Scott County, Tennessee
FNB Chronicles

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Horace LaFayette Cooper (1888-1967) - A Self-Made Man

The following is an autobiography published by H. F. COOPER in 1924 in his mail order catalog for COOPER's Store:

Some say he is lucky we say there isn't any such beast as Luck. Luck is another name for Good Judgment. I was born on one of Kentucky's huckleberry ridges, where we hewed cross ties for a living. My father began swapping groceries for cross ties about the time I was born. When I was 10 years of age my father gave me three wooden boxes, the idea struck me to sell them. I sold them for 30 cents - this was my first money. I had to select a bank, and as "banks" were scarce, I selected my mothers sewing machine drawer. Thus my first money was deposited in this "bank" and then I considered myself wealthy. I began to do little jobs for people of the neighborhood for which I would get pennies occasionally. Finally I accumulated in my "bank" 60 cents when one of my neighbors had some nice pigs which looked good. I purchased one for 60 cents and thereby busting my bank temporarily. There was never a pig that received any better care and attention than that pig. About two months later I got a sale for my pig at $1.25, this being a fair price at that time in our neighborhood. Then it was that I made my second deposit in the old machine drawer. I was working at odd jobs loading tan bark in cars and other little things for which I had deposited in the machine drawer $9.00. About that time my father sold out and moved to Tennessee, 12 miles from any railway on a farm. The first day I saw the farm I met up with one of the old tenants and learned that he was leaving because he didn't fancy the new landlord. He "bantered" me to sell me 6 head of sheep and one calf for $18.00. He wanted $9.00 for the sheep and $9.00 for the calf. Not having but the $9.00 I agreed to take the sheep. He refused to sell the sheep without the calf. Therefore it was up to me to raise another $9.00 quick. I was fortunate enough to hit the old man just right and succeeded in borrowing the nine dollars - the first money I ever borrowed, and my first debt. So we traded.

This was in November, to my surprise my sheep increased "automatically" - some even finding twins.

But our stay on the farm was short. We moved back to the railroad after about one year. Upon leaving I sold my 12 head of sheep for $24.00, paid back the $9.00 I had borrowed to buy the calf with, which left me with $15.00 and my savings effected while on the farm. I had the calf, which had now grown into a large steer. Boy-like, I had him broke to work in a truck wagon, a home made affair having gum wheels.

When we moved back to the railroad I took the steer with me. In the meantime I bought a mate for him with my savings. Then I found I was the proud possessor of a yoke of oxen. One day the train ran into them and killed one. The railway company paid me $37.50 for the dead steer - that left me with my original steer and the $37.50 in cash. Soon after this we moved to Oneida.

I was then 13 years old. I still hung to my "calf" and arrived here with $37.50 in cash and one steer. I sold him one day for $25.00 and after I had sold him, I found that he was to be slaughtered for beef! Oh, how I hated to learn of his fate - I would not have sold my calf for beef had I known it, and I felt that I was partly responsible for his murder for not having been more careful of him.

I then had deposited in my old drawer $62.50 and the most of which was gold. I looked around Oneida a few months going to school and looking for opportunities. I took the $62.50 in cash, hired me a horse and started buying fur skins. I was gone from home one whole week back in the mountains. My mother was very uneasy about me before I returned. But when I returned I had spent all the $62.50 and traded a 22 rifle I had taken along with me for fur skins. I sure was loaded down. I took one hunting trip while out and caught one "possum" and one coon, which I had brought back alive. I placed my fur skins on the market and received for them $90.00.

Just as soon as I received this remittance, I made another trip back into the great mountain reaches. When the fur season was over I had in my bank $360.00.

My dad said that that was too much money to keep in an old sewing machine drawer, so I consented for him to mail some away to a bank. They had always called me "Fate" for short, my full name being Horace LaFayette. Dad deposited this money in the name of H. F. COOPER, and I have been known by that name in later life, instead of the proper initials.

Father had set up a little store in Oneida, and was not doing any good. This was when I was about 15 years of age. One day he sent to the little school house for me to come to the store. When I arrived he stated that he wanted me to keep the store a few days until he could get someone. So I stayed and I stayed - for six months - and he had got no one to relieve me. I found that I was at last getting impatient. He and I were discussing his affairs in the store one day - the first time my dad had ever mentioned any such things tome. He stated that the store wasn't doing any good, but that if I would run it for him he would give me one half of the net profits. So I decided to try it for one year. I knew the business was "sick" so I began to find out what was wrong. I "doctored" the "sore" places and went along for one year. At the end of the year I took inventory, closed my books, and found that they were in perfect balance.

The business had shown a profit of $500.00 - and the beauty of it all was that I had the $500.00 in cash. I gave dad (as I always called him) a check for $250.00 wrote myself one for a like amount.

