BY BILL SWAIN
I have been asked to reminisce about my life and experiences covering the last, almost, 47 years since I arrived in Scott County on June 3, 1942. In reminiscing, I am impressed with how different things were, and I am amazed at the progress that has occurred in Scott County in that time period.
In 1942, there was only one way to get into and out of Scott County on a paved road, and that was north and south on U.S. Hwy. 27, part of which, including Alberta Avenue in Oneida, was paved with brick. The brick was a product of the Robbins Brickyard, in the Scott County community of Robbins, the remains of which, including the company houses, were still then quite evident.
Highway 63 was paved only to Huntsville. There were no paved streets in Huntsville. The Coopertown Road was not paved at all, nor was Highway 52 to Jamestown. The only paved streets in Oneida were Depot Street to the present Sovran Bank, one block of Bank Street, Main Street from Depot to Oak Grove, and the first two blocks of Second Street.
There were times of the year when the best way to go to Knoxville was by way of Harriman, Kingston, Dixie Lee Junction and on in on Kingston Pike, most of which was still two lane road. Often during the winter time the bottom of your car would drag through a mile-long mud hole at Straight Fork on Highway 63. It took a special act of the U.S. Congress designating Oneida as a "Neighborhood Growth Center" to obtain the funding for the construction of Highway 63 as we now know
My reason for coming to Scott County was to engage as a partner in a lumber business, Swain Lumber Mills at Helen-wood, on the present site of the Halliburton Company’s installation.
At that time, the minimum wage was 35 cents an hour, which meant a weekly wage of 40 hours was $14. It soon went to 40 cents per hour. At that time, Swain Lumber Mills employed 21 people, and one of my vivid memories is that every Monday morning there were at least 30 men looking for employment (hoping that perhaps someone had gotten drunk over the weekend and wouldn’t show up.)
Of recent years, our unemployment rate has been of concern to us, but there is no comparison to the situation that existed in those days.
After engaging in business for several months, buying and selling lumber and incurring obligations of various kinds, it was brought to mind that I was not of legal age to conduct business. I wouldn’t be 21 until December, 1943.
Senator BAKER’s father, HOWARD H. BAKER, represented me in an action in the Chancery Court to remove my minority, and declare me of sound mind and qualified to conduct business as an adult. There are some people who still question that action.
U.S. Highway 27 was known as the "Airline Highway" because, at that time, stretches of it, i.e., from Oneida to Helen-wood and particularly south of Rockwood, were outstanding for that day and time. A restaurant was started at the junction of U.S. 27 and State Highway 63 and was called the Airline Tea Room and to this day, that area is known as the Tea Room.
Further south, the Glass House, situated on the present Hughett Industries property, across from Fill ‘n Foods, was a very popular restaurant, with tourist cabins and more. It was a stop for frequent Greyhound buses which provided a good deal of the transportation through the area. Incidentally, my first night in Scott County was spent at the Glass House Cabins.
It also became my practice, after the mill was up and running in the morning, to run to the Glass House, some 2½ miles, for breakfast and return. This was long before "jogging" came to be a sport and to have the popularity it now has. It was a somewhat strange thing to do it that period. I also routinely had soft-boiled eggs for breakfast, which came to be known as ‘‘Billy eggs.~~
Lumbering was the main industry, and in 1945, there were 21 planing mills similar to the present Oneida Wood industries between Sunbright and Pine Knot, Ky.
At one point, Swain Lumber mills was buying from 32 different sawmills, delivering from a radius of some 35 miles or so, and that did not encompass all of those then operating.
The W.M. Ritter Lumber Company operated an enormous plant at New River, so large that it had its own grading rules for its products and had lumber inventories in excess of 10 million board feet. Tennessee Lumber operated in the bottoms at Verdun, where Scott Hydraulics is now, and those entire bottoms were covered with lumber inventory.
Pearson Hardwood Flooring Company, forerunner to Tibbals, was on its last legs and was, frankly, physically dangerous to be around, it was in such disrepair. Lumber was king in those days.
In addition to the main line of the present Norfolk-Southern Railroad, which is still very active today (although without the passenger service that was then very important to the region), there were passenger trains going north and south, morning and afternoon, and it was a most popular mode of transportation for local folk, for example, to go from Robbins to Oneida in the morning and then to return in the afternoon.
