[EDITOR’S NOTE — The following is a transcript of an oral history project for a class taught by Dr. SUZANNE MARSHALL, a professor of history at Jacksonville (Alabama) State University, at Roane State Community College in Huntsville in January 1999. The oral history workshop was sponsored by the National Park Service and included teachers, historians and park service personnel from several states. Dr. MARSHALL is the interviewer and the interviewee is WILLIAM SWAIN, Chairman of the Board of First National Bank of Oneida].
Marshall — What I’d like to do first is have you tell me a little bit about your birth and some family history if you would.
Swain — Well, I was born in Detroit, Michigan and my mother died when I was thirteen. I had a brother and two sisters. My brother has died and my younger sister has died. I went to Catholic school in Detroit and the University of Detroit High School (which) is a boy’s prep school which I think has been a very important impact on my life over the years. I attended a year of college and then I came to Tennessee in June of 1942. I think it’s significant that up until that point I had not been south of Toledo or east of Buffalo or west of Chicago. Folk didn’t travel like they do now, for more reasons than one, so I was coming into a significantly different culture than I had been used to and frankly, I came for 30 days. That was the original idea. We had bought a lumber mill here. My father and I and a partner of his and I were going to spend 30 days getting acquainted. We had hired a fellow to run the operation and before the 30 days was out we discovered that wasn’t going to work very well so I ended up being here ever since. With a small stint in the Army (Marshall — during WW II?), during WW II, I was in through basic training then they decided in their ultimate wisdom that I have since questioned, that I could do more good running the lumber mill than I could in the Army. It probably saved my life in a sense because I was going to be in the Air Corp at that time, it was before they had an Air Force, and knowing my propensities and one thing and another, I would probably have got shot some way or another. (Marshall — laughter). So I was fortunate in more ways than one.
Marshall — How did you choose Scott County, Tennessee to set up a lumber business? Was it one that you bought or was it the resources?
W. H. SWAIN
Swain — It was one that we bought and actually it was a product of the war, as well. My father had a wholesale lumber business, carload business and yard business, and I was looking after the yard in Detroit. Detroit has a very high personal property tax on inventories and if you’re smart, if you work it right to try and run you inventory down as of 12/31 of whatever year it is and we had done a magnificent job of doing that. We had practically no inventory. But then the regulations came out with regard to what you could do and what you could not do and in one of those sub, sub, sub chapters which you find in most regulations, there was a little paragraph that said that if a wholesale yard owned a lumber mill, it could supplement its wholesale yard inventory with its mill inventory. Basically, we came to buy an inventory. A small "peanut" mill which I later expanded and made larger. But essentially, it was a culmination of circumstances and the need for an inventory that brought me here.
Marshall — When you got here, can you tell us a little bit about what this country was like in the early ‘40s? You came in 1942, is that right?
Swain — 1942. Well, I can ramble on for a long time about it.
Marshall — That’s good. That’s what we want. (Laughter).
Swain — Well, first of all there were only two ways to get out of Scott County on a paved road. That was north and south on U.S. 27 and I use the term a little bit loosely as far as a paved road, particularly north of Oneida. There was a brick road in front of the hospital. There was a brick road in front of where I lived at Helenwood, where NORMAN ACRES now lives, as a result of a brick yard in Robbins. The road was not paved past Huntsville. I can remember times going to Knoxville — I went to the University three days a week — I worked out a morning schedule. I went Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — in those days the University had Saturday classes — and drove back and forth. There were times when I went to Harriman to go to Knoxville and any of you who are familiar with that situation, that’s 93 miles. Knoxville, otherwise, is about 55 or 60 miles. But the roads were so bad. We talk about Straight Fork and Fairview, I can remember the bottom dragging in the winter time as you went through that low place for a mile there.
Marshall — How long did that take (93 miles) on not so good roads?
Swain — Well, it depends. (Laughter). It seems someway or another I’ve acquired a reputation which is probably not correct, but at least two hours. But another thing about going to Knoxville in those days, and the best of circumstances and it’s essentially the same except the roads, that when you went to Knoxville and back, you were worn out. Regardless, just because of that trip. I was a lot younger then and I was a whole lot more tired then than I am now going over there. Further, with all due respect to Plateau Electric, their position at the time was that if you wanted electricity, come to town. They’ve obviously changed that. There was no public water at all. There was a private system in Oneida that went to Oak Grove which is where the Bethlehem Baptist Church is, and to Scott ... where the Dollar Store and Plateau Drugs are now. Telephone — we were literally cranking the phone on the wall. We did that until 1955 when we established the Highland Telephone Cooperative. I was running the mill on a 12 party line which was not a lot of fun, first of all, because everybody knew what you were doing and besides if you could get a chance. There were two long distance lines that had to go through Harriman. I remember very vividly CHARLES TIBBALS, who some of you know and who was a character in his own right, when he and I were competing trying to get telephone service, well, it was interesting to say the least. There was no public sewer. And the best I can remember or ascertain, there were five houses in Scott County that had central heat. No air conditioning, of course.
