The Bransford Legacy
Slave Master and Slave
Slave master, Thomas B. Bransford, fathered a son with his slave Little Hannah who he had brought along with his family from Virginia to Nashville. Their son, Materson “Mat” Bransford was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1815. Since his mother, Little Hannah, was a slave Mat was a slave. Mat did not receive preferential treatment on the plantation because his father was the master. As Mat came into manhood, he was leased out to Mammoth Cave along with fellow slave, Nick.
When Thomas B. Bransford died in 1853, both Mat and Nick were purchased by his son, Thomas L. Bransford, and the lease agreement continued. While not related, Mat and Nick were very close in age and spent a great deal of their lives together. Nick also carried the last name of Bransford.
Rented Out | $100 a Year
Franklin Gorin, from Glasgow Kentucky, had growing hopes of exploring Mammoth Cave and intended to start a business. However, he required more help because he only had one slave.
For the then hefty price of $100 a year, Thomas L. leased out Mat and Nick to work in Mammoth Cave. This is where these men would work, alongside the famous Stephen Bishop, while learning the ins and outs of Mammoth Cave where they would lay the foundation for the Bransford legacy.
Mat and Nick led lives much different from most slaves of that time. Unlike the deep south, where slaves were subject to long, hot days of hard work, Mat and Nick spent their days exploring the caves, acting as guides for cave tours, and conversing with the elite class who often visited the cave. Unlike other slaves, Mat and Nick met scientists, artists, politicians and other important individuals from all over the world --- and the visitors met them.
Second Generation Bransford
In 1850, Mat married Parthena Coats who would eventually give birth to four children.
Henry Bransford, one of Mat’s sons, went to work as a farmer and as a Mammoth Cave guide.
Henry was described as “the walking thesaurus of the cave” by visitor and contributor to a book about Mammoth Cave, Adam Binkerd. Henry was very well liked during his career at Mammoth Cave and held the unforgettable Bransford charisma of his father, Mat. Mat Bransford died in 1886 and Henry died shortly after him in 1894.
Third Generation Bransford
Henry’s nephew, William Bransford, started guiding in 1888 and in 1917 was made head guide at Mammoth Cave.
Will “was responsible for distributing wages to both seasonal and year-round guides” and was even chosen to represent Mammoth Cave at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Fourth Generation Bransford
Mat Bransford’s grandson, Louis Bransford, started guiding in 1895 alongside Will. Following in his footsteps were his sons Clifton and Elzie Bransford, who alongside their father Louis were the last of the Bransford guides.
During a time of great segregation, Mammoth Cave was a place of unity both amongst the cave guides and those who worked in the Mammoth Cave Hotel. Black and white families often got together in the evenings to “drink coffee, talk about whatever came to mind, and chew tobacco”. Clifton’s cousin, David Bransford, is cited as noting, “When we moved away from there (Mammoth Cave) we found out it was quite a bit different.”
A new woman, named Donna Bullock, came into control the cave’s business affairs. She had no mercy for the cave guides and made them work long unforgiving hours.
The Bransford legacy, as cave guides, was broken with the establishment of Mammoth Cave as a national park in 1941. First Clifton and Elzie were let go and then their father Louis turned in his keys when he was forced to retire in 1939.
They were the last Bransfords to guide at Mammoth Cave after 101 years of service until 5th generation Bransford, Jerry, became a park guide, 65 years later, in 2004.