Dad's old eyes sure did sparkle when he saw this, and his surprise and praise knew no bounds. This encouraged me and I took on a little more energy for the second year and managed to cure up some more sore spots. At the end of the second year I invoiced and declared a dividend of $1,000.00 - writing dad a check for $500.00 and myself one for $500.00. Again he was delighted, for he had been wondering the whole year how I had managed to get the first year's dividends.

The third year I doubled the profit and continued to do so until 1913, when I bought dad out, because I wanted to branch out and he thought it best to let well enough alone.

Every year until 1918 when inventory time came I issued him a check just as I had been doing for half of the profit - this was my expression of appreciation for the chance he gave me to make good.

In 1915 I built a two story brick building around the wooden shack I had started up in. When the large building was completed and completely engulfing the little mountain store now within the walls of the large structure, I had the old building torn down, piece by piece, and removed from the center of the partly completed structure which was to house my new business. I never discontinued business one minute, as the old building disappeared through the rear doors, the goods were arranged on the improvised shelves and boxes, etc., and my doors were open to my trade.

This building 80 x 100 feet was the largest building in the county at the time, and with its additions is today the largest thing within a radius of over 100 miles. My first year's sales in the old building was $8,000.00. This was in 1904 - in 1924 it was $140,000. I have set our quota at $250,000 for 1925.

Whatever you do, do it well - experts are scarce - be one. Business men are only men who have learned to cultivate their judgment. And Success is based upon good judgment and not on Luck. The secret of merchandising is to sell better goods for less money and advertise this fact. My twenty years' experience has solved this problem. Very truly yours H.F. COOPER, 1924.

Although he had very little "book learning", Fayette COOPER at the age of 10 was already looking for opportunities to earn money and was testing his judgment in investments that eventually made him one of the few wealthy, self-made business men in Scott County. As evidenced by his autobiography and early newspaper articles, he came from humble beginnings. Always looking for ways to earn money, he claims in 1901 to be the first barber in Oneida. He gave haircuts for 15 cents and a shave for 10 cents. He may not have been formally educated, but it was recalled that he could add columns, multiply and divide with the best of college graduates. Albeit he would probably have the decimal in the wrong place, but when he would

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"read off' the answer, it was right.

HORACE LaFAYETTE COOPER was the youngest son of ELI and JAMIMA COOPER. His brothers and sisters were: ELIZABETH COOPER SHEPARD (1871-1908), BARBARA COOPER CARTER (1873-1908), GEORGE D. COOPER (1875-1890), JANE COOPER STEPHENS (1877-1945), Dr. W. S. COOPER (1879-1963), ELMON L. COOPER (1881-1959), VICA COOPER NEWPORT (1884-1918), SUSIE M. COOPER FETTERMAN (1886-1912), and BELLE COOPER LEEPER (1890-1939).


H. CLAY SMITH's Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past records that FAYETTE COOPER in 1916 started up a new and up-to-date department store, the town's first. He employed Mr. GEESLEM, a Harriman architect, to design and oversee the construction of it.

There being no general contractor for this job, local labor was used and the store was completed in 1917. It consisted of three departments: groceries, dry goods and drugs (drugstore). There was also a gasoline pump on the street in front - another Oneida first - and this was a big step forward, as, before this, automobiles had been run with gasoline furnished only in barrels.

Eventually Mr. COOPER also put up three other adjoining buildings, one housing the first theatre in town.

On the back of his lot, Mr. COOPER put up a very large warehouse which served to store building supplies and feeds. For a few years, it housed the grocery department.

With the advent of telephones, the COOPER Stores had a switchboard and the operator (who for many years was BELLE CECIL) would announce over the speakers (placed in each department) who needed to answer the phone.

Mr. C. C. NEWPORT, a brother-in-law of Mr. COOPER, was the manager of his department store from the beginning of 1914 until 1923, when he went to First Trust and Savings Bank as president and cashier. Mr. COOPER himself had much to do with the founding of First Trust and Savings Bank in 1923. Ironically, he was a director of First National Bank of Oneida from 1913 until 1933. The last ten years that he served on First National's Board of Directors, he was also a member of the Board of Directors at First Trust and Savings Bank. He served as president of First Trust and Savings from 1954 until his death in 1967.

Coopertown came to be when H. F. COOPER secured the land which included the area known as "Brynyffnon", settled by the Welsh Colony (Pistol Lane area) and developed it into a most progressive farm, with several lakes, chicken houses, truck farms and even sold off and financed tracts to small farmers. By his account, he sold the land for $5.00 to $10.00 an acre, on five year terms to 96 people, most of whom had never owned a home before. He helped those who could not help themselves. They paid him what they could, as they could.

