The Wilkinson-Keele House:

The History of “Manchester’s House”

Manchester Street Fair 1898—J.G. Wilkinson and Millinery Department



Harry Wilkinson (2nd Row, First one on the Left)

Close up of the front porch of the Wilkinson-Keele house showing some of the elaborate gingerbread woodwork after Renovations.









Amarilla Keele, daughter of Judge Keele.  This photograph was found behind a fireplace mantel during renovations.

Playbill from a “garage play” by Polly Keele on April 27, 1939.  The Playbill was found behind a mantle during renovations.  Several other interesting items were also found during renovations to include an 1897 Western Union telegram to J.G. Wilkinson; 1890’s Coffee County Bank notes; a 1900 envelope addressed to Harry Wilkinson; photos; early 20th century valentines day card; early 20th century light bulb box; a book report by a young Harry Wilkinson; and several more items.  All of these items on display in the reception area of the Law Office of Nicoll & Nicoll.

Text Box: Manchester

Manchester, Tennessee is the Coffee County seat. Manchester was established in 1836 when two landowners deeded 200 acres to be divided and sold. It was incorporated two years later. Manchester takes its name fore the great industrial town of Manchester, England, because community leaders thought because of its location on a river and near two falls Manchester would become another great manufacturing center.  Manchester is full of history that dates back 2000 years ago when Native Americans roamed and ruled the Tennessee hills. A Native American site located at the confluence of the Duck and Little Duck Rivers and now called Old Stone Fort is believed to have served as a central ceremonial gathering place for some 500 years.  

Old Stone Fort also hosted several water powered milling operations during the mid-late 1800’s.  Manchester and Coffee County also saw action in the Civil War as Union Forces moved southward from their victory at the battle of Murfreesboro and engaged Confederate forces in June of 1863. The battle was a very small, but it was the first time that a Spencer repeating rifle was used. In 1940 Camp Forrest, a military facility, was built near Manchester. General Patton’s Army began maneuvers throughout the area.  Once a predominantly agricultural area, the city and county began to see its industry grow in the 1960’s.5 In 1910, the population was 1500; in 1970, it was 6,208 and in 2005, it was 9,442.

J.G. Wilkinson

The Wilkinson family lived in Tennessee as early as 1830. The family owned significant farmland in a small community outside of Manchester called Hillsboro.  Joseph G. or J.G. Wilkinson was born 1858, the son of Isaac and Mary Wilkinson, one of their four children.

In 1880, Joseph (J.G.) moved into the town of Manchester.  In 1884, J.G. and his uncle, J.G. Willis started buying real estate in town.  J.G. Wilkinson married Dessie Strickler on May 18, 1886. In October of 1887, Wilkinson and his uncle purchased the block where the Wilkinson-Keele House was built.  The house was constructed soon after that in 1888. Wilkinson was an active businessman in the community at the time he was erecting his home. He was president of the newly opened Bank of Manchester in 1888 and a partner in Manchester Mills in 1889. In 1891, J.G. Wilkinson and partners formed the Coffee County Bank with Wilkinson serving as cashier.  By 1895, he was selling groceries and dry goods at the J.G. Wilkinson and Millinery Company  located on lot 19 of the original plat of Manchester.

In 1903, Wilkinson moved his family to Fort Worth, Texas. He kept the house in Manchester and used it as a summer residence with caretakers looking after the house in the winter months.  Once in Texas, he was one of the organizers of the Wichita Falls and Oklahoma railway in 1905.  As of 1914, Wilkinson still owned several properties in Manchester, including the Ramsey Street house (then described as Railroad Street, East Side). He served as the president of the Continental Nation Bank of Fort Worth, as well as a number of other small banks in Texas. Eventually he served as chairman of the board of the Continental Nation Bank and his son Harry became president.
In 1931, Wilkinson’s wife Dessie died and was buried in the Wilkinson family cemetery in Hillsboro outside of Manchester.  A year later Wilkinson died in Fort Worth, Texas. He was brought back to his home on Ramsey Street for a memorial service and then buried with Dessie and other family members at the Wilkinson family cemetery in Hillsboro, Tennessee.

