Note: The following story is excerpted from the Oneida Independent Herald – March 23, 2017
To understand the 100-year history of Oneida, you must first understand the railroad.
It was the railroad — specifically, the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad that is today Norfolk-Southern — that brought life to this desolate part of the Cumberlands. For years, Oneida was just a depot along the railroad, one of many stopping points between Cincinnati and Chattanooga. Eventually, a settlement grew around the railroad, complete with banks, hotels, retailers and places of worship. And on March 22, 1917, the depot officially became a town.
Much has changed in 100 years. The trains don’t stop in Oneida as often as they used to. The old downtown area of Depot Street and South Main Street is only a shell of its former self. Many of the original buildings are no longer standing, most of the original businesses have long since vanished, and the heart of town has shifted northward — centered around the four-lane section of U.S. Hwy. 27 and the town’s Walmart store.
Coal and timber are still exported from the outlying areas around Oneida, but not in the bulk they once were, when the railroad depot was a fledgling tow. As industry has ebbed and flowed over the past century, its focus has shifted many times. From the coal-and-timber days when the railroad was the most important means of bringing workers in and shipping goods out, to the hardwood flooring mill that was a mainstay next-door to the railroad depot for a half-century, jobs have come and gone.
Change is never altogether good and never altogether bad. It is, rather, what its citizens make of it. Some will point to the Oneida of 1917 and lament the days when coal and timber were king in this part of the world and when virgin resources were there for the taking. Others will point to the Oneida of 2017 and herald its progress as it has transitioned from a railroad town to a beacon for some of the Cumberlands’ most scenic places.
Either way, this much is true: the Oneida of 1917 and the Oneida of 2017 are two far different towns — yet, they are in some ways similar. As Oneida has transitioned from a railroad depot to the northern Cumberland Plateau’s largest city, the one constant has been its people — their stubborn independent streak and their sense of perseverance. There was a time when citizens flocked away from here to seek jobs in the auto plants and the steel factories of the Upper Midwest, many of them to never return. Now we’re in an era that is seeing others flock to Oneida to seek the beauty and quiet, affordable way of life that the town has to offer. Through it all, the character of the town has not changed. And its character is defined by those who call it home.
This is the story of Oneida — the little railroad town that proved it could.
The fourth time was the charm
The charter for Oneida’s incorporation was adopted on March 22, 1917, but local efforts to bring about the town began a decade earlier.
With Scott County Bank — a forerunner to First National Bank, which is the only original business still in operation in Oneida — leading the way, the townspeople had sought a charter as early as 1905. They were successful, but the state-issued charter was revoked in 1907. Two years later, another effort was made to incorporate the town. That, too, failed, as did a third effort in 1913.
Finally, on the fourth try, a successful charter was issued in 1917. And the rest, as the old saying goes, is history.
The charter was issued just eight days after the United States entered World War I. The town’s first mayor — Leland Carson, who also served as manager of Jellico Grocery, which would eventually become one of the town’s longest-tenured businesses — was among the 500 men from Oneida and Scott County who served in the war. He was elected mayor in 1917 and less than a year later shipped out to join the U.S. Army’s 324th Supply Co., Quartermaster Corps.
Carson was the son of W.H. (Henry) and Angeletta Pemberton Carson, and was just 26 years old when he assumed the office of mayor. That same year, he married Mable Blevins Terry, the adopted daughter of Alvin and Nancy Jane Davis Terry.
When he returned from the war in June 1919, Carson completed his two-year term as mayor, then left for Middlesboro, Ky., when his local employment with Jellico Grocery Co. ended and he took another job with the company there. Carson would return to Tennessee in 1921, becoming a bank president and, later, the owner of a Chevrolet dealership. He died in 1969, at the age of 79, and is buried in the Carson Family Cemetery in Oneida.
While the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad had breathed life into Oneida, two other railroads had sprung up as well, hooking up with the Southern at the Oneida depot. Both of the latter two, the Tennessee Railroad and the Oneida & Western Railroad, existed because of the area’s coal industry. The Tennessee went south, through the outskirts of Huntsville and on into Anderson County, while the O&W went west, to