Ben Woodson’s neighbors just north of Nashville, Tennessee knew a good farmer when they saw one. Starting in 1877, he worked rented land mostly in the Whites Creek area and did rather well for himself. He won an award for his Poland China hogs. His horses were good ones. A horse he owned named Jewel Maxey won the prestigious Nashville riding stakes one year and finished second the next with Woodson atop as the jockey.

An industrious fellow, Woodson also drove a four-mule team for the Indiana Lumber Company. Population boomed in the Nashville area during the post-Civil War era. Many people moved there from the Northeast, looking for new opportunities in the hustling state capital.

Woodson fit right in with the other newcomers. He became friends with the sheriff, the county clerk, a state legislator, several doctors and a pastor, in addition to other farmers.

Now and then he rode into town to visit Thomas Howard, another hard-working newcomer who lived in a pleasant house on the east side of Nashville and taught Sunday school at a Methodist church. Howard raced horses, as well. One he co-owned named Jim Malone won $5,000 in 26 starts in 1880 and 1881.

Ben Woodson and Thomas Howard were not the amicable average men they seemed to be, however. Their time in Nashville came to an abrupt end in March 1881. That’s when a fellow calling himself Tom Hill went into a saloon in back of a store in the Whites Creek area, got drunk and began bragging about his exploits as an outlaw.

After he got out of control and flashed quite a few silver dollars, the other saloon-goers decided he could be telling the truth. They captured him and took him downtown to jail and learned that Tom Hill was actually Bill Ryan, a member of the notorious James Gang. He sometimes worked and socialized with Ben Woodson and Thomas Howard.

Woodson, better known as Frank James, and Howard, his brother, Jesse, left Nashville that night, riding in opposite directions. They never saw each other again.

That ended Frank James’ career as a farmer. He seemed reluctant to give it up, however.

After Jesse James was assassinated by Robert Ford on April 3, 1882 and Frank began his lengthy legal battles, Frank was interviewed by a journalist from St. Louis who asked what he would do if he didn’t go to prison. He said, “Farming is my legitimate occupation, and as soon as I can get my affairs settled, if that can ever be done, I will engage in it.”

He insisted that his happiest days were spent farming.

“It was with a sense of despair that I drove away from our little home on the Smith place and again became a wanderer,” he said.

During the Civil War, both James brothers rode with Quantrill’s Raiders, a Confederate guerilla band fighting in the bloody Missouri/Kansas border region. After the war, they began robbing banks and trains, and it was hard to quit the outlaw life.

When their raid on Northfield, Minnesota failed September 7, 1876 with a couple gang members killed and their compadres, the Younger Gang, captured, the James brothers headed south to friendlier territory, winding up in Tennessee. After seeming to settle down in Nashville, Jesse, possibly with Frank along with him, still pulled off robberies in north Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi and Louisiana.

After Jesse’s death, Frank surrendered to Thomas Crittenden, governor of Missouri, who was a Confederate sympathizer, with an agreement that he would not be extradicted to Minnesota for the deaths of two citizens at Northfield. In his trials, Frank’s defense was mostly, “I didn’t do it, Jesse did,” which added to his brother’s fame. Still, it kept Frank out of prison.

After that, he worked at various jobs, including in the theater and as a horse racing commissioner, but never did farm again, although a newspaper reported that he was once employed on a farm in Washington picking berries. He wound up at the James family farm in Missouri, giving tours for 25 cents a head, and died Feb. 18, 1915. He was 72 years old.

Go to Nashville today and you can see some of the James brothers’ old hangouts. The house where Jesse lived with his family at 711 Fatherland Street, in gentrified east Nashville, has been restored after many years of neglect. It is not open to the public, however.

The store and saloon at 4409 Whites Creek Pike north of town, where Bill Ryan got way too indiscreet and ended the James brothers’ time in the Nashville area, is still there. No longer a saloon, it is now “Vintage Creek: a clothing boutique and gift shop.”

A historical marker stands alongside the road there, marking the spot where Frank James’ farming life came to an end.

It brings with it a question, though. If Bill Ryan, the loudmouth braggert, had been able to stay silent, if he’d not been inexplicably compelled to let people know who he really was, would Frank have stayed right here near Whites Creek growing crops and raising champion horses and hogs? We’ll never know, of course, but it’s clear Frank James had farming in his blood and loved the ten hours each day he said he spent in the fields.

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