In early October, Tori Mason, Historic Site Manager, had the opportunity to travel to Miami, Florida and Havana, Cuba to research and learn more information about the Croft family, their business and their lives in Cuba.
Jennifer Randles, Digital Materials Librarian at Tennessee State Library and Archives, and Mason spent several months in 2017 organizing more than 250 original documents from the Grassmere Collection for digitization and publishing on the archives’ TN Virtual Archives website.
“This trip was a way to connect the items in our collection with someone who could fill in some of the events and details that are documented in those materials,” Randles said. “Our main goal was to record this oral history with Mr. Dallas so people in the future will be able to hear his story, which is part of the Grassmere legacy.”
During that process, several letters, photos and documents associated with the General Concrete Construction Company of Cuba were included. The company was owned by William Croft, and inherited by his daughters Margaret and Elise after his death in 1938. Revenue from the business sustained the sisters until 1959, when the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro ended their main source of income; this ultimately led the sisters to donate their property in Nashville to become a nature center after their deaths, paving the way for Nashville Zoo.
During the digitation process, letters from company administrator Bradford Dallas to Elise Croft were scanned and became part of the online collection.
“His experiences in the middle of the Revolution and descriptions of what he experienced are historically significant not only to the interpretation at Nashville Zoo, but also on a much larger scale, and are amazing captures of a glimpse of the world at that tense time,” Mason said.
After some internet sleuthing, Mr. Dallas was located in Coral Gables, Florida, and Mason was able to connect with Mr. Dallas’ son Robert. Robert let Mason know that not only was his father alive and well, at 94 years young he still drove and was more than happy to talk about his life in Cuba.
In early October, Mason and Randles flew to Florida where they spent two full days with Bradford Dallas, his wife Sonia, son Robert and daughter Christine. Mason and Randles brought along copies of many documents from Mr. Dallas’ time as the company administrator, including maps, photos and a long list of questions, and documents associated with his father, Charles F. Dallas, William Croft’s business partner.
“We use Mr. Dallas’ letters to Elise Croft and his words in our interpretation,” Mason said. “To actually meet the person responsible for that information was very special.”
Traveling next on a professional research visa, Mason and Randles traveled to Havana, Cuba. One whole day was spent driving around the city to sites associated with the Croft and Dallas families, including the French, Chinese and Spanish embassies; home sites of the Croft and Dallas families; William Croft’s office; Bradford Dallas’ office; and the re-creation of a handful of archival photos at current day locations. Sadly, it was discovered that the Croft family home was no longer standing.
All of the recordings and photos are still being processed at this time, but plans are in the works for a series of local presentations to relay what was learned from this important, once in a lifetime opportunity.
“The Zoo is about conserving animals, but we’re also conserving green space too,” Mason said. “The sisters were very adamant about this land being used to educate people about nature and that’s what we’re doing, but we also have a rich history.”
Mason plans to locally and nationally share what was learned about life in Cuba during the Castro revolution and the takeover of American-owned businesses, and what life was like for Americans during that frightening and uncertain time in our history.
“The Tennessee State Archives is going to add the oral history with Mr. Dallas to the Grassmere Collection, which means it will be preserved and available to the public,” Randles said. "We also plan to publish excerpts from the oral history in the Grassmere digital collection on the recently updated Tennessee Virtual Archive.”
Thanks to the Dallas family and their willingness to meet, Nashville Zoo and Tennessee State Library and Archives now have invaluable first-hand accounts of a piece of Nashville Zoo, and the nation’s, historic ties to Cuba.