Did you see “Driving Miss Daisy” on TMC recently? If so, you may have noticed the Werthan Bag Company building at the beginning.
The movie is set in Atlanta, but Werthan Bag Co. is definitely in Nashville.
And the Werthans were the ones who purchased Washington Hall when it and its contents were sold at auction in September, 1948.
Joe Werthan, according to the online “Tennessee Encyclopedia,” had a small business, Werthan & Co., that was started in 1908.It dealt with scrap metal. Burlap bags were also “accumulated, reconditioned, and distributed” to feed mills.
The only child of Sadai Mai and Joe Werthan was born in 1913. This was Howard Werthan.
Joe Werthan and his brother Morris eventually formed Werthan Bag Company. It focused on producing and distributing burlap and cotton bags.
They purchased the Marathon Motor Works after 1918 and changed it to a bag factory. In 1928 they bought the Morgan & Hamilton Company plant. It had been a “textile bag plant, cotton mill, bleachery, and finishing plant.”
Joe Werthan later became involved in real estate. He created Warioto Farms in Williamson County. On this property, which is still owned by the Werthan family, show horses were bred and trained.
He also bought a frame cottage on Elliston Place. It was renovated to become the Joe Werthan Service Center.
Here was a 250-bed facility for soldiers passing through Nashville during World War II when training was going on in Middle Tennessee. Provided for these servicemen were beds, meals, and entertainment. The guess is that at least one million soldiers were cared for at the Service Center.
The “Tennessee Encyclopedia” also states that Joe Werthan “acquired two colonial mansions.” One of these, of course, was Washington Hall.
The Werthans were “absentee owners” as far as the Robertson County mansion was concerned. It stood empty for years, and, as might be expected, it was vandalized.
Light fixtures and mantel pieces were ripped out and hauled away. Windows were broken. Reportedly over 12,000 bales of hay was stored inside.
And on Sept. 22, 1965, Washington Hall burned to the ground.
The cause was never listed. Suggestions were made that included tramps, young people looking for fun, or internal combustion of the hay. The reason for the fire didn’t matter. The house was gone.
The “Springfield Herald” listed Howard Werthan as the owner.
Joe Werthan, his son Howard, and two nephews had established the Werthan Foundation in 1945. By 1951 the Foundation had established the Joe and Morris Werthan Professorship in Experimental Medicine at Vanderbilt.
In the 1960’s both Joe and Howard Werthan died. The foundation charter ended.
The Vanderbilt University Medical Center received the remaining funds and $600,000 was also contributed and an addition made to the Medical Center. It was named the Joe and Howard Werthan Building.
Obviously the Werthans were Nashville philanthropists of note. But to those Robertson Countians who drove by the deserted mansion only to see the ruin, some questions will never be answered. Why was Washington Hall ignored? Why was it allowed to stand empty and to decay?
For those who could only imagine the lost grandeur, the Werthan name will always be a bit tainted.
In the Eagle’s Eye is sponsored by the Robertson County Historical Society. Call 615-382-7173 for more information.