New Economies, New Communities: 1865-1915

By Carroll Van West, Ph.D., Tennessee State Historian, Professor of History and Director, Center for Historic Preservation, Middle Tennessee State University

Iron Foundy Workers
Iron Foundry Workers, United States Pipe & Foundry Company. Chattanooga Public Library. Full Record.

As Tennesseans gained new opportunities in the aftermath of the Civil War they also sought out new ways to nurture their families and serve their communities. Historical accounts vary but all agree that the state faced daunting economic challenges after four years of war and three years of military occupation. Tennesseans responded to these challenges in different, often creative ways.

Establishing New African American Businesses

The newly freed enslaved found support through the Freedman’s Bureau—a federal agency designed to help African Americans transition from slavery to freedom—and through more local networks of African American artisans and merchants. The Freedman’s Bureau helped laborers negotiate contracts with their former masters. A surviving account book from Williamson County records that not only did African Americans contract their labor for farmland and tools but they used their skills to become carpenters, cabinetmakers, coopers, and masons.

Artisans of all sorts and freed blacks who had enjoyed a degree of autonomy during the decades of slavery used the new era of Reconstruction to form craft associations and fraternal lodges, out of which emerged black-owned and managed banks, co-operatives, and business associations.

Change did not happen overnight, as evident in the career of James C. Napier of Nashville. Napier, born of free parents in 1845, was attending school in Ohio at the time that Union troops occupied Nashville in 1862. Napier returned to his hometown, got involved with local Republican politics, and became a successful public official, serving on the city council for eight years. A businessman and real estate developer, by the turn of the twentieth century, Napier was a powerful, respected figure. He and other African American leaders organized a chapter of the National Negro Business League in 1902, and established the One Cent (later Citizens) Savings Bank the following year.

Another example is Cal Johnson from Knoxville. Born in 1844 to slave parents in Knoxville, Johnson began to build a business empire in Knoxville by establishing a saloon in 1879. Making quick profits, Johnson reinvested the money into additional saloons, which soon gained the reputation as the best in the rapidly expanding Knoxville of the 1880s and 1890s. Like Napier, Johnson also was politically involved and served on the Board of Alderman in the 1880s. He also owned race horses, invested in the sport, and established Knoxville’s premier track, which remained in business until the state outlawed horse racing in 1907. Johnson was a major real estate developer as well, and gained local fame by funding the city’s first Young Men’s Christian Association building for African Americans in 1906.

Memphis, the location of the largest African American community in Tennessee, also held the state’s largest share of black businessmen and entrepreneurs. From 1866 to 1874, twenty businesses and the influential Freedman’s Bank opened on Beale Street. Robert R. Church, Sr., born in 1839, became a dominant figure in the city’s political and business communities. Although his saloon was destroyed, Church survived the Memphis Massacre of 1866 and stayed to rebuild his business empire in saloons, hotels, restaurants, and real estate. In the early 1900s he established the Church Park and Auditorium and the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust across from each other on Beale Street. Church was recognized as the first African American millionaire in the South.

New Ventures on the Farm

Joseph Killebrew, a native of Montgomery County, became the leading voice for a New Tennessee after the Civil War. In 1870 he served as the agricultural editor for an important Nashville newspaper and began to advocate for new approaches in the state’s agriculture, such as crop rotation and the increased use of fertilizers; smaller farms rather than large plantations; and new immigration of peoples from Europe who could bring new skills and agricultural ingenuity with them.

In 1874 Killebrew turned his advocacy into near state policy by producing the mammoth and very influential study, Introduction to the Resources of Tennessee. This compendium emphasized the state’s potential not only for more progressive-minded farmers but also for investors looking at timber, mineral wealth, and industrial development. It created a blueprint for the state’s economic future for the next two generations.

In the 1880s agricultural experiment stations were established to help guide the diversification and modernization of Tennessee agriculture. Dr. Charles Dabney became the director of the University of Tennessee Experiment Station and under his guidance, generations of UT students and educators shaped a new agricultural landscape and introduced new profitable crops and products.

