Louie Bryant – a visionary Scott Countian
By DR. FRANK THOMAS
The family of Louie Bryant played a major role in the development of northern Scott County in the last quarter - of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century.
His parents, James and Roberta Bryant, were natives of Boyle County, Kentucky who became large land owners in Scott County around 1880. They purchased huge grants of land in both Kentucky and Tennessee, acreage which was sparsely settled, poorly surveyed, and often the ownership of which was very questionable. After James Bryant died in 1884, Roberta became the owner, and Louie became responsible for proving the title to the land which he, his brother Dudley, and his Sister Hester Bryant Glare were eventually to inherit.
Louie was not ill prepared for his life work; he had graduated from Princeton University, then studied in Germany to become a mining engineer. The local inhabitants were against a formidable foe when Louie appeared on their doorstep and asserted they were living on "Bryant Land".
Many of these people had little or no legal title to the land on which they were living. Typically, Bryant insisted they were trespassing and asked them to move. If they refused to give up their claim, he first offered to give them a "lease" which gave them the right to continue to occupy the land. Almost always these were short term leases, often good for only one year, but Bryant seldom asked anyone to move after they had signed the document stating he was the legal owner.
Ironically, the person who signed a lease and continued to use the land was doing Bryant a great favor. In the eyes of the law, they were agents of Bryant and after a period of seven years the title passed to him even if the land did not belong to either him or the person living there. They had proven his title by "squatting" on the land as his agent, if the rightful owner did not protest their possession of the land during the seven year period.
Failing in this, Bryant threatened legal action, but in many of the cases in which he felt his claim to be shaky he reduced the acreage to a bare minimum and agreed to deed the surface to the resident if he would deed the mineral to the Bryant interests. Many individuals were only too glad to make a swap in which they felt they were giving up very little in return for a good title for the surface on which they were living.
Remember, Bryant was a mining engineer, and he understood the value of coal before the average citizen of Scott County attributed much value to minerals. He was also convinced that valuable iron ore lay beneath the surface, and he envisioned the manufacture of iron in this area.
The Bryants were not alone in their search for land; practically all of the land lying in the area between the Southern Railway and the Big South Fork was claimed by outsiders. Numerous claims were made against the Terrys, the Littons, the Watsons; both my great-grandfather and my grandfather, and other members of the Thomas family successfully defended their land titles against the Bryants and the Brier Hill Collieries.
He was quite a visionary. For the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1890 he carved a block of coal weighing over one ton, hauled it by oxen to the Southern Railway, and exhibited it at the Fair as an example of the potential of Northern Tennessee and Southern Kentucky. He was probably the first to propose dams on the Big South Fork to produce electricity. He advocated a railroad from Winfield to Knoxville, another from Stearns to Jamestown, and yet another from Corbin to Cumberland Falls, where he proposed another hydroelectric plant.
He was not all talk and no action. Bryant established coal mines on Bear Creek and built a small town named in honor of his mother, Roberta. His residence and remains of his coal washer, the first on the Southern Railway, still remain. Scars resulting from strip mines he operated are still evident in Helenwood and near the old U.S. 27 north of Winfield in Kentucky.
He was much less interested in operating saw mills. Even though he controlled tens of thousands of acres of virgin timber, he preferred to lease his timber properties to those more familiar with the lumber industry. He was responsible for many smaller operators setting up operations in Scott County, particularly in the Winfield area.
With all of his land holdings and his good education, Bryant was never truly successful. His lack of capital, poor planning, and inability to understand that many of the mountain residents were just as smart, or smarter, than he was led to his downfall.
Prosperity generated by World War I gave Lowe his last chance to establish the empire he so cherished. By 1920 his luck turned all bad. The recession of that era left him in dire need of money; he and his brother and sister went to court over his management of Roberta’s estate, and much of their land had to be sold. Bankrupt and in poor health, Louie
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Bryant became a bitter man. This man, who had envisioned so much for this area, had to sit on the sidelines while the railroads he had dreamed of were operating as the Tennessee Railroad, The Oneida & Western Railroad, and the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway, and the coal he had so badly wanted to mine was being produced in large quantities by people always considered amateurs.
Louie Bryant should be viewed with mixed emotions. It is true he forced many old timers to move from areas which they had cleared and farmed, land on which they had some legal claim; many claimed he forced them to sign papers they did not understand; often they had only marked the signature with an "X" because they were illiterate.
On the other hand, he did promote the area and was responsible — through enterprises he established or encouraged others to establish — for the employment of thousands of people who lived in the Big South Fork area.
FNB Chronicle, Vol. 3, No. 2 – Winter 1992
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
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