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Mary Pearce is a force of nature, whose passion for preservation — mixed with bulldog tenacity and a heaping dose of Southern charm — has helped shape the historic landscape in Williamson County. If you have shopped historic Main Street in downtown Franklin, attended a concert at the Franklin Theatre, toured Carnton Plantation or enjoyed one of the many festivals that downtown Franklin hosts each year, you may want to write Mary a thank-you note. Meet Mary Pearce, executive director of the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County.

Mary Pearce
Mary Pearce at the old jail in Franklin TN. Image courtesy: Abigail Bobo Photography

Have you always had a passion for preserving history?

I grew up in Somerset, Ky., and while my friends’ families were moving into new ranch houses, my parents decided to tackle the scary Victorian on Main Street. Plus all grandparents on both sides of my family lived in historic farmhouses, so I guess you could say it runs in my family.

What was the very first preservation effort?

I was being asked to help strip wallpaper or refinish woodwork when I was in junior high school, but my first home restoration as an adult was when I moved to Charleston and got my hands on the interior of a historic home on State Street in downtown Charleston. We scrubbed, sanded and painted. When we were done, our lower floor flat looked great, and I was hooked.

When did you first arrive in Williamson County?

I have been in Franklin since 1979 and at the Heritage Foundation since 1987.

Describe Franklin and Williamson County in regard to historic preservation 20 years ago?

Years ago, I could see people in local government roll their eyes when the preservation community came calling, and now, historic preservation is just the way we do things in Franklin. The Heritage Foundation was trying hard 20 years ago to keep properties from being torn down by moving them out of the way of development. Today, developers are great preservation partners and eager to make historic resources the center of their development. We are gaining national recognition as a community that reclaims battlefields, has a vibrant downtown, carefully plans infill development that enhances our community character and preserves farm fields for the future with conservation easements.

Historic preservation plans for the Old, Old Jail
Plans for historic preservation are always on the radar for Mary Pearce. 

What do you hope Franklin and Williamson County will look like in 10 years?

I hope that downtown has expanded down Columbia Avenue and the HG Hill Center is redeveloped. I hope Hillsboro Road leading into downtown is redeveloped with areas deep in the floodplain cleared of buildings and landscaped. I envision Carter Hill Park busy with visitors and students learning the history of the epicenter of the Franklin Battlefield. Harlinsdale is bustling with events, and a wedding is taking place at the restored Harlin Farm House. Sidewalks leading to the Harlinsdale park are beautifully landscaped, and river walks provide connectivity to our residential and commercial neighborhoods, house museums and parks close to downtown.

What three things does every newcomer to Williamson County need to know about historic preservation?

  1. Historic preservation doesn’t happen by accident, and the magic of why you love this place is because the historic treasures have been saved.
  2. We want you to get involved in saving the places that matter, so please join the Heritage Foundation.
  3. You can help save our beautiful downtown and rural villages by shopping and dining in historic buildings. You might consider living in a historic home, too!
The old jail
Historic preservation is a passion for Mary Pearce, who is now focusing on the old jail in Franklin. 

What is the biggest historic preservation undertaking you have ever worked on in Williamson County?

That depends. Historic zoning and the Main Street Streetscape were big undertakings, but The Franklin Theatre required the most private fundraising.

Carnton and Carter House are famous, and almost every visitor is directed to those sites. What are some other historical must-see places in Williamson County?

The Lotz House and Franklin on Foot Walking Tours let you experience the city in a great way. Gallery 202 is so historic, and I love our historic cemeteries.

Why has Williamson County been successful in rallying the community behind preserving history in such a significant manner?

Historic Preservation is in the hearts and minds of both those who have lived here forever and the newest people. Everyone works together.

What projects are you working on now?

Right now, the big project is the Old, Old Jail. We are working to renovate the 1941 building that was once the Williamson County Jail. We plan to restore it to its Art Deco glory, and use the facility for learning and as the first permanent home of the Heritage Foundation. We are going to call it The Big House for Historic Preservation.

We are blessed to have a lead gift from Marilyn and Calvin Lehew in the amount of $1 million and other generous donors, such as Emily Magid, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Ayers and Tim Pagliara. And the Next Generation Heritage Foundation has made it possible for us to secure a bank loan, and construction should begin in the next month, but there is still fundraising to be done. Rick Warwick just donated his historic, locally made chair collection to the cause, and we are doing an online auction of the chairs to raise money for the Old, Old Jail.

The Old, Old Jail call for action
The next project for historic preservation is the old jail in Franklin TN. 

What three things can you not live without aside from family, faith and friends?

You mean I can’t say grandchildren? I must have my red lipstick, creative projects and shopping locally. 

What are you currently reading?

The Invention of Wingsrecommended by Karen Cochran.

What is your favorite Williamson County restaurant?

That depends on the time of day and what I am in the mood for. We have so many unique, local places to eat, and I am partial to dining in historic buildings. Imagine that! I love breakfast at Puckett’s all the time. It’s a mixture of the great food and friendly staff, but you’ve got to try them all, and I tell people on the street that you can’t miss no matter what local restaurant you pick. You can feel friendly and social sitting on the sidewalk dining at 55 South or McCreary’s, cozy and Cajun at Papa Boudreaux’s, sophisticated at GRAY’S, uptown at Red Pony and Cork & Cow. The Puckett’s Boat House makes me feel like I have gone to the river, and Dotson’s is the nearest thing to my Nana’s cooking. That is just Main Street, so I could go on and on about our great places to eat, but my husband, Harris, just called to meet him at the Chop House.

To learn more about the Heritage Foundation, visit

Special thanks to the talented Abigail Bobo for today’s gorgeous photos. To see more, check out her site: Abigail Bobo Photography

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About the Author
Cathi Aycock