Immigrants and New Communities

In 1869, the federal Commissioner of Emigration Eugen Plumacher and Knoxville businessman Peter Staub purchased 15,000 acres in Grundy County and established the community of Gruetli, which attracted about 100 Swiss families to move to Tennessee by the 1870s. These Swiss immigrants established an agricultural association to market their dairy, fruit, and grain products, and they became known for their intensive farming practices. The community was part of a larger movement in the late nineteenth century to introduce more diversified agricultural practices in Tennessee and to invigorate the state’s fruit industry.

In the 1870s, a group of German Catholic immigrants settled in southern Lawrence County and established the communities of Loretto and St. Joseph. They too introduced new agricultural practices and neighbors soon copied their success. The same story was repeated in Franklin County where a group of Swiss-German immigrants settled the community of Belvidere.

Expanding Mining Landscapes

Mining has been part of Tennessee history for thousands of years, witness the Dover Flint Quarries, mined by Native Americans for centuries in Stewart County. Then with white settlement came the development of iron deposits near Cumberland Furnace in Dickson County and the Tennessee Marble mines in Hawkins County. Montgomery Bell was known as the antebellum iron master of Tennessee and he owned and hired hundreds of slaves to work his various mines and furnaces.

With the coming of the railroads in the 1850s mining intensified in Tennessee. Copper mines at Ducktown, in the state’s southeast corner, started slowly but production increased once the Hiwassee smelter went into business in the 1850s. Coal deposits in Grundy County were some of the first to be developed and by 1858 coal was being shipped out of mines near Tracy City on the tracks of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. In upper East Tennessee, the completion of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad in the late 1850s spurred further expansion of the Tennessee Marble mines in Hawkins and Knox counties.

The Civil War temporarily stopped almost all mining activity. When the war ended, however, mining jumped in production. At Ducktown, for example, an estimated 24 million pounds of copper came out of Polk County between 1865 and 1878. Then in 1899 the Tennessee Copper Company built a huge underground shaft at Ducktown’s Burra Burra Mine to extract even more of the precious metal.

Coal mining experienced a similar boom. The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railway Company controlled many of the Tennessee coal mines, which helped to fuel coke production facilities not only in nearby Tracy City and Altamont but in other Appalachian towns as Dunlap. The company also entered into an agreement with state government that allowed it to “lease” state prisoners to toil in the company’s mines and industrial works. By 1889, the company controlled at least 60 percent of the state’s convicts, many of whom were African American. Free labor fought back against the company and in 1891 the Coal Creek War broke out in Anderson County.

This conflict pitted free labor against convict labor and the power of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, which in turn was supported by state government. Two years of violent outbreaks in Anderson County led to demands for change and soon the public turned against the convict lease system. The state refused to renew the convict lease contract in 1896, and the practice ended, except for Brushy Mountain Prison, where the state used inmates to mine coal until 1937.

The end of the convict lease system did not end coal mining in Tennessee. In the 1890s, for example, Harvey LaFollette from Indiana purchased coal and iron deposits in Campbell County. Once a railroad spur connected his mines, and his town named LaFollette, to the main line of the Southern Railway, Campbell County became of the state’s major mining centers for iron and coal from the late 1890s to the mid-1920s. Another center for the Appalachian coal industry was in Fentress, Overton, and Putnam counties where the Wilder-Davidson mines were in production from 1903 to the 1930s. Wilder was named for former Civil War general John T. Wilder, who served in the Union army but returned to Chattanooga after the war and even had a term as the city’s mayor.

Iron production also expanded in the state’s northern Highland Rim after the Civil War. Huge blast furnaces were built in Montgomery, Stewart, Dickson, and Houston counties and many stayed in production until the end of the century. When you think of iron industry centers in late nineteenth century Tennessee, however, you think of Chattanooga. In 1877 former Pennsylvania iron industry entrepreneurs David Giles and Caleb B. Isbester established the Chattanooga Pipe and Foundry Works, which in time became one of the nation’s leading iron products firms. Employing hundreds of workers, 2/3 of whom were African Americans, the works provided opportunity and helped to boom this once river town turned railroad city. In 1899 the company consolidated with other competitors to form the powerful United States Cast Iron and Pipe Foundry Company.

The Industrial Revolution Comes to Tennessee

Chattanooga indeed became an industrial and entrepreneurial center for Tennessee and the South by the turn of the twentieth century. One of the most important early companies was the Chattanooga Medicine Company, established in 1879 by Z. Carter Patten and other investors. Within a generation it was one of the South’s largest and most profitable makers of over-the-counter medicines, including its early signature product the Black-Draught laxative. The Chattanooga Glass Company began in 1901 and became famous for developing the “hobble-skirt” shaped bottle used by Coca-Cola and other soft drink companies ever since. The Chattanooga Bakery Company, established in 1903, was first locally known and ever since nationally recognized for its signature product, the Moon Pie. The snack began c. 1919 and cost only a nickel originally. The Brock Candy Company dated to 1906 when William E. Brock purchased the earlier Trigg Candy Company. In 1909 Brock launched his new brand, which became nationally known with a generation.

The next county seat east of Chattanooga on the railroad line, Cleveland, was another industrial center. Christopher Hardwick and his sons Joseph and John established the Hardwick Stove Company—later the Cleveland Stove Works—in the 1870s and with its success they launched the Cleveland Woolen Mills in 1880. Both companies operated for decades, with the stove works eventually becoming part of the Magic Chef brand in the late twentieth century, employing some 1,800 workers in the 1970s.

Memphis, a railroad center like Chattanooga, also attracted more than its fair share of post-Civil War entrepreneurs. The Memphis Cotton Exchange, established in 1873, connected farms to the growing city and spurred the twentieth century development of the city’s cotton industry. In 1901 the powerful Procter and Gamble Company established the Buckeye Cotton Oil Company to take further advantage of the southern cotton crop. Buckeye’s Memphis plant was described as a “monster” facility employing hundreds. Abe Plough established the Plough Chemical Company in 1908 and within two decades his company had become one of the nation’s biggest pharmaceutical firms.

Industrialists in Jackson, another railroad center, launched the Southern Engine and Boiler Works in 1884. By the end of the nineteenth century, the firm employed over 400 and produced steam engines and high pressure boilers. After a new factory went into production, the company even produced its own automobile, the Southerner, with about 400 cars produced between 1906 and 1910.

Jackson was best known in industrial circles for the company town that stood a few miles south—Bemis. The Bemis Brothers Bag Company of St. Louis launched the venture in 1900 in an effort to link West Tennessee and Mississippi Delta cotton plantations to a centralized factory location on the Illinois Central Railroad. The town developed in stages but by 1903-1905 a huge multi-story factory loomed over a town of largely Arts and Crafts styled dwellings, which in turned was self-sufficient with its own schools, churches, theater, and stores.

Throughout Tennessee the cotton textile industry transformed rural and urban landscapes and communities. In McMinn County, for instance, Eureka Cotton Mills dated to 1857 but after the Civil War, new investment transformed the company and the surrounding town, which became known as Englewood and the Englewood Cotton Mills launched in 1913. In Nashville the Werthan Bag Company employed hundreds of white and black workers and transformed the look of its North Nashville neighborhood in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Indeed, post-Civil War Nashville was much more of an industrial center than its antebellum predecessor. And the capitol city had its own distinctive products, such as the Goo Goo Cluster, developed by the Standard Candy Company, which began business in 1903.

Further Reading:

Carroll Van West, ed. and various authors, Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998). 

Beverly Bond and Janann Sherman. Memphis in Black and White (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2003).

Paul K. Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008).

Tim Ezzell, Chattanooga, 1865-1900: A City Set Down in Dixie (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013).

Louis M. Kyriakoudes, The Social Origins of the Urban South: Race, Gender, and Migration in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, 1890-1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

Bobby L. Lovett, The African American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999).

Karin A. Shapiro, A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871-1896 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

Lynette Boney Wrenn, Cinderella of the New South: History of the Cottonseed Industry, 1855-1955 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995).

Suggested Citation

West, Carroll Van. "New Economies, New Communities: 1865-1915." Trials, Triumphs, and Transformations: Tennesseans' Search for Citizenship, Community, and Opportunity. Middle Tennessee State University, 2017. Web.