The Topp Tenure
The Topp family owned Airliewood from 1867 until 1896. A cotton dynasty holding large tracks in Tennessee and Mississippi, the extended Topp family exceeded the Coxes in wealth, and their ownership of the Gothic villa spanned a longer period than that of any family except the Deans in the twentieth century.
On the twentieth of December 1867, Lida Coxe Brewer and her husband Clark Brewer sold the fifteen-acre Coxe estate and another fifteen-acre tract on section eight south of town to Colonel Dixon Comfort Topp. The deed was executed in exchange for a portion of Block twenty-four in South Memphis, beginning at the intersection of Shelby and McCall streets and running with the south boundary of McCall (DB 27:248-50). The Brewers then joined an exodus of important Holly Springs people who moved to Memphis soon after the war, among them neighbors Judge Jeremiah Watkins Clapp, who sold his estate in 1865 to the blockade runner James J. House, and Joel Wynne, who sold his place to Mrs. Ann Dickens.
Comfort Topp (the name was also sometimes spelled Dickson), then a man
of sixty, was the son of Comfort Everett and Col. John Shelby Topp, a
North Carolinian who served under Andrew Jackson in the Seminole War
and inherited a large grant near Nashville.
Virtually everyone in the South was now in reduced circumstances, but Colonel Topp still owned a valuable plantation and tried to live in a semblance of his old style. His connections were impeccable. His older brother, the land baron Col. William Wallace Topp, lived on his grand Columbus, Mississippi, estate, Rosedale. Dixon's twin brother, Col. Robertson Topp of Memphis, who built on Beale Street the city's finest Greek Revival mansion, had commissioned the building of the Gayoso Hotel in 1842-43 and in 1852, with Louis Trevevant, had constructed the Memphis and Ohio Railroad. A sister, Nancy Topp Martin, was the mother of Ophelia Martin Spofford, wife of Judge Henry M. Spofford, one of the wealthiest men in New Orleans. Holly Springs embraced the family, and the gas lamps of the Gothic villa blazed again.
In 1870, the Dixon Topp household consisted of six children Ella, Ida, Jennie, Jennings, Dick, and Ladie (christened Mary Winfield), ranging in age from 32 to 13. The oldest living son, LeRoy, had already gone to Louisville, Kentucky, to seek his fortune. To gain some ready capital, on March 17, 1870, Colonel Topp sold the eastern portion of the grounds of the estate beginning at the eastern end of the iron fence on Salem (DB 30:239). Shortly that tract became the property of General Absalom Madden West, who eventually built on it the 1870s cottage there that still stands. The depression following the Panic of 1873, which bankrupted several local men who had made post-war come backs, left Colonel Topp in increasing financial straits.
colonel's economic plight lead to a second Federal occupation of the
Gothic villa and its limning in a popular novel of the period. Since
1873, the army of occupation centered in New Orleans had spent the late
summer and fall in Holly Springs to escape the annual dangers of yellow
fever. Sufficiently bitter memories of the war remained to prevent
much social contact between the troops and the townspeople. But
in the summer of 1875, that all changed.
the first time since the war, Kate Bonner McDowell (who had earlier
fled to Boston and established herself as a writer under the pen name
Sherwood Bonner) wrote back to her mentor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
we have all yielded to the fascinations of brass buttons.
After the memorable summer, the Topps continued to cope with their diminishing resources. The years were marked by sadness and joy. Their daughter Ida died in 1876 and was buried on the family lot in Hill Crest. In March of 1878, the villa was the scene of Jennie Topp's marriage to a wealthy planter from Grenada. Six months later, yellow fever ravaged Holly Springs. Though the Topp family did not fall victim, the plague further weakened the economy. That fall Ella Topp approached Sherwood Bonner with a plan of planting a large market garden and shipping the produce to Chicago, for which he needed a partner who could invest six hundred dollars. Something had to be done to halt the Topp decline. Sherwood Bonner, however, had no funds to invest.
1880, Dixon Comfort Topp died at the age of seventy-three. Five
years earlier, on March 20, 1875, he had executed a deed of trust on
the old Coxe estate in exchange for $5,000 lent him by his niece's husband,
Judge Spofford. The Topps continued to occupy the mansion, but
neither the colonel nor his heirs were ever able to repay the money (DB
38 ´: 145-46). In order to pay the colonel's final medical
bills, his heirs were forced to sell the fifteen-acre tract on section
eight south of town that he had also purchased from Mrs. Brewer (DB 47:216-18). On
January 29, 1881, the Coxe-Topp mansion and grounds were offered
at a sheriff s sale to the highest bidder, but apparently the Spoffords
again came forward, paid the taxes, and saved the family home.
Judge Spofford, who held the deed of trust on the Salem Street property, had died in August of 1880, but his widow lived until 1894. On March 2, 1896, their son and executor allowed the property to sold at a sheriff's sale. The long Topp connection with the Gothic villa had come to an end.
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