The original residents of Snowden House, Bob and Grace Snowden, fell in love on a hayride in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1916. Grace Whitney Mountcastle, of Knoxville, was eighteen years old at the time and recalls how thrilled she was when Bob held her hand. Two years her senior, Bob was attending UT at Knoxville as an agricultural student at the time and for both of these young people, it was love at first sight. However, it was also the onset of World War I and Bob, Robert Bogardus Snowden, Jr., felt the call to enlist in the war effort. Bob and Grace were eager to wed before Bob’s enlistment, but Grace’s mother, Edith Mountcastle, adamantly insisted that Grace wait for him to return from his duties. Innocent and in love, Grace enrolled in a nursing program and romantically imagined that, should Bob be wounded, she would be there to nurse him back to health. Her training began as a “probationer” and was quite hard work of scrubbing floors, changing beds, and other hospital duties. Within six months she earned her stripes and became a ‘model’ nurse during such troubling times. Her picture was featured in several articles that gave account of the great effort that so many young women contributed to the care of their fellow soldiers. (See pictures #13 & #14) Thus began Grace’s lifelong service as a Christian philanthropist, believing that those raised with privilege, such as herself, have a duty to make every effort to attend to the needs of those less fortunate.
Bob Snowden was raised at Ashlar Hall on Central Avenue in Memphis with his older sister and three brothers. The Snowden Family is one of the founding families of Memphis, and Bob’s parents, Brinkley and Sara Day, enriched their growing family with the privileges of strong Christian values, high standards in education, and a mandate to contribute to their community. While the other Snowdens were involved in civic and fiduciary affairs of various kinds, Bob developed a passion for farming and flying at a young age.
In the winter of 1916, Bob was flying an old plane over eastern Arkansas, where he first spotted Horseshoe Lake and what would be his future farm. He came home to Ashlar Hall and reported to his father that he had found the farm he wanted. He described the water of the lake as being a beautiful blue color and all of the land being wooded. His father, who had vast holdings in real estate and was deeply involved in real estate development and banking in Memphis, knew the man who owned the property and knew that he was in need of money, which promised to be a good time to buy the property. When Bob returned from WWI, his father proudly reported, “Take a look what we got down there. It’s a beauty!” Brinkley Snowden had purchased 10,300 acres of virgin land from Russell Gardner of St. Louis, one thousand of which Bob bought from him and developed into Horseshoe Plantation. When Bob first saw the land from the ground, it was the historically cold winter of 1917 and he remarked that it was all wooded and rich with all sorts of wild game – deer, bear, turkey, ducks and geese – and the lake was frozen over. “I remember an old neighbor had two mules and a wagon and he was right in the middle of the lake running across the ice.”
Bob chose the highest bank along the lake, which at one time had been a bend in the Mississippi River, for his future home. At what is now known as Snowden Bank, the lake has the deepest channel and is directly across from ‘Happy Jack’, a favorite spot among fishermen and swimmers alike where the bald cypress trees and lily pads are the most beautiful and provide a rich and fertile habitat for wildlife and spectacular views all year long. In 1919, the couple wed in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Bob’s parents had built for them the original Snowden House, a rather simple lake house with all of the living on one raised floor over a basement to prevent from possible flooding. They raised three daughters there: Sally, Edie and Happy, with the family shuttling back and forth between Ashlar Hall and Horseshoe Lake during the school years. Bob cleared the land of all of the woods except for one section along the west side of their home for Grace to enjoy, applied innovative farming techniques, and became a successful cotton farmer at Horseshoe Plantation. At the time that they began their residency at Horseshoe Lake, the Snowdens were the first fulltime residences to live there. There was one old farmhouse on the lake (which burned down in the 90’s), and the only other structure was the Horseshoe Lake Recreational Club built in 1911, where guests continue to enjoy visiting Horseshoe Lake. In those early years, there were no roads and many of the existing roads today were first built by Bob and his team. They had to take a river barge from Memphis to Bender’s Landing where they were met by a wagon and mules to take them along muddy rutted trails to their Arkansas home. The city-bred young couple started their life on the farm “without a strip of bacon in the house, a lake at their front door and wilderness all around”, as Grace remembers. Had it not been for the kindness of their neighbors, they would not have made it.