After J.G.’s passing, his son Harry put the Ramsey Street house up for sale.  Judge Robert Keele purchased the home for his wife at auction on October 27th, 1937, for $4,500.00 and a down payment of $1,500.00 with two annual payments thereafter.  He moved into the home with his first wife, Amarilla S. Keele, and their three children, Amarilla, Robert Jr., and Polly. 

Judge Robert Keele

Judge Keele was born in Noah, Tennessee in 1894. He worked as a teacher, a mail carrier, and served in World War I. Judge Keele was admitted to the practice of law in 1919; however, he did not attend law school but worked as an apprentice and then later sat for the bar.

In 1934, Judge Keele was elected Coffee County Judge. He served in that capacity until 1950. In 1960, Judge Keele served as the first General Sessions Judge of Coffee County. A year later, Judge Keele served as the Chancellor Judge Part II of the Twelfth Chancery Division (14 counties). Judge Keele’s first wife passed away in 1955. Shortly thereafter, he remarried a local schoolteacher named Ann Majors. The second Mrs. Keele stayed in the Wilkinson-Keele house until her death in 1990. 

The Keele children tell wonderful stories about their childhood in the Wilkinson-Keele home. Specifically, they can recall a house bursting at the seams in the early years as their family members and friends came to live with them as they tried to rebound from the Great Depression.  Polly and Robert, both recount memories of Patton’s Army marching down Hwy 41 on a hot day and breaking ranks to come sit under their shade trees and sip water from the water hose. They also remember their mother opening up their home to officers’ wives while the soldiers were being trained for military duty for World War II and the fact that if their mother saw a uniform while she was in town that that young man would end up at their dinner table. The Keele’s also grew up with multiple generations in their home as their grandparents lived with them in their later years. Polly Keele remembers the summer of the Polio epidemic when she was not allowed to leave the yard, calling it “the longest summer of my life.”

Restoration of “Manchester’s House”

After the second Mrs. Keele’s death, the Keele children reluctantly put the house up for sale.  On July 3, 1991, Louis A. Hendrix purchased the Wilkinson-Keele home with dreams of restoring the house to its original glory.  But financial constraints and failing health left the house in disrepair until the John and Chasity Nicoll purchased the home in 2003. The home has gone an extensive renovation and is now utilized as the home for the Law Office of Nicoll & Nicoll, PLLC. 

The Home’s Historical Significance

There are no other unaltered Queen Anne houses in Manchester. A few houses in the neighborhood contain elements of the Wilkinson-Keele House such as window framing or porch balustrades, but none have the amount or quality of design and details as this property. The Wilkinson-Keele House retains all the important features of the Queen Anne style. Characteristics of this style, popular throughout the U.S. around 1880-1910, include multiple porches, a dominant front gable, spindle work, and bay windows. A Field Guide to American Houses divides the style into four shape subtypes – hip and cross gable roof, cross gable roof, front gable roof, and town house. The Wilkinson-Keele House fits into the cross gable roof subtype that is found in approximately 20% of Queen Anne houses. It is an excellent local representation of the style.

Above: Judge Keele in 1943


Below:  A young Mr. Keele working as a law apprentice in 1914.

Wilkinson-Keele House, circa 1962      


The SQUARE or Downtown Manchester (Courthouse in the middle)

W.H. Ashley and J.G Wilkinson in front of Coffee County Bank, circa 1891

Providing Quality Legal Services in Middle and Eastern Tennessee

Wilkinson-Keele House circa early 1900’s

Design and Features


The Wilkinson-Keele house was built in 1888 in Manchester, Tennessee by J.G. Wilkinson and is a notable example of the Queen Anne style in Manchester. Constructed of poplar and site-made brick, the dwelling retains most of its original detailing and has not been significantly altered. The Wilkinson-Keele house is one of only two original Victorian era houses left in Manchester’s downtown area, and it is probably the best example of the exuberant architectural detail found on some houses of the Victorian period. Its highly refined styling and degree of elaboration are unusual in Manchester’s surviving older residential areas. Character defining features of the house’s Queen Anne style include the highly ornate exterior porches, large windows, and bay windows. Inside, the Queen Anne style is seen in the existing fireplaces, foyer stairway, historic wallpaper and lighting, and wood door and window surrounds.

The Nicoll Law Firm, PLLC is located in Manchester, Tennessee and services clients in middle and eastern Tennessee. 


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