The Story of Marble Hall & Orville Rice

by Dr. George F. Mellen. Published in the Knoxville Sentinel February 16, 1907.

Marble Hall

Marble Hall
(click for larger size)

The destruction, this week [in February, 1907], of the “Marble Hall,” a noted East Tennessee mansion, brings a pang of regret. For years it has stood like some ancient landmark, telling a mingled story of past grandeur and pathos. Apropos of the sad event I reproduce an article contributed by me several years ago to the Nashville Children’s Visitor, the juvenile weekly of the M.E. Church south:

The sight-seer in Washington looks with delight upon the richly variegated and highly polished marble ornamenting the Capitol. As he ascends the stairway leading to the Senate and House galleries if of an inquisitive turn of mind, he may be led to inquire whence came its beautiful columns and balustrades with their changing tints of mottles strawberry, pale pink, and dark chocolate. Going through the marble room and into other parts of the building, he will meet with the same rich hues of marble. Proceeding thence to the Treasury Building, he will find it again. Later, wending his way to the Washington Monument, he will discover an inscription indicating the source, for two huge blocks bear the words:- “Hawkins County Block”, “From Hawkins County, Tennessee”. The tale is but half told when omission is made of the name of him through whom this exquisite material for ornamentation was made know to the authorities at Washington. When more than the name of the man is told and his history is unfolded, it sounds like a chapter from the story of Midas, or recalls incidents in the life of Dick Whittington, or perchance bears some resemblance to the adventures of Sam Slick.

In the early part of the nineteenth century three cousins migrated from Connecticut to East Tennessee, settling not far from the homes of Andrew Johnson and “Parson” Brownlow. These were Moses, Augustus, and Orville Rice. Faithful to his name, Moses led the way, preceding the others by a few years, and brought with him his young wife. Established in their new home, they exemplified at once the religious faith and intellectual ideals of New England. They set up the family altar, observed rigidly the Sabbath, and took their children regularly to church for worship. The wife taught the first school for girls in the village which became their permanent home. The land spied out and reported a goodly heritage. Augustus and Orville Rice soon followed, just as they were merging into young manhood. In time they found wives in the best types of Tennessee pioneer women, highly connected in blood, strong in character, and hopeful in disposition. My story, however, has more particularly to do with Orville Rice, whose life, determined by the varying tides of fortune, seemed for some years to be led by some fairy’s magic wand and then suddenly to be left to blind impulses for guidance.

In 1824 Orville Rice following the beaten highway which penetrated the valley of Virginia and led to the southwest, found his way to Tennessee. His outfit consisted of a cheap, long-used horse a dilapidated wagon, and a small lot of tinnier, “warranted to be of the best,” which he peddled from house to house.

This represented the cash Captor in business, but not the entire investment. General manners, pleasing older sound judgment, and strict integrity constituted the basis of the capital upon which he began to operate. His first venture was successful, and he sold out at a handsome profit. Next he engaged in the fur trade, employing a number of agents in purchasing the product of the trappers. The sums realized through this source were considerable for the time and were the means of future success and prosperity. With the money received he bought some acres of knob land west of the village of Rogersville, in Hawkins County. This land being on the great stage line from Washington the Southwest, he opened a country store, a tavern, and a stage stand. No railroad then penetrated East Tennessee. Guest representing every phase of human ambition and activity, from presidents and statesmen to hog drovers and horse traders, received welcome and entertainment as long as bills were paid. This was immediately preceding the flush times of Alabama and Mississippi when a constant stream of immigration was pouring into the new southwest. With genuine Yankee thrift, he made every turn count toward the increase of his revenue.

While conduction the twofold business of country merchant and tavern keeper the wide-awake mind of young Rice discovered other avenues for filling his treasury, and he added that of vending Connecticut-made wooden clocks. Providing agents with outfits, he sent them fourth either as one-horse or two-horse peddlers through a wide area of territory. So swift and well organized were their movements that within a few years he had a monopoly of this business, then a very profitable one, in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and retained it for many years. Plenty with a lavish hand poured her bounties constantly into his coffers. Still his alert mind was occupied with finding other methods of investment. The lands he has purchased were found to be underlaid by veins of marble exquisite beauty. By these lands flowed the Holston River, which he thought might be made the avenue of transportation to domestic and foreign markets. This discovery came at a period when enthusiasm for internal improvements had seized the public mind and State Legislatures were making reckless appropriations for the construction of highways and for the opening of rivers. After opening the first quarry in the state and erecting the first marble sawmill, he put the product on the local market, and found a ready sale.

