Post-World War I

G. Tillman Stewart

From Henderson County by G. Tillman Stewart, Tennessee County History Series, Joy Bailey Dunn, Editor, Charles W. Crawford, Associate Editor, 1979, Memphis State University Press.  Thanks to G. Tillman Stewart's son George Stewart for granting permission to publish this book.


Hugh Powers, an excellent County agent, organized pig and other clubs for young farmers. Vocational agriculture was available in the county schools in 1921 for high school boys who wished to have a project on some phase of farming. Boys in club work competed for places on judging teams that were sent to the West Tennessee Fair and to the Mid-South Fair for competition against other county teams. Area boys who were recognized for outstanding work were Lloyd Davis, Charles Deere, Carmon Duck, Warren Holmes, Roy McPeake, Troy McPeake, Frank Maness, Harry and Noble Mullins, Irby Park, Bobby Pope, Fay Pope, John L. Pope, Rex Pope, Auburn Powers, Ohlen Reed, Floyd Richardson, J. L. Ross, Tillford Sellers, G. Tillman Stewart, Charles Taylor, Edward Timberlake, Loyal Tyler, Glen Walker, and Poley Walker. Georgia Roberts was the first home demonstration agent. Nell Jackson of Poplar Springs was among the first girls to receive recognition through the girls' club.

During the mid- 1920s, the Fordson tractor became popular; it was followed by the Farmall (International) and John Deere. These early tractors had steel wheels with cleats for traction. Rubber tires supplanted the cleat wheels by the 1930s. The use of horses and mules decreased rapidly as the use of tractors increased. By the time World War II began, at least 80 percent of farm equipment was motorized.

Purebred livestock became even more popular with Hereford and Shorthorn cattle becoming common. Purebred bulls were used to improve the grade of cattle. Duroc-Jersey, Poland China, and Ohio Improved Chester were the leading breeds of swine, until the Hampshire was introduced in the mid-1930s by Griff Dodd.

Soon after the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, Senator Frank Norris interested Roosevelt in a large experimental project in the Tennessee River Valley. People in that area were suffering from the full blast of the Depression, and the proposed project would furnish employment and electric power for rural areas while conserving the soil. It was through this initial agreement that the Tennessee Valley Authority later was to be born.

The project directly benefitted Henderson County. Powers resigned as county farm agent to work with TVA. Bob Darnall succeeded Powers as county agent. Eventually, some 25,000 acres of submarginal land in the eastern part of the county were purchased and taken out of cultivation. Farmers who owned these farms, usually poor hill farms, received good prices for the land which enabled them to buy other land or to move.


Outstanding young lawyers who began practice in Lexington during the years that followed World Way I were Joe Appleby, Joe Davis, E. W. "Jude" Essary, Jr., and Elmer Stewart. Davis and Appleby were both jury and general practice lawyers. Davis and Roy Hall, another native, completed prelaw at Union University and the University of Tennessee and continued study at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where their diplomas were presented to them personally by President Calvin Coolidge. Stewart's superior scholastic work won him a trip to Hollywood where his picture was made with Raymond Navarro and the cast of the silent film Ben Hur. Essary gained local prominence in his handling of domestic cases.


Better roads enabled doctors to make fewer house calls since patients now had better access to medical offices and facilities. Physicians whose practices were in Lexington at this time were Drs. Jim Arnold, G. A. Brandon, "Pete" Conger, J. F. Goff, W. I. Howell, W. F. Huntsman and his daughter, Cornelia, C. H. Johnson, J. P. Joyce, and Gecova Maxwell. Conger, a highly successful surgeon, was a native of the county, but began his practice in Decaturville. Later, he moved to Lexington where he and Brandon built a clinic which eventually housed 30 beds. Dr. Cornelia Huntsman was the first female to practice medicine in Henderson or in any adjacent county, with the exception of Madison. Drs. C. E. Bolen and W. D. Bradfield practiced out of Wildersville at Christian Chapel Community, R. L. Wylie at Scotts Hill, Gib Howell at Sardis, and C. B. Chaffey at Luray.


