war clouds gathered, Dent sided with the South and took his family to safety in Dallas, Texas. His eldest son, Charles, left to fight for the North. His cousin, Julia Dent, was married to Ulysses S. Grant. After the Civil War, Capt. C.S. Peak, who had fought for the South in the Battle of Chickamauga, bought the Dent home. When the prosperous businessman saw the beautiful trees, he exclaimed, "Oh the Bonny Oaks!" Peak willed the spacious home to the city of Chattanooga when he died.

The Bonny Oaks Children's Home was authorized by an act of the Tennessee General Assembly in 1895, and its first Board of Trustees the next year. Few of the founders could not have known their actions would inuence children so positively for more than 90 years.

In its heyday, Bonny Oaks housed more than 200 children who lived in four dormitories, known affectionately as those for the "big" and "little" boys and girls. "House parents" also lived there. Besides bedrooms and hallways, each building had a full kitchen and large dining hall.

When I first met returning alumni, I was surprised to hear them refer to each other as "brothers" and "sisters." Those children cared for each other as much as those with the same last name. Even the children of house parents saw themselves as Bonny Oaks students. One alumnus told me recently, "I can't even remember how old I was when I discovered that my mother and father were not just 'my parents,' but those of others too. And care for others those house parents did. And a superintendent guided children while numerous volunteers cooked, served and washed up. That day-to-day routine built strong character traits of service to all.'

Bonny Oaks children never had an idle moment. Milking cows twice daily, raising vegetables, learning trades and going to church filled up much of the day. But there was also time for fishing, swimming, choir, sports, crafts and games. One alumnus told me how three mischievous lads made a box car with roller skate wheels attached to rickety crates and lived to tell of steering their unworthy vessel. The invention was created long past curfew when all good children were supposed to have fallen fast asleep. Later the same threesome made the honor roll at nearby Tyner High School, and one became class president.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

Neighborhood children, who lacked the school's luxuries of a craft cabin and swimming pool as well as cows and chickens, were envious of the Bonny Oaks experience. Adults come and tell me of their intense longing to have been a Bonny Oaks child. More than a few wandered over and tried to become part of the Bonny Oaks family but never for long and never without notice. Others share memories of involvement with the school by providing teaching, legal advice, swimming lessons, coaching, skill sharing, camps, or driving the large campus buses for day trips. The community stayed involved as times changed and new needs evolved.

A series of fine superintendents lived in the Dent House over the years: J.C. Kalleen, 1898-1925; William Shelton Keese, 1925-1945; Malcom Adamson, 1950-1981; and Ken Clay, 1981-1984. All taught life lessons to the children with the heart of more than overseer. The students called Mr. Adamson, "Big Daddy" and Mr. Clay, "Dad."

How has one location, one house, brought so much goodness to Chattanooga? I believe Mary Anne Myer said it the best recently during her 75th birthday celebration.

"I lived here from the time I was 31/2 months old until I was 10. Growing up here was special. We sure did have a charmed life . We worked now-but we sure were happy."

At age 17, Rashelle Stafford, the owner of the Dent House, found herself raising a 9-year-old brother after the early death of her parents. Later she and her daughters, Polly and Claire, lived in London, England, where they shared the afternoon tea tradition, now transported to Polly Claire's restaurant at the original Dent House/Bonny Oaks site )423-521-4832).

For more visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.

 

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