With others, Mr. Rice now made appeals to the general assembly of Tennessee for appropriations to improve the Tennessee and Holston Rivers above Knoxville. The petition was successful. He was interested with caring out the provisions of the Legislative Act. So gigantic was the undertaking and so vast the territory to be provided for that the means proved totally inadequate and the work done was profitless. Not to be frustrated in bringing his outfit to the attention of the East, he caused much of the crude material to be made into tale tops, mantels, tombstones, and on six-horse wagons conveyed then to the Baltimore market. There he sold them and invested the proceeds in merchandise to be brought to Tennessee. It was under these circumstances that he, as a private citizen, furnished in the name of his home county, Hawkins, the finest block of marble that went into the Washington Monument, and through him that the state of Tennessee contributed another block. The fine quality of these attracted such general admiration as to induce Congress to send an expert to Hawkins County to examine the amount and the character of its marble deposits. The agent reported the quantity inexhaustible and the quality the finest variegated marble in the world. One-half of the ornamental work in the capitol at Washington is the result of this investigation.

After the lapse of a quarter of a century, engaged in these enterprises, Mr. Rice was found to be the owner of nine good farms, a large amount of personal property, a business man of unlimited public and private credit. He moved out of his log cabin tavern into the most elegant country residence in East Tennessee. This he named “Marble Hall”, finished throughout and trimmed, as it is, with polished marble. During the summer just past I visited this stately old southern home, testifying to past wealth and grandeur, Traveling westward from Rogersville over a highway memorable for the skirmished and raids that took place repeatedly during the Civil War, with the Holston River on hand and the Choptack Mountain on the other, one comes abruptly upon the residence at the foot of a pass where the river breaks through the mountain. There is nothing picturesque about the site, but it stands like a fortress holding a strategic position, and bespeaks the former business sagacity of its lordly proprietor should evidently built it as a monument to perpetuate the story of his varied struggles and efforts in accumulating a fortune. From his own hands and under his supervision the bricks were burned and the timbers sawed that went into its construction. Without a crack or a stain indicating the corroding hand of time, it has stood half a century to testify to the solid worth of the builder and owner and to a season of unbounded prosperity.

As if entranced by some siren’s song or entrapped by some witch’s Machinations the flood tide of Mr. Rice’s prosperity was suddenly turned into a sea of desolation. About the year 1855 a speculative mania, created by the discovery of copper ore in Southwest Virginia, swept over the country, with it his first unsuccessful venture was made. Fortune had favored him so bountifully in the past that, apparently, he ceased to believe in a possible adversity for himself. The care and foresight he had exercised in younger days were not brought into requisition. Without discretion or discrimination and knowing nothing of their value, he invested in lands said to contain rich copper ore. When his own capital was exhausted he availed himself of the unlimited credit he could always command. Not to stay the hand of oncoming misfortune, he generously endorsed the note of friends who were buying as unwisely as himself. Eventually, with failure to sell lands or to secure returns, and with creditors clamoring for money lent, and with the approach of the Civil War, he was threatened with destitute circumstances. Fortune was swept away, lands were sold, and home was taken from him. Yet in the hour of misfortune and calamity he stood serene and even grand. In all the years his character had never been maligned or his integrity impeached. In the midst of prosperity he had ministered attentively to the unfortunate about him. He made it a daily business to ascertain who were in need of kindly attention. All the sick and afflicted of the neighborhood for miles around he personally visited, going empty handed neither to the rich nor to the poor. A little wine, a loaf of bread, a sack of flour, some sugar, tea or coffee – these and other accompaniments were the evidences of his kindness and thoughtfulness. When broken in fortune, he retired to a little homestead, he was not forgotten by those to whom his timely aid had been given. There, in quiet uncomplaining dignity, he closed a career remarkable for its repeated success and for its ultimate failure. The death knell of the Confederacy sounded but a few years before his own.

Marble Hall has passed into the hands of strangers, who do not occupy one-forth of the large building. After going through it from ground floor to garret, visiting its numerous rooms, and examining its varied appointments, I stood upon the broad front portico and looked out on the shrubbery, trees, grounds and out-buildings, all set out and planned by the once wealthy owner. Just across the stage road stood the weather-beaten from storehouse fast falling into decay. My eyes looked in vain for views of the winding river and the surrounding mountains, but these are shut out by hills that rise precipitously in the front and in the rear. By ascending on of these hills one of the most beautiful prospects, in a region famous for its views, may be had. In the train of reflections incident to my surroundings I thought of the many old Southern Manor houses and estates I had seen lying in ruins from the effects of the Civil War and the abolition of slaves: but this was a wreck merely hastened by the war and for which other causes were responsible. In the changes and in the devastation wrought by the time a wholesome lesson and a sad memory are combined in thinking of this New Englander in his adopted home. In youth and middle-age as a faithful and patriotic: as a neighbor he was generous and hospitable. In old age he sat down in the midst of failure and desolation brought on through unbounded confidence and injudicious investments.

Transcribed and submitted by Peggy Dunnivan.

Dr. Mellen served as editor and literary editor of the Knoxville Sentinel during its existence. The article above was taken for Miscellaneous Papers Local History and Biography, by George Frederick Mellen, Ph. D. Clipping from Knoxville Newspapers, 1908-1921, Vol. 2, Page 81-82.

Photo courtesy of George Webb, Tennessee Books and Autographs, Rogersville, TN.

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