The Henderson County Board of Education purchased 35 acres of land in 1920 on which to build a high school. This land included the present site and extended to the railroad. After Highway 22 (Broad Street) was built, the board divided lots on the east side of the highway and sold them for residential use.

In 1921 there were two more elementary schools added for white children. Lexington still had the only four-year high school in the county. Students continued to tend crops so elementary school terms were only five months long. This split term was not discontinued until 1965. The Lexington city elementary school operated nine months as did the high school. A junior high school also was established in connection with the high school at Lexington. Until 1921, the high school and the grammar school operated together in the building where the old city school was located. This building is now the civic center and senior citizens' building.

Students who attended Lexington High School consisted primarily of three groups: those who lived in or near Lexington; those who boarded; or those who walked, came by train, horse, or buggy. The Perryville Branch train began picking up students at Perryville and stopped at Chesterfield, Darden, Reeds Crossing, and Warrens Bluff. At times as many as 35 students rode the train, some of whom walked as many as four miles to meet the train.

When Austin Peay was elected governor in 1922, he began a successful effort to completely revamp the state's educational system. The Legislature levied a tax on tobacco to provide financial aid in counties to permit longer school terms. Qualifications for teachers were raised, with the average salary for elementary teachers being $60 per month until 1925, when it was increased to $85. County superintendents were elected by the county court until 1935 when the Legislature changed procedure to election by the people. Election returned to the court in 1939 only to return to the people again in 1953.

In the mid- 1920s, Ira C. Powers was made principal of Scotts Hill. Due to his hard work, Scotts Hill was made a senior high school in 1929 with P. H. Murphy as principal. There has been some difficulty in the school's operation since it is situated in two counties. The line between Decatur and Henderson counties actually went through the school building, dividing it between the counties.

Sardis became a senior high school in 1931-1932, with first school bus service beginning in 1932. The bus, a Chevrolet frame with a wooden body, was purchased and driven by principal Auburn Powers. As more roads were graveled, bus service increased, and by 1940, both elementary and high school students were bused. Other early bus drivers were B. D. Anderson, Vales Bush, V. F. Grissom, John Little, John Long, and Clyde Walker. Howard Wylie hauled students to school at Sardis in 1931 in a wagon pulled by mules, and Ed Mitchell hauled students to Sardis from Union Hill Community.


Henderson County and Lexington City Boards of Education, 1932.
Left to right: front row: Mrs. W. R. Holland, Mrs. M. B. Hart (wives of board members), E. D. Deere, Mrs. William Houston (wife of board member); back row, G. W. Stewart, A. W. Holmes, Houston Creasy, Superintendent G. Tillman Stewart.

An aggressive and intelligent leader, Ben Douglass of Lexington emerged during these years in the county. After graduation from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, he accepted a position as vocational agriculture teacher at Sardis. He taught an adult agriculture class there that surpassed others in the state. Douglass accepted a statewide position and became a political leader.

The education of blacks greatly advanced during these years. The Lexington elementary school became a junior high school with F. A. Grey as principal. It was through the influence of A. S. Montgomery that both Lexington and the county made improvements in the administration of black education, and a county school was named in his honor. Montgomery also served as chairman of the city board of education and worked in behalf of black education.

C. C. Bond came to the Montgomery School in 1934, and the school became a four-year high school, although buildings were frame and inadequate. Repairs were made with the help of the National Youth Program; a gymnasium was built at a cost of less than $500; and a dormitory was built for those students from Chester, Hardin, Madison, McNairy, and Perry counties, who boarded at the school in 1937.

During World War II, the schools in the county were at a standstill. Male teachers of military age were called into service, and a number of female teachers worked at Milan ammunition plant. Teacher vacancies were filled by unqualified people who taught on a permit basis.

Transportation and Communication

Railroads had their biggest passenger business during the 1920s, and the trucking industry was in its infancy. Highway 20 was the only paved road when it was completed in 1931. All other weather roads were graveled. The number of automobiles estimated to be in the county by 1930 was over 500; an exact count was not available since no registration or license law existed.