Relatively speaking, there were very few private automobiles. In July, 1942, when I registered my car, and at that time pickups and cars bore the same license plates, I was number 932. There are now over 15,000 vehicles registered in Scott County.
Hitchhiking was also a very popular method of transportation. DAN WALKER, BERT’S father, never passed a hitchhiker without picking him up.
In addition to the then Southern Railroad, as mentioned above, both the O&W Railroad, which ran west from Oneida to Jamestown, and the Tennessee Railroad, which ran east to Rosedale, provided passenger service with a trolley-like bus.
The depot for the O&W was located on the site of the present First National Bank main office in Oneida. Dr. KLINE’s office was the genera] offices for the O&W Railroad. The general offices of the Tennessee Railroad were on the second floor of the present First National Bank Operations Center at the corner of Main and Depot.
It was a somewhat wrenching experience, as the First National Bank grew, to re-acquire space from the Tennessee Railroad and eventually to ask them to give up their offices. Especially inasmuch as their General Manager, SAM BLAIR, was a long-time member of the Board of Directors of the First National Bank.
SAM had a very proprietary interest in the bank, as well as the railroad.
One of the things that the bank is most proud of is having financed two engines for the Tennessee Railroad, which, by security laws, were required to carry a plate which said "Property of First National Bank of Oneida, Tennessee." This is a very popular type of financing and chances are, if you notice boxcars, you will find a plate that will say "Property of Riggs National Bank, Washington, D.C." which has been specializing in this type of financing for years, or some other similar financial institution. As memorabilia, we still retain one of those plates in the president’s office at the main office in Oneida.
Thinking back, there are so many things these days that we take for granted that were not available. For example, pasteurized milk was not available until after World War II and then for a time its quality was questionable. Milk was obtained from the family cow or some local folk and very often you could taste the dietary habits of the cows, particularly when onion grass was in season.
Reminiscing – First National’s Chairman of the Board Bill Swain
At one time, before the lines of Plateau Electric were extended to all areas of the county, the Chairman of Plateau’s Board was alleged to have said: "If you want electricity, you should move to town where it is."
The only public water system, and that was really a private system operated by H. F. COOPER, was within the immediate area of the Town of Oneida, extending only to the present area of the stop light at Oak Grove. The water came from wells• and was of very poor quality, with lots of’ iron, sulphur, and all those other good things. If you didn’t look at it, it was pretty good to drink.
Sunday movies were prohibited until the early 50’s and, of course, there was no, TV, and radio reception was poor without an extensive antenna system.
Baseball was a very popular summertime sport, with most of the communities in the area having teams and intense. rivalries between them.
In my mind, the turning point of the progress in Scott County came about because of the cooperation of all of the people in the county in building the Scott County Hospital. . I
The cooperation between the people in the county and the people in Oneida, toward accomplishing this, at that time a monumental project, showed what could be done if we lay our real or perceived differences aside.
A. M. (Arlie) LAY led a fundraising drive to raise the money to buy the present hospital site from BORNICE BATES, who was then manager of the Jellico Grocery Company, predecessor of H.T. Hackney & Company. Bates had acquired the property from the widow of Dr. Tom Phillips, a legendary medical figure in the community.
With that as a beginning, a Chamber of Commerce was formed. Up until that time, the Kiwanis Club, and then the Lions Club, had provided what leadership was available in the community.
Boss Glove, forerunner of the present East Tennessee Canvas, was attracted to the community. Boss originally operated in an old hosiery mill, which is now part of the West Plant at Tibbals Flooring Company.
Arvin Industries, which operated in the location of the present HBD Industries Plant, followed shortly thereafter.
There was some enormous community support for these projects and as a result of them, The Industrial Development Board of the Town of Oneida was formed as a financing vehicle.
Some of the most active in those activities included H. P. COOPER, EUGENE McDONALD, Dr. MILFORD THOMPSON, ARNOLD COLDITZ and CHARLIE RENEAU. There were many others.
One of the most progressive people for that era, about whom a whole book could be written, was H. P. COOPER.