Mr. COOPER started handling Purina Feeds and expanded this business to furnishing chicken houses in all parts of the county, until, at the peak of it, he had helped to finance and set up farmers with what was known as "Cooper Chicken House Farmer" to the extent of 85 farmers. All but 10 of these are called 5,000 capacity houses, with ten of the remaining ones having 10,000 capacity.

NOAH BLEVINS, who bought his farmland from Mr. COOPER, was the first farmer to be approached by Mr. COOPER to be set up with a "COOPER" chicken house. "No-ree" (as COOPER always called him) started with a 2,500 capacity house and over time had three chicken houses.

"COOPER nearly worked me and my family to death, recalls NOAH. "I was working the coal mine at Stearns by night and by day, my wife and I cleared our farm with a cross-cut saw. COOPER always wanted to try something he 'read about', so he staked us in raising strawberries, then beans, then laying hens, then sheep and all this while we were raising broiler chickens the hard way. . . all by hand. We watered from a well bucket, we stoked coal stoves around-the-clock in the winter and we hand shoveled shavings."

One project "No-ree" wouldn't try for COOPER, though, was cutting careless weed (which grew big enough "for a squirrel to climb") on ground scattered with chicken litter) and stacking it to dry for cattle feed. NOAH knew it would rot before it would dry to fodder.

"In my opinion," Noah continued, "COOPER was the finest man I've known - I could kiss the ground he stood on. If I felt I couldn't afford to do something, COOPER always said, 'Go ahead, No-ree . . . you pay COOPER when you can.'."

Raising broiler chickens was the source of the county's biggest cash farm revenues and the business grew to the point that Mr. COOPER built a bulk distributing plant which allowed farmers to purchase their feed in bulk. The structure was built in 1957 (and is still standing, though not in use) on South Depot Street near the railroad and the Texaco Distributor building.

Coffins and caskets could be bought at the COOPER store, but in 1927 Mr. COOPER began offering embalming of the dead, along with ambulance service. The embalming was done on the second floor of the store. Later the funerary section was moved to Cross and Second streets. In 1939, a Mr. LANE of Dayton, Tennessee, an undertaker who had worked for Mr. COOPER, started the Hickman Funeral Home on Highway 27, which was later sold to LEE and VERNON WEST and became known as West Funeral Home.

The foresight of FAYETTE COOPER brought about the organization of the Oneida Water Company. Among the charter members of the organization were Messrs. H. F. COOPER (President), C. C. NEWPORT, ALVIN TERRY, CLAUDE TERRY, H. C. SMITH, Oneida Hosiery Mills, Jellico Grocery Co., R. S. MARCUM, EZRA SMITH, GEORGE BALES and WILLARD BOND.

This was the most fortunate happening in the history of the town. It brought in factories and better living conditions for most of the residents, giving them running water for their homes, and providing an opportunity to cut down on the many total losses by fire that the area had had. The water company was purchased by the city in 1951.

He was among the group of concerned citizens who built a light plant, installed a sewage system, formed the News Publishing Company in 1918 (known today as the Bell Press, Inc., publisher of the Scott County News), helped plan U.S. Hwy. 27 and improved the streets and sidewalks of Oneida. Later, he also helped form the Plateau Electric Cooperative and the Chamber of Commerce.

Always taking an active part in

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community development, Mr. COOPER was also a charter member of the Oneida Kiwanis Club. He enjoyed hunting, fishing and horse races and he and his wife, MYRTLE, entertained close friends frequently at the cabin on their private lake at Coopertown.

The only known time that FAYETTE COOPER served as a city official was in 1915 when he, EUGENE WILLIAMS, A. C. TERRY, JOHN CARSON and some others were successful in reforming the Oneida City Incorporation (Charter). He served as an alderman with EUGENE WILLIAMS as mayor. The Charter wasn't contested again until 1958, when a motion was started to extend the city to take in all of "Stumptown", Oak Grove, "Socktown", and other places down the railroad.

Having a grocery, dry goods and drugstore all under one roof was a fore-runner of "strip malls" of today. Included in his "guarantee" in the 1924 mail order catalog, COOPER coined the phrases, "It is true today that the quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten", "COOPER Store, Where Quality Meets the Price" and "Buy from COOPER and Bank the Difference". He guaranteed every article he sold to be satisfactory or the money was cheerfully refunded. In describing COOPER's Buying Power in the catalog, he answered the question: "How large is COOPER's business, anyway" with the following:

COOPER's Business in a Nutshell

Dry Goods 4,000 sq. ft. Hardware 2,000 sq. ft. Furniture 4,000 sq. ft. Undertaking supplies 500 sq. ft. Drugs 2,000 sq. ft. Storage warehouse 7,000 sq. ft.

COOPER commented on the small town's advantages, "Our prices are lower than the concerns located in large cities. Our taxes, labor, drayage, etc. are much less; therefore we are satisfied with much smaller per cent of profit. We are going to do a $250,000 business this year (1925) and are hoping to make only eight per cent. This looks very small but we will be happy if we can reach the 8 per cent mark. The small merchant can't do this."