In spite of the Depression people continued to travel. The Greyhound Bus Company was granted a franchise to run through Henderson County in 1934. Neisler Transfer Company, a freight company owned by Johnson Neisler of Lexington, received a franchise to haul freight from Memphis to Nashville. Neisler's business became successful and was sold to Whitney Transfer Company of Bowling Green, Kentucky, who maintained a branch office at Lexington, operated by Whitney's son. The Lexington branch office provided help to local merchants and citizens, in Decatur and Henderson counties. The Perryville railroad branch discontinued service ill 1934, ending its most useful local service.

The Bell System purchased the telephone company formerly owned by Cumberland and Home and made improvements in service, especially in that of long distance. Party lines still were in existence, and it was not until after World War II that dial phones came into use locally.

The Depression

On October 29, 1929, the bottom fell out of the stock market and many banks soon failed; but, it was not until 1932 that the full force of the Depression hit Henderson County. The American Red Cross and other local agencies tried to cope with the situation but could not care adequately for the unemployed and financially needy. Cotton was still the county's money crop, even though it dropped to five cents per pound. Consequently, farmers were unable to pay their debts. Others could not pay taxes which meant there was no money to pay teachers and other county officials. Likewise, the state failed to make its payments to counties. At first teachers' checks were discounted by ten percent and later by 20 percent. By 1934, the checks could not be discounted at any price except to a few speculators who frequently gave 30 percent.

After Roosevelt was elected president, his first official act was to close banks. Upon his recommendation, Congress quickly passed the Emergency Act which gave the president authority to open the banks by March 13, if they were solvent. Banks at Darden, Luray, and Wildersville were closed permanently, and area farmers lost their life savings. While the banks were closed, checks could not be accepted nor cashed and those who had money in banks could not use it. Fortunately, Henderson Countians made the best of a bad situation by living out of their gardens and smoke houses, using their cows for milk products and their other stock for meat. Staples were divided with the less fortunate. At the end of the Depression, only ten percent of the  families had an annual income in excess of $2000.

With congressional approval Roosevelt dealt with the problems of the Depression. Many government agencies were created, such as the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. Hundreds of residents were put to wok on different projects with pay of $19 per month. Also, out of the Depression came the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FDIC, which guaranteed bank deposits up to $5000. This action restored confidence in banks, and the banks that survived the early part of the Depression could now lend money.

In addition to putting people to work, the government made hot lunches available to schools. Ruby Beasley of Lexington became supervisor of the school lunch program. Even students in remote one-teacher schools received the same menu. The National Youth Administration, or NYA, was organized to employ young men and high school age boys. W. L. "Preacher" Coffman of Mt. Gilead Community headed the local program. Through its activities, schools throughout the county were repaired. A welfare program was established in Henderson County with Elizabeth Pearson in charge. The intent of the program was to pay those people who were unable to work or could not obtain work. Although it was Roosevelt's intent that all programs designed to combat the Depression would be only temporary, the relief program became permanent. Pearson and her staff continued to serve the county for over 30 years.

The Depression had eased somewhat by 1936 but did not completely abate until World War II. Cotton prices rose to ten cents a pound which was a far cry from the better than 40 cents per pound paid shortly after World War I. The establishment of the Salant & Salant shirt factory at Lexington helped the county in fighting the Depression economy, even though it hired mostly women and paid low wages. The Ayers Mineral Company built a plant to process sand located south of the depot near the railroad switch in Lexington. Land owners sold sand which was carried to the plant, graded and processed, then shipped by freight car to other places. As many as 50 freight carloads were shipped per week providing a boom to the Depression economy. Sam Lewis served as manager during most of the plant's operations and as many as 25 people were employed. Tomatoes had begun to be grown on a commercial basis as the Depression started but continued to be grown even after the Depression subsided. The tomato buying and grading site was located at Lexington.