Summer resident Tracy Frist is on a mission to protect and preserve historic spaces.
For Nantucket summer resident Tracy Frist, the importance of preservation extends far beyond saving historic buildings. The wife of former Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist, she has spent much of her life maintaining and celebrating the places where nature, history and culture intersect. She serves on the board of the Tennessee Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Franklin Grove Estate & Gardens and the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, Tennessee—where an eponymous preservation award is granted on her behalf at the organization’s annual ball. While Frist’s impact is deeply felt in her home state of Tennessee and beyond, her inspiration goes back to her roots in Virginia.
Part of a military family, Frist moved around regularly as a child. When Frist was six years old, her mother purchased a farm tucked between coal mining towns in rural Virginia and insisted her children spend summers there. The house had no electricity but was situated on a sprawling two hundred acres of natural beauty. “I think those are my most impressionable years as a child—on that farm, on a pony, learning culture, history, how history finds its way into the ground,” she reflected. During her childhood explorations of the surrounding land, Frist came across a federal-style home built in the 1820s. Called Bellevue, the modest, two-bedroom brick house belonged to the county librarian. Yet in Frist’s six-year-old eyes, the structure was nothing short of a castle that she dreamed of one day owning.
Frist went on to earn two master’s degrees in writing from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, as well as a doctorate from Purdue University in human and animal behaviorism, before pursuing a career teaching K–12 across the country. She taught everywhere from Oregon to Texas, further learning the intricacies of small, rural communities and what matters in the relationship between humans and their environment. Eventually, Frist was drawn back to Virginia and purchased a plot of land where she would pen award-winning short stories and continue her research on human-animal bonding.
As fate would have it, the five-thousand-acre parcel she bought was also home to the Bellevue “castle” from her childhood, which had since fallen into disrepair. “I’d like to say I had it all planned out, but I think I’m just blessed it all happened the way it did,” said Frist of acquiring Bellevue, which launched her passion for preservation. “I think this was my first foray into what buildings mean to culture and multi generations…It really filled me up how important it was to preserve that house. Everyone in that county loved that house—and then to see it crumble and the roof start to fall in and to see the land be sold—even the younger generations started to lose their belief system.”
Restoring Bellevue brick by handmade-brick was the catalyst for Frist to become deeply involved in preservation and conservation, along with cultivating a love of agriculture. She went on to develop Sinking Creek Land and Cattle, a farm in southwest Virginia where an all-female team humanely raises grass-fed beef. On her farm’s 880 acres, Frist has implemented sixteen federal conservation programs dedicated to everything from saving the endangered spiny mussel to maintaining water quality in the property’s creek through implementing a riparian buffer—a natural barrier that repels pollutants and creates a rich habitat for wildlife.
Once Frist met and married her husband, she relocated to Bill’s home state of Tennessee where the couple created a second farm known as Old Town. Working in lockstep with Sinking Creek, Old Town is a 43-acre property that encompasses thousands of years of history. The farm is laden with evidence of ancient Mississippian culture, including prehistoric temple mounds and limestone box graves, as well as ancient artifacts that are being repatriated to museums such as the Smithsonian. The Harpeth River and Natchez Trace wilderness trail run through the rolling pastures, while the Old Town Bridge, an instrumental location during the Civil War, is proudly preserved on the property. The crown jewel of the farm is the 175-year-old Georgian home, which echoes Bellevue in its stately design and storied past. An educator at heart, Frist uses the farm to collaborate with a local university, contributing to scholarly research through sharing the land’s rich narrative and knowledge of new findings.
In addition to Tennessee, Bill Frist also introduced his wife to Nantucket. Being landlocked her whole life, she never thought she would end up on an island, but Nantucket’s palpable history and boundless nature made her feel right at home. “I feel like I’ve had three major chapters in my life—I think Nantucket is going to be the last chapter,” said Frist, who has been coming to her home on the edge of Squam Farm for six years. “Nantucket has done such a wonderful job of maintaining its integrity, but what’s even more important is saving the abstract, the idea of the widow’s walks and captains…it shows you not just these static buildings, but the energy and the life that went on there.”
One locale that Frist feels is indicative of the island’s heart is Great Point Light, as it endures amid any storm, connecting humans, history and nature. The lighthouse itself is a fitting metaphor for her widespread work—how her experience in one area translates to another, noting the ways in which they all intertwine and how they contribute to the greater issue of what should be saved.