Known in his day as a leading authority on agriculture and livestock, Mark R. Cockrill earned the sobriquet “Wool King of the World” from the awards he received for his Tennessee-bred sheep. His success in wool-culture and stock breeding gained for him a prominent place as an innovator in agricultural methods.
Cockrill was born December 2, 1788, to John and Ann Robertson Cockrill, sister of Nashville “founder” James Robertson. John Cockrill had been one of the original settlers of Nashville and established his farm and homeplace on the present-day site of Centennial Park. Mark Cockrill possessed a natural love of the soil and early in life gained a reputation as an authority on livestock husbandry. In 1815 he acquired a part of a flock of Merino sheep brought to his country by the American consul to Portugal, William Jarvis. Cockrill also introduced “short horn” Durham cattle from England and became a pioneer in horse breeding.
In 1822 he married Susan Collinsworth, also from one of Tennessee's leading pioneer families, and established a vast farm of 5,600 acres called “Stock Place” six miles from Nashville on Charlotte Pike. He also owned a cotton plantation in Mississippi and in 1854 bought an additional 1,000 acres, the famed Tulip Grove estate, from Andrew J. Donelson for over fifty-three thousand dollars.
Cockrill's crowning achievement occurred at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition in London. Samples from his Merino sheep were awarded first prize for the finest wool in the world. Queen Victoria presented Cockrill with a gold medal. His sheep also earned him awards in Vienna, Paris, and Lexington, Kentucky, where he beat out Henry Clay's prized sheep–the silver cup awarded him on this occasion bore the inscription “Clay's Defeat.” In 1854 the Tennessee General Assembly, in an unprecedented move, awarded Cockrill a gold medal for his achievements as Tennessee's “favorite son” of agriculture.
His worth on the eve of the Civil War was estimated at two million dollars, making him one of the richest men in the state. The Civil War considerably diminished Cockrill's wealth, though, since the Union army confiscated much of his property, including hundreds of blooded livestock, twenty thousand bushels of corn, two hundred tons of hay, two thousand bushels of oats, and two thousand pounds of bacon. An unrepentant secessionist, Cockrill admitted to loaning the Confederacy twenty-five thousand dollars in gold.
Even after his death on June 27, 1872, Cockrill's work continued to receive prizes and awards. His Merino sheep won recognition at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, and in 1944 a bronze plaque was unveiled at the state capitol in Nashville to honor the election of Cockrill to the Tennessee Agricultural Hall of Fame.