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Historic Rock Castle's grounds back up to Old Hickory Lake.

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Yesterday Once More

Past and Present Are Alive at Historic Rock Castle


What would it be like to play games on the grounds of a mansion built by a man who was friends with Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson?

What would it be like to camp out in woods with roots that precede the Revolutionary War and the founding of the State of Tennessee?

What would it be like to host dinners and parties that draw thousands of guests each year?

Canyon, Toren and Kyran Gilbert don’t have to imagine—they know.

Along with their parents, Sam and Jessica, they enjoy experiences such as these year-round. As the caretakers-in-residence of Historic Rock Castle in Hendersonville, the Gilberts are privileged to live each day in a place preserved in time.

Most Hendersonville residents are familiar with Rock Castle, an 18-acre historic property located on the peninsula at the intersection of Indian Lake Road and Rock Castle Lane. Built in the late 1700s by prominent surveyor and Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Smith, Rock Castle stands today as the oldest structure in Middle Tennessee. The property remained in the hands of the Smith family and descendants until 1969, when Daniel Smith’s great-great-granddaughter Sarah Crosby Berry deeded the property to the State of Tennessee.

Today, Rock Castle serves as a popular destination place in Hendersonville. Each year, it hosts thousands of visitors who attend such events as Sumner Harvest Days, Songwriters’ Nights, a Folk and Bluegrass Festival and the Wonderland Easter Egg hunt. Along with these public events, Rock Castle is also a popular wedding venue, playing host to more than 25 ceremonies each year.

For most of us, Rock Castle is a fun place to visit and attend special outings.

For the Gilberts, however, it is home.

Sam, Jessica and their children reside in a house located on Rock Castle grounds nestled between the main mansion and Old Hickory Lake. Although they have lived there for 10 years, the Gilberts have never gotten over the sense of wonder that comes from residing on historic ground.

“It’s a huge blessing for our family to be here living on the property, growing up in the footprint of history,” Sam says. “We feel a real sense of responsibility to the community because this is such a unique place.”

“Rock Castle invokes an ongoing sense of reverence and awe,” Jessica says. “I don’t think that we will ever get over the beauty and grandeur of the property. We still walk out every day and think, ‘Wow, we live here,’ and it is amazing!”

Given the popularity of Rock Castle, the Gilberts are constantly hosting or planning different occasions. Due to the amount of effort involved with each event, running Rock Castle is truly a Gilbert family affair. However, despite the workload, the family always manages to have a good time.

“The best part of living here is getting to work events such as Sumner Harvest Days,” 9-year-old Kyran says. “My favorite event is the Wonderland Easter Egg Hunt. Last year, I had fun dressing up as the Cheshire Cat.”

For Canyon, 14, and Toren, 13, the Songwriters' Nights are their favorite events.

“I love the Songwriters’ Nights,” Canyon says. “We get to listen to the music, but we also get to have fun taking care of the younger kids who come to the events. We entertain them with toys and games so that their parents can enjoy the music.”

 “Songwriters’ Nights are the best," Toren says. “I like getting to meet the artists.”

While Sam and Jessica enjoy the events, they have found other aspects of Rock Castle that have helped them enrich the lives of their family and the Hendersonville community.

“Many times, before historical-themed events, the kids and I will find us an area in the woods to camp out near where the frontier re-enactors have pitched their tents,” Sam says. “When it gets dark, we can hear the campfire conversations and smell the food cooking over open flames. It is very gratifying to be able to share these experiences with my children.”

When not working formal events, Jessica has become passionate about reaching out and sharing the Rock Castle experience with local high school youth.

“Since Sam teaches, we like to host mentorship groups of kids from schools who come out and experience Rock Castle,” she says. “The more that they come out, the more they feel they belong.”

Over time, many of the youth visitors realize that they enjoy their time at Rock Castle so much that they become regular volunteers for events.

“They learn to love the property as much as we do; they treat it like a second home,” Jessica says. “This year, we even have some former mentoring students choosing to get married at Rock Castle.”

When they are not on the job, the Gilberts find plenty of time to appreciate living at Rock Castle.

“I love being able to look out our windows and see the deer, fox and other animals who have taken refuge here,” Sam says. “Some days, it feels a lot like stepping back in time.”

The children are also appreciative of the special nature of their home.

“I love how the grounds are so open, yet tucked away into a neighborhood,” Canyon says. “I like having a big yard to play games in and explore.”

“I like the fact that the woods and the grounds are right on the lake,” Toren says. “Our friends love to come over and visit.”

Although many visitors and events have come and gone over the years, the Gilberts remain grateful for their good fortune of living at Rock Castle. They realize that whether humble or historic, there truly is no place like home.


1779    Daniel Smith surveys and maps the boundary lines between North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky

1784    Daniel Smith receives land for his service in the Revolutionary War and moves to Tennessee to construct Rock Castle

1954    Old Hickory Dam creates Old Hickory Lake, which floods a portion of Rock Castle’s property behind the house

1969    Sarah Berry turns over Rock Castle to the State of Tennessee; Friends of Rock Castle formed

2008    Sam and Jessica Gilbert and their two sons, Canyon and Toren, move to the Rock Castle grounds to serve as caretakers

2009    Kyran Gilbert is born and moves to the Rock Castle grounds with her family

139 Rock Castle Lane, Hendersonville,

  • Toren, Kyran and Canyon Gilbert hold pictures of Daniel Smith Donelson, Polly Smith Donelson and A. J. Donelson.
  • The Gilbert family: Jessica, Kyran, Toren, Canyon and Sam pose in a bedroom in Historic Rock Castle.
  • Canyon, Kyran and Toren Gilbert show off some of the merchandise available for sale at Historic Rock Castle.
  • Canyon, Kyran and Toren Gilbert pose in a room set aside as a child's room in Rock Castle.
  • The Gilbert family poses in the kitchen of Rock Castle.
  • The Gilbert family holds pictures of the Donelson descendants of Daniel Smith in front of Historic Rock Castle.
  • The Nashville Symphony Orchestra performs on the grounds of Historic Rock Castle.
  • Historic Rock Castle's grounds back up to Old Hickory Lake.
  • Re-enactors fire off a volley during an event at Historic Rock Castle.
  • The Wonderland Easter Egg Hunt is one of Historic Rock Castle's most popular events.
  • Kyran and Sam Gilbert dress up as the Cheshire Cat and the King of Hearts during the Wonderland event.
  • Jessica Gilbert hosts a tea party in the woods during the Wonderland event.