Marshall — In your business, did you employ people from the local area? Where did they reside? How far did they typically have to come to work?
Swain — Well, as I recall, we employed 21 people. With the mill and the yard. The first payday we made for a week’s work was $14. That’s .35 cents an hour. It wasn’t long after that, within a month or so, that it went to .40 cents an hour, so we were paying $16 a week. With those 21 people, on Monday morning, when I went to the mill, I lived right at the mill. When I’d walk over to the mill, there were at least 30 men there hoping that someone got drunk over the weekend and didn’t show up so they could get hired. That was week in and week out.
Marshall — Where, (some of these questions are mine and some I’m getting from another sheet). When you began to harvest the timber, do you know how far away you went to get it? Was it local? What kind of trees did you process? Was it for housing timber or other kinds of purposes?
Swain — Originally, it was pine and for the war effort. And then we got into hardwood. We ended up, (I was in the lumber business for 40 years) and before we were through, at one time, we were buying from 32 mills. There was not equipment, basically, as there is now. I brought the first chain saw into this country in 1946, I believe it was. I paid $450 for it and it weighed 80 pounds. I kept it about six months and sold it for $450 because we couldn’t keep it running.
Marshall — So what did they use instead of that?
Swain — Cross cut saw. A Swedish fellow, representing a Swedish firm, came by and introduced some bow saws that we had not seen before. I also brought the first diesel power unit for us to run the sawmill out in the woods.
Marshall — When did you bring that in?
Swain — 1945 or ‘46.
Marshall — Did the war limit your ability to bring in new technology? Some things were being diverted because of the war. Did it change greatly after the war, with technology of the lumber business?
Swain — It changed a lot during the war, there was practically nothing that you could do. I remember crawling around literally in the bins over at C. M. McCLUNG’s hardware company in Knoxville finding babbit and parts that they didn’t know they had. They just let me go back there and look to see if I could find something. It was a tough time and at one time we had a sawmill down at Wartburg, it had a usual crew of 16 to 18, and when I filled out the Social Security form for the quarter, we had employed 93 different people at that installation, including a couple of women, which was new and a couple of folks (well I guess that was the first disabled) I tried to hire. I took one fellow down there one day and stuff kept coming out of the edger and hitting him in the back. So we suggested that he go over and sit under a tree and we would take him back home that evening. Employee pickings got pretty slim.
Marshall — Did the women do the work that men would have done, or did they do secretarial work?
Swain — No, they worked in the mill. I don’t think any ever worked in the woods. Basically, then we were using mules and horses, more mules than horses, for logging. No four-wheel drive trucks at that time. Or four-wheel drive vehicles of any kind. That was the first impact after the war; a lot of army trucks and things were brought into service.
Marshall — Where did you get your mules. Somebody locally bought them? How many did you have to have? I like mules, which is obvious. (Laughter). How’d you take care of them?
Swain — Well, the first mules I got I bought out here on the River Junction Road from Little DAVEY SEXTON. I kind of inherited him. I bought a saw mill from CARL RECTOR which kind of precipitated events because as a result of that, they discovered that I wasn’t old enough to be doing business.
Marshall — How old were you?
Swain — 19, and at that time you had to be 21. And my first experience with the BAKER family (not Senator, but his father) took me to Chancery Court and declared me of sound mind and able to do business as an adult. There’s been some question about that ever since. (Laughter).
Marshall — Back to the mules again, my interest there.
Swain — Oh.
Marshall — How many did you have to have? How many teams? Did everyone know how to work them already? Did you have to explain that?
Swain — You can understand how much I knew about mules and logging from what I’ve already told you.
Marshall — Okay.
Swain — It just depends. Usually there were four on a job. Sometimes they used them singly and sometimes doubly. Depending on…One of my great experiences as a dealer of stock, I bought a pair of beautiful Belgium horses up in Pine Knot, Kentucky, just gorgeous looking animals and we used them a little in the flat. Then I took them down to Wartburg and put them up there on the mountain logging that mountain and you could have heard them in Sunbright, which was about 10 miles away. As it turned out they were wind broke, but they were pretty. (Laughter). Didn’t get much out of those when I sold them.
Marshall — They didn’t want to do that kind of work?
Swain — Well, they weren’t able to actually.
Marshall — In the timber that you were getting, were there any chestnut trees still around? The blight came through some time during that time, so were chestnut trees being harvested then or after the war?
Swain — There were none that I ever saw or harvested until the late ‘50s or early ‘60s when we were logging on Honey Creek. It was a skidder job, and if you’ve been on Honey Creek, it’s like this mostly (hand motion indicating straight up and down). And we found a log, an eight foot log, a little rotten on the outside, but we hauled that in and sawed it up and paneled the master bedroom at our house
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with that wormy chestnut.
Marshall — I bet that was pretty.
Swain — It was beautiful.
Marshall — Well, let’s turn to your banking career. You became a banker in about 1959, is that correct?
Swain — January 8th celebrated 40 years.
Marshall — What made you do that?
Swain — Well, the approach was basically, well, let me start at the beginning. Howard Baker, Jr. and Dr. MILFORD THOMPSON were on the board at the First National Bank. I had been sold some stock of the First Trust and Savings Bank by Mr. H. F. COOPER, with the idea that I would be on the First Trust and Savings Bank board. That’s the background. Then, the people who owned the First National, which was controlled by a holding company, before they had holding compliances... it was grand fathered from the depression days and was owned basically in Chattanooga and Knoxville. Decided that the bank was not performing up to their expectations and they were either going to sell it or close it. HOWARD and MILFORD were on the board and Howard came to me… called me and I went out and visited with him and he suggested that inasmuch as I was.., at that time I was President of the telephone company and President of the Huntsville Utility District and involved with the Kiwanis Club and the Chamber of Commerce and that sort of stuff and also was on the hospital board that I was doing all this stuff and spending half my time on that and wasn’t getting paid any, why didn’t I come and run the bank for a couple of years and they’d even pay me a little thing.
Marshall — Sounds like a good deal.
Swain — Sounds like it was, you know and that I guess caused me to have the most difficult decision I’ve ever had in my whole life, because I had to make it entirely on my own. I’ve always when I’ve had serious decisions to make, I’ve discussed it with different people. I had the First Trust people on the one hand and they certainly were prejudiced and the First National people on the other hand my close personal friends (BAKER and THOMPSON). So I had to decide what to do and it was difficult because of the relationships that we had had over the years. So I went at half time which turned out to be time and a half. And the two years have obviously turned out to be forty, but the bank had done much, much better than we had any expectations. The first five years we operated the bank, we made more money that we had in the previous 54 years. The bank will be 95 years old this year in October. Which we are going to celebrate, we hope, with the opening of the new office in Helenwood. A community office which is twice as big as our main office now so it’s been very good to us in more ways than one. Not only financially, but what we are able to do in the community and the doors it opens and the relationships.
Marshall — How did as you say it helped in the community, what all has the bank done in the community?
Swain — Well, we’ve done a lot of things over the years. There aren’t many things that have happened in Scott County that in one way or another the bank has not been involved in and in particular the last few years we’ve been strongly involved in education. For a bank our size, why I think we do much more…we spend about something over $100,000 a year in contributions/donations and probably 85% or 90% of that in education. We feel very strongly about this and we have a program, our Mini Grant Program, which we go directly to the teachers in the schools and offer them $500 for any project, up to $500, that they want to apply for under our grant. We started out with $10,000 the first year and we had so many good applications and we were having a good year so we raised that to $20,000. And now we are up to $35,000 a year. In Nashville they have a similar project which makes headlines in the paper and they spend $57,000, so in relative terms I think we are doing all right.
Marshall — Wow, sounds like it. How did you come to being involved with getting this building here (Roane State Community College satellite facility at Huntsville)?
Swain — Stubbornness, I guess. (Laughter).
Marshall — Can you explain?
Swain — Well, it first started as an off shoot of the original manufacturing operation. In the lumber business, we got into the retail business at Helenwood and I was so involved with the bank and the lumber mill and the Brimstone Company, which is a land company, and some other things that something had to give. So we closed that operation but we had the building. We’ve always felt the need for a community college and we got Roane State on a temporary basis and we made them a "race horse" deal on the lease payment and a lot of folks in the community pitched in and remodeled it . . . it’s now the Alternative School and education site. And that’s where we became involved with Roane State and then EARL McDONALD came along and originally offered $500,000 and we thought we were talking about a $1,250,000 project and we just kept pushing and we just wouldn’t let them tell us no and finally got the state to put in $500,000. There’s about $2,500,000 in this installation here. But only $500,000 of it is public money, the rest of it is private money. And it’s been going great, gang buster. Personally, I think it’s the most significant thing that’s been done in Scott County in all the time I’ve been here. It has had such an impact on all the community. It has a synergistic effect because if you are a parent and you are taking of your time to come out here and go to school at night and one thing and another, you are going to make sure that your children are working at their school, too. So our future has to be in education. There’s no question about it, I’ve seen over the years, and I’ve employed a lot of people who didn’t have much education but had native intelligence and were willing to work hard and therefore made a good living for their family and could really progress. But I think that day, with all due respect, is gone. People are going to have to have an education and be able to change and adapt because they are probably going to have six or seven different careers — let alone jobs — in their lifetime, which has not been true in the past.
FNB Chronicle, Vol. 11, No. 1 – Fall 1999
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
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