Amongst other things, he was responsible for bringing the chicken broiler industry to Scott County. He also encouraged and underwrote the raising of broccoli, beans and strawberries as cash crops. He was an earlier developer of the West Oneida Coopertown section, the Oneida Water System and the Plateau Electric.
In retrospect, it is amazing that we were able to acquire these industries with no infrastructure whatsoever as we now know it.
As an example, the Highland Telephone Cooperative was formed in 1953 to acquire the assets of the South Continental Telephone Co., in Scott and Morgan counties, consisting of 1,012 stations and two manually operated switchboards, one in Oneida and one in Sunbright.
There are presently more than 20,000 customers, with the most modern and up-to-date equipment.
In the early 1940’s and early 1950’s, there were two long distance lines out of Scott County to Harriman, which sometimes worked. That was to conduct all of the business. You can imagine CHARLES TIBBALS and myself competing for those lines, not counting everybody else in the community.
Swain Lumber Mills was operated on a 12-party line. We had tried for several years to obtain improved telephone service by appealing to the county, by appearances before the Tennessee Public Service Commission in Nashville, and by any other means that we could find.
Finally, HOWARD H. BAKER Jr. and I met with officials of General Telephone Co. (which had acquired the South Continental Co.), in their offices in Cookeville. We were advised that we had all the telephone service we could expect for the foreseeable future. They stated they were investing their resources in South America where they could expect a greater return on their investment.
We then proceeded through the tedious procedure of forming the cooperative with all the bureaucratic hurdles — the solicitation of members, the acquisition of rights-of-way, and locations for offices — all of which has evolved into a system second to none.
As previously mentioned, there was no public water service worthy of the name and certainly none at all south of the present Industrial Lane.
HOWARD BAKER’s father had drilled seven wells at his residence in Huntsville and was still unable to find suitable water. This was the general experience with water wells in Scott County. So we began developing plans for a public water system.
I must confess that this is the only project that I ever entered into that I did not think had financial viability. However, we finally rationalized it on the basis that no one was going to come and take up our pipes and that we would have water at some price.
Again, going through much the same process, problems incurred with the development of Highland Telephone Cooperative, we began operation with some 308 customers. Huntsville Utility District has since expanded to where they are serving approximately 2,450 customers and have their own water plant and reservoir, plus access to New River for additional water when necessary. The original commissioners of this utility were JAMES W. BAKER, DAN B. WALKER and myself.
During all this period, Swain Lumber Mills continued to grow and prosper and, by the late 1950’s, a good deal of my time was being spent on these various civic projects.
On December 30, 1958, I was approached to become president of First National Bank of Oneida. The reasoning being that I was spending half my time on civic projects for which I received no compensation, and that I could spend that same half time for a couple of years and I would be modestly paid. The intention, at the time, was that we would find a full time manager of the bank.
The controlling interest in the bank was acquired from the Hamilton National Associates Group of Chattanooga and at the time of acquisition, in January, 1959, the total assets of the bank were $2.6 million. They have since grown to the present $82 million.
The opportunities at the bank turned out to be more fruitful than we expected or hoped and my half time turned out to be time and a half for many years, although I continued to operate Swain Lumber Mills and its subsidiaries until 1978, as well as other business interests.
In January, 1966, the first branch bank in Scott County was established with our community office in Helenwood, followed by a new main office building in Oneida in 1967, the Huntsville community office in 1973, and the Winfield office in 1975.
We moved back into our offices on the corner of Main and Depot, which we had moved out of in 1967, to be used as our Operations Center. It is interesting to note that in 1968, we offered to, in effect, give this building to the Town of Oneida, but our offer was refused. Thank goodness!
It has been commented that you can recognize a building to which I have had some input because of its style and materials. The use of native materials —stone, wood, wood paneling interiors, cedar shake roofs, and the like — seem to belong in the environment in which we live. We are very proud of our offices and the convenience they extend to our customers, as well as the friendly courtesy of our employees, who tend to work in communities in which they live. We are proud of the people of Scott County and our people are proud to serve their friends.
In 1964, a new challenge arose with the desire of my good friend, HOWARD H. BAKER, Jr., to run for the United States Senate. It is hard to realize how slim that opportunity appeared to be.
