Old Hickory Boulevard in Hermitage is a conglomerate of urban convenience; just about everything a community needs can be found along the busy stretch of highway.
But, residents are quickly reminded of the past as soon as they pass the Hager’s barn, and the delightful sight of horses grazing in the pasture – next to the Chick-fil-A.
Until recently, the Hager family’s giant red barn served as a landmark for many who visit the Hermitage area. It’s stood on the land since 1959, long before the stores, restaurants and hospital came along.
“The barn was here, then Old Hickory Boulevard came in, and then the businesses started coming in, and it’s just been a landmark ever since,” said owner Pat Hager.
Pat Hager’s husband, Larry Hager, bought the barn in 1969 from its original owner. In the beginning, the barn served as a space to keep the family’s personal horses, but over time, it became a boarding house as Hermitage became more developed, and places to keep horses nearby became increasingly scarce.
In its heyday, the Hagers and their staff helped care for dozens of horses at a time.
“We had a walker inside the barn to exercise the horses,” said Pat Hager. “Larry built numerous stalls inside. At one time on the property, he had 52 horses.”
The Hagers cared for horses on their land for half a century, often helping out local families when times were hard, and they had nowhere else to turn.
Larry Hager died in 2016. Since then, it’s been up to his wife to keep up with the property and care for the few remaining horses they have there. Friends and neighbors often stop by to help, but 75-year-old Pat Hager does the bulk of the work herself. She drives the tractor, buys and hauls in bales of hay for the horses, takes care of the animals and regularly mows the 12 acres of farmland. She’s tough, kind-hearted and committed to her animals – and they love her, too. When she comes out to feed them, she calls them by name, and they come running to her. Her oldest horse, Pretty Girl, is 30 years old.
The barn had seen it’s fair share of Middle Tennessee’s severe weather, but the 2010 historic flood really caused some severe damage. The barn sat in water up to its roof for three days before it finally receded. All the horses had safely moved to the pastures, but the barn was out of commission for months afterwards.
“I think we had 17 horses up here at the time. We would bring the horses out of the paddock and we would feed them two at a time. We’d tie them to the sides of the horse trailer, give them their feed, and then we’d put them back in the pasture and bring the others out. We did that probably for about two months,” Pat Hager said.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the March tornado, rather the more-recent derecho windstorm that hit Hermitage on May 3 that finally did in the iconic barn.
“It was already in bad shape, and then that storm rolled the tin off the roof and exposed the wood and joists underneath,” Hager said. “When the engineer came out, that was the worst day.”
On July 13, Pat Hager had to make one of the toughest decisions of her life. An engineer who’d come out to survey the barn deemed the structure unsalvageable. She had no other choice but to tear it down.
“It's heartbreaking; it really is, but it’s nice just hearing the sweet comments from people who have grown up with this barn and say it's a landmark and we need to save it,” Pat Hager said. “I wish we could, but we can’t.”
The iconic red barn might be gone, but five of the horses remain – at least for now. Mr. Ed, Pretty Girl, Dancer, Princess and Candy love to greet visitors who often stop by to stroke their manes and feed them their favorite snack.
“The horses really enjoy it when the people stop by,” said Pat Hager. “I have people all the time walking up with a bag of carrots; that’s how I know they’ve been here before.”
Through the years, many different developers have come through wanting to buy the Hager property. Not long ago, Publix eyed the location, but that deal has since fallen through. One small piece of the property on the corner was recently sold, however. That location will become a medical office building. Hager said she will sell the rest of the property when the right buyer comes along. After that, she’ll pack up her five horses and six cats and make her home on another piece of farmland she owns in Mt. Juliet.
Wherever she goes, though, she’ll bring a piece of Larry Hager and the historic barn with her. Local artist Phil Ponder made a drawing of the barn before it was torn down, and he framed it for Pat Hager using the barn’s wooden planks.
“There are nail holes in that wood that I know Larry put in there,” Pat Hager said. “So there’s a real taste of my husband in there, too.”
Anyone can keep the memory of the Hager barn alive, too. Prints of Ponder’s drawing are available at the Picture This gallery in Hermitage.