In the late 1940’s, after Bob returned from fighting as lieutenant colonel in the United States Army Air Corps in Africa and Italy – as he said, “chasing Rommel across the desert…” – the Snowdens made a major expansion and improvement to their home. Everett D. Woods, a renowned architect of many fine and stately homes in Memphis, designed the new home under Grace and Bob’s direction. Grace wanted the home to be of a colonial style found along the river in Louisiana of the great plantations of antebellum years. The current home features a two-story entrance hall with columns on the Greek Revival portico porch, the front door flanked by carriage lamps of brass and German silver, an intricately beautiful fan light over the door highlighting the exquisite crystal chandelier in the entrance hall over marble floors, a gilded pier mirror and marble bench, beautifully detailed wood work with a sweeping staircase that leads up to the second floor, where all of the main living rooms are. The formal living and dining rooms all feature sweeping views of the lake with the beautiful cypress trees that line the bank. But the best view of all is from the porch with its intricate ivy-patterned wrought iron filigree along on the lakeside of the house that opens through three sets of French doors from the formal living room. In the living room is a Carrera marble fireplace with a three-paneled gilded mirror, twelve foot high ceilings with signature cove lighting set in molded soffits, and the floors throughout the formal living and dining areas are of random width old growth heart oak. Many of the larger antique fixtures such as the chandelier, the pier mirror and bench, the Carrera marble fireplace and mirror, were gifts of Bob’s mother, Sara Day Snowden, and came from their home at Ashlar Hall in Memphis. There are three bedrooms, all with private baths, on the main floor and two more bedrooms and one bath on the third floor. The ground floor, having been dug down to accommodate a finished first floor, is a favorite place to spend time during the hot summer days where it remains cool due to the naturally cooling element of the earth. There are dressing rooms for men and women that lead directly out to the lake so that swimmers can change into their suits and enjoy a day on the lake. In the wintertime, a roaring fire makes this a cozy, more casual family room. The majority of the work done on the renovation was completed by farm labor and the columns that soar over the entrance were hand-rolled here on the bank, made with a brick core and plastered over with cement, the way they have been made for years for plantation homes near a river.
The Snowdens lived a full and active life with Grace giving tirelessly of her time and efforts as a Board member of the Salvation Army, a sustaining member of the Junior League of Memphis, life-long volunteer and one-time President of the Board of Crippled Children’s Hospital of Memphis, President of the Board of the Art Academy, and Board member of the Memphis Garden Club. Bob gained stature as a successful cotton farmer, innovator of agricultural methods, member of the Cotton Exchange in Memphis, President of The Wolf River Watershed Association, and Charter Member by Rights of Descent of One of the Founders of Memphis. In the twenties Bob built the company, Command-Aire in Little Rock, where he built top of the line private airplanes to cater to the rising group of wealthy entrepreneurs of the roaring twenties. He designed and built, with the ingenuity of a German engineer he brought over from Europe, The Little Rocket, for which he was inducted in the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame. In 1931, the company was made up of 250 employees and had sold over 350 airplanes. But when the Great Depression hit, Command-Aire went belly up along with so many other innovative companies of its time. When Bob and Grace returned home in debt, Bob’s father, Brinkley Snowden, offered to pay off his debt if he promised to never fly again. Bob’s response was, “Keep your money, Dad. I will keep on flying.” In an article written about Bob Snowden when he was inducted in the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1981, he reminisced, “We built 350 airplanes before we went broke in 1931. As a airplane manufacturer, I turned out to be a damn good farmer.”
Bob and Grace loved the land, which is evidenced by the way every room in the house features views of either the lake or the beautifully wooded grounds with the trees they originally planted – oak, gingko, Grandiflora magnolia, the boxwood-lined drive and boxwood enclosed family cemetery on the property where Bob and Grace rest – now towering over the grounds and providing the signature statement of a graciously wooded surrounding. And they never faltered in their deeply felt appreciation of this special place: Seeing the beauty in the lake that stretches nine miles from point to point, their woods and the incredible miracle of recurring spring; their stately oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, and the gnarled cypress trees that have always been there…
Bob and Grace lived into their eighties, and after their death, the home was leased out for a variety of uses over the years. In the 1990’s, Polly Brown and her two sons, Mark and David, ran Snowden House as a Bed & Breakfast and restaurant, where many guests loved to come from the surrounding rural towns or from Memphis and dine within these fabled walls. In the mid-nineties, the home was used for the filming of “The Client”, where they draped the cypress trees with moss to evoke a Louisiana waterfront home. For several years it was leased out as a private residence and, in the beginning of the 21st century, the Snowden heirs decided to place the old place on the market for sale.
In 2004, Martha McKay, one of the ten grand-children of Bob and Grace, returned from out west to Horseshoe Lake to help look after their commonly owned farmland and other properties that had been bequeathed to them by the Snowdens. Having developed over the years a passion for historic restoration, Martha looked at the old place on the market and was so saddened by its beaten-down condition, she bought it from the rest of her family and set off on a full restoration, making significant improvements and bringing the property into the 21st century with all the amenities of modern living while maintaining the integrity of the historic features of the home. An avid supporter of sustainable living, her biggest challenge in the renovation was to turn the almost century old heat and air system into a low-footprint, environmentally sustainable and economically frugal system. She did so by extensively researching all of the available renewable systems, convinced that in a place where natural resources abound — wind, water, sun, earth – there must be a way to convert this old southern mansion into an environmentally sound home. The best system for these environs turned out to be a geothermal system using the temperature of the lake water to heat and cool the house year-round, with the only electricity used for running the pumps and the units. It has turned out to be a marvelous system reducing the utility expense by approximately 75%, the savings of which paid for the cost of the improvement after just a few years. The kitchen and baths have been fully restored, turning the original kitchen from a service kitchen into a live-in kitchen with a beautiful, soap stone island, Viking Stove and refrigerator and all of the amenities of a gourmet kitchen. The master bath has been completely renovated, converting the original Kohler cast iron tub from 1919 – when the first home was built they had just one bathroom – into a marble-decked tub overlooking the lake, travertine floors, marble vanity and marble—lined shower that sports six Kohler shower tiles and a Grohe showerhead. The marble floors in two of the renovated bathrooms on the main floor are heated for added comfort and efficiency.