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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. 

Dixon 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. 

Trained as a lawyer at William and Mary College, Dixon Topp married Mary Winfield Meredith of Pulaski, Tennessee.  They lived in Nashville until the mid-1850s, then moved to Duck Hill near their Mississippi plantation.  After the war, the Topps chose to move to Holly Springs because of its educational advantages and nearness to Memphis, as well as its offering direct access by railroad to the plantation. Col. Topp was no doubt familiar with the town from visiting his first cousin, Comfort Smith Hudson, widow of William Hudson and mother of Major John Lewis Hudson of Hudsonville.

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.

The 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.

Jennings Topp had already gone south to manage the Topp plantation, and Dick Topp was working as a clerk for Crump & Co. Grocers on the east side of the Holly Springs square.  As the third and thirteenth U. S. regiments were preparing to move to their summer camp ground at the old St. Thomas Hall tract across Salem Bridge, Colonel Topp offered to rent rooms in his villa to the commanders of the two units. Delighted with the prospect, wives of the officers urged their husbands to accept the offer. Holly Springs reacted with a stunned silence.   Then, Mrs. Kate Walthall Freeman, the social arbiter of the town, decided that it was time for reconciliation and took up the women and their husbands.  Her stamp of approval opened the way for two months of gaiety. 

For 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. 

General DeTrobriand had brought the headquarters battalion band, and soon the military and the citizenry were alternately sponsoring weekly balls at the Masonic Hall, with the military band playing for both. Three years later, Sherwood Bonner would set her first novel, Like unto Like, during this summer in Holly Springs.  The Topp mansion plays a prominent role. 

Much of the original Coxe furniture had been purchased with the house, as well as the painting of the estate, commissioned by Will Henry Coxe, which hung in the hall to the left of the front parlor door.  The novel describes the massive iron gates of the estate, the long walkway bordered by overgrown rose bushes, and the cool high rooms, the old portraits, the narrow mantels, and the mahogany tables with their dishes of blown roses.

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.

In 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. 

By the mid-1880s, the Topp family had dispersed.  Ella and Ladie had joined their brother LeRoy in Louisville, Kentucky, where the two spinster sisters opened a millinery establishment.  Dick Topp remained in Holly Springs, but it is unclear whether he continued to live in the mansion.  When he died in Holly Springs in 1902, he apparently living on Church Street (also called Depot Street and today Van Dorn Avenue).  Colonel Topp's widow,  Mary Winfield Meredith Topp, died in May of 1890.  The funeral was held at Christ Church with burial in Hill Crest.  Her obituary in the Holly Springs Reporter noted that  "Mrs. Topp was a resident of Holly Springs for a long term of years, occupying the palatial home on Salem Street which is still known as the Topp Place,  but for several years past she has resided in Louisville, Ky, and at Duck Hill."

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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