At that point, there had not been a Republican elected statewide since Reconstruction days. That race, to serve out the balance of the term created by the death of the then Senator ESTES KEFAUVER, was not successful, but was much closer than anyone had anticipated.
It was an interesting experience to finance a campaign which seemed to have little chance of success and then again to try for the same office in 1966. As Finance Chairman, with no prior fundraising experience, political or otherwise, it is certainly a learning experience, but stimulating and challenging.
Besides the obvious contribution that HOWARD has made as a result, I was able to form many contracts and acquaintanceships which have been helpful and most valuable over the years. Contrary to some popular conception, I have no great interest in politics as such, other than to face my responsibility as a citizen.
In subsequent BAKER campaigns, I have played no specific role other than self-designated "senior advisor" to the campaign, until his 1980 challenge for the Republican nomination for President, where I was responsible for the ultimate financial condition of the campaign.
As the bank grew and prospered, my involvement in the overall bank community continued to expand and evolve. In 1968, 1 was appointed director of the Federal Reserve Board in Nashville for a three-year term. This turned out to be a stimulating learning experience and, again, I made many new friends and contacts. One of those with whom I served was Dr. EDWARD J. BOLING, president of the University of Tennessee.
Possibly as a result of that joint service on the Federal Reserve Board, he asked me to serve on an advisory panel to the Graduate School of Business at UT Knoxville. Then he later appointed me to the UT Development Council, of which I became chairman in 1973 and 1974, and of which I am still a member. In 1973, Dr. BOLING asked me to serve on the Chancellor Search Committee, which ultimately nominated the present Chancellor, JACK REESE, for the position. It was certainly an interesting and stimulating experience, but the formula for selection is basically flawed, in my judgment, as is the process for selecting a president of the university.
Service was also available as a member of the Board of the National Alumni Association; the Athletics Board; as National Corporate Co-Chairman (with WILLIAM STOKELY) of the Tennessee Tomorrow Campaign, which, incidentally, is the most successful fundraising campaign in the history of the university, as well as being a member of the President’s Club.
In 1976 I was elected to the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Bankers Association, and was subsequently elected an officer and, ultimately, as its president (in 1982-1983). I remained as a director until 1986.
I also served as a member of the Federal Legislative Committee and made an annual trip to Washington to visit with the various regulatory agencies and our legislative delegations — Senators and Representatives. Again, these were experiences which resulted in many additional friends and contacts.
In 1984, Governor LAMAR ALEXANDER asked me to serve on the new State Board of Education which had been created by the Comprehensive Education Reform Act of 1984 for a nine-year term. This has been a most stimulating experience and this reform has put Tennessee in the forefront of education in the nation. We have much to do and we will probably make some mistakes along the way, but there are great hopes for improved education for our citizens.
In January, 1990, I began a three-year term on the Federal Reserve Bank Board for the Sixth District which encompasses Georgia, Florida, Alabama and part of Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. The Board consists of nine members.
The progress in Scott County has been significant and yet we still have a long way to go. The economic future of our citizenry depends on its education. We will no longer be able to have a satisfactory quality of life without an excellent education. We are headed in that direction, but we must continue to give it 110% effort. It will take the cooperation of the educational community, the parents and the community at large to obtain the results we need and must have.
The results of all of the above set out activities have given me the opportunity to have the contacts and be able to make contributions to the community and to individuals in Scott County which would not have been otherwise possible.
The political contacts have opened doors for many of the projects which Scott County needed so badly. The contacts at the University of Tennessee have been helpful to many of our students and the associations coming out of the bank fraternity have provided benefits in countless ways. Service on the State Board of Education has also been fruitful for Scott County. Scott County has been good to me and I hope I have been able to return at least some of what it has meant to me.
(FOOTNOTE — The year 1989 marked the 85th anniversary of First National Bank. It has been in business longer than any business in the county. Strength stability, durability and service to the community characterize our first 85 years.
We look forward to the future with enthusiasm and optimism and plan to continue to be a vital part of the economic structure of our county. We salute our customers, because when it is all said and done, through their trust and loyalty, First National Bank of Oneida is the leading bank of our area.)
FNB Chronicle, Vol. 1, No. 3 – Spring 1990
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
(pages 8 and 9)
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