Friday, January 4, 2013

Tullahoma, TN - Ovoca School and Orphanage for widows and orphans

If visiting the orphanage site or nearby lake-pond, desperate cries for help are believed to be heard by the children who were either burnt or drown to death when the orphanage caught on fire and they plunged into the water trying to put their burning clothing out. The only child`s name I found believed to have stayed here at one point was Alma Fine and a few of her siblings. Her family`s ancestors believe that she died during yellow fever in 1918 before the fire even occurred.
The Order of the Knights of Pythias (founded in 1864 to promote friendship among men and to help relieve people`s Pres Franklin D Roosevelt was initiated as one in 1936) bought land in 1908 to establish a home for orphans and widows and for an assembly grounds for their group meetings. Walter Dennis Fox of near Murfreesboro was Grounds Keeper of Records and Seals for the Knights...and was the founder of Ovoca. He gave the site the name after the river Ovoca in County Wicklow, Ireland where his father was born. Frank Avent Gumm came from Murfreesboro in 1909 to be Secretary to W.D. Fox. In 1909 he left those familiar surroundings for the town of Tullahoma, a resort and health spa about forty miles to the southeast. His Uncle Walter, who was the state secretary of a fraternal organization called the Knights of Pythias, was building a home there for the widows and orphans of deceased Knights. Ovoca he named it, and he took Frank along as his secretary. Joining Frank in Tullahoma were his sister Mary, who was still unmarried at twenty-nine, and his sixteen-year-old brother Allie. All three lived in a small frame house on East Lincoln Street, half a block from St. Barnabas` Episcopal Church. In this new setting Frank`s voice once again opened doors. He sang in the church choir, he joined a quartet that was much in demand for parties and weddings, and before long he was associating, as one prominent Tullahomian said, "with our best people." Universally admired, he seemed to have as bright a future as any young man in Tennessee. But by the end of 1910, or possibly the first part of 1911, he was gone-gone from Tullahoma, gone from Tennessee, gone from the South itself. Frank`s daughter was the actress Judy Garland (wizard of oz).

The State (Duck River Assoc. of Baptist) later conducted conferences, encampments, and conventions at Ovoca, three miles from Tullahoma. The Ovoca Assembly grounds and buildings were owned by the Knights of Pythias and were leased from them for a short period, each summer from 1924 through 1936.


Zizi Mugen said...

I've heard about the place, but I've never actually seen anything to say that the place ever existed, or that there's even a lake in Tullahoma named Ovoca.

Patty McIntyre said...

Yes,there is Ovoca Lake outside Tullahoma. I've driven by it for over 40 years. The pillars at the entrance are engraved with "Knights of Pythias". It is now a private estate.

Alan Gray said...

That is utter bull. It was a home for widowed wives of Knights and their children. It was a huge place. There were tons of cottages or "dormatories." It had a working farm. It's own electric plant. The lake was a local favorite. The lake is still there. But the rumor of the Fox Memorial Building burning and the orphans screaming on fire and jumping in the lake is bull. I was there the night the building burned. There wasn't much left of the place. It was private property. Most of the other old wooden frame buildings either had long since burned or been removed. I sat there with the top down on my car and watched the building burn. I remember the moment the second floor collapsed into a giant fireball. It was quite a sight. The fire dept was instructed to just let it burn and keep the trees from catching fire. My family was from Ovoca so I know all of it's history. They went to school there. I've been in those old buildings.

Alan Gray said...

Frank Gumm was ran out of town but it was never really popularly known. He was a member of the episcopal church and sang in the choir. He also was involved with the local theater and was known to have a marvelous voice. He was also gay and had been messing around with a boy in the theater and got ran out of town. The same thing happened years later after he was married in another town up north. People couldn't understand why he just disappeared from Tullahoma. He said nothing to anybody. Well that's why. He was threatened and told to leave.