Providing "better than average" service was another reason for COOPER's prosperity. He was quick to admit to a homebuilder that he might not have in stock all the building materials that would be needed for the home, but here is where he set himself apart from other merchants. He would tell the homebuilder to pick out materials he needed at a supplier in Knoxville and have the merchandise charged to COOPER's Store in Oneida. The supplier would then deliver the building materials to the site of the home and the homebuilder would pay COOPER's Store for the actual cost of the merchandise, plus 10%.

Like most merchants and coal companies, ELI COOPER used "scrip" as a means of exchange for merchandise. FAYETTE COOPER continued the practice and scrip was traded until the 1960s at COOPER's stores. Although he didn't attend church, H. F. COOPER came up with a novel idea, as a way to support the local churches.

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He had a receipt box built shaped like a. church. Shoppers could write the name of their church on their store receipt and. drop the receipt in the "church". H. F. COOPER donated a percentage of each shopper's purchase to the shopper's' church. Or, the purchaser could receive a percentage of his purchases in scrip to be used to pay for future purchases... a customer profit sharing plan!

H. F. COOPER donated the land of New Haven Baptist Church in Coopertown and the memorial garden next to the church is named Cooper Memorial Garden.

Having no children of their own, the COOPERs frequently kept nieces as "boarders" in their spacious home on North Main Street. It was easier for the girls to stay in town to be closer to the high school.

ARLIE LAY's furniture store was located further up Depot Street from COOPER's Store and it was traditional for local businesses to close on Wednesday. Well, ARLIE and FAYETTE decided to stay open on Wednesdays. This didn't set well with a delegation of other businessmen resembling today's "Chamber of Commerce". Fayette didn't embrace conventionality!

BROMMA and ROY JOHNSON were frequent travelers with the COOPERs to Kentucky for the horse races. BROMMA and FAYETTE, on one occasion, persuaded First Trust and Savings Bank and First National Bank to close on "Good Friday" so they could get an early start for the Saturday races. After settling in to their hotel rooms in Kentucky that Friday evening, they were dismayed to learn that there would be no races the next day since it was a holiday weekend!

Not only was he ahead of his time insofar as merchandising was concerned, he also branched out into such areas as experimenting with cash crops like strawberries and broccoli. He irrigated his farmland using water from the lakes he had built. The lake near Verdun was open to the public and used by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for annual camps. A private lake, complete with cabin, was located further out Coopertown Road and was used extensively by the COOPERs for entertaining friends.

In later years, the COOPERs enjoyed relaxing during the winter months each year in Florida.

To illustrate how FAYETTE COOPER was a "man of his word", it was recalled that ED ACRES had negotiated a deal with FAYETTE to purchase some lots of land. Even though ED didn't have the money at the time, the deal was made. As time went on, ED forgot to pay for the lots. Another prospective buyer approached FAYETTE for the same lots. Although ED had not paid FAYETTE for the lots, FAYETTE told the prospective buyer he would need to check with ED about the lots. It was not until ED told FAYETTE that he would release him from the deal, that FAYETTE would sell the lots to someone else.

Few men have had streets named for them (LaFayette and Cooper streets, Oneida), a road named for them (Coopertown Road), lakes named for them

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(Cooper Lake), a cemetery named for them (Cooper Memorial Garden, New Haven), and a settlement that bear their name (Coopertown). All these are tributes to an exceptional man who wasn't afraid to trust his own judgment. Those who were in need of help found a friend in "Fate" COOPER.

This article memorializes one of Scott County's finest citizens and admittedly just scratches the surface insofar as all the impact that HORACE FAYETTE COOPER had (and continues to have) on the lives of Scott Countians. He and MYRTLE are buried in the COOPER Memorial Garden at New Haven Church, and even after all these years, they remain vivid in the memories of those who knew and loved them.

FOOTNOTE - Special thanks are extended to BILL HAMILTON, C. G. RENEAU CLAUDE TERRY, Jr., BROMMA PEMBERTON BEN and SAM COOPER, the sons of WILLIAM FAYETTE COOPER, WILLIAM S. COOPER, CHARLES MAX NEWPORT, NOAH BLEVINS, ALLYN LAY, Jr. , MELVIN NEWPORT and CAROLYN COTTON for either providing pictures, making memorabilia available to be photographed, and/or taking the time to be interviewed concerning their  memories of Fayette COOPER. Resource material for this story includes: Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, H. CLAY SMITH; H. F. COOPER's autobiographical newspaper and catalog articles, and First National Bank of Oneida, Tenn. Board of Director Meeting Minutes.

FNB Chronicle; Vol 9, No 4 Summer 1998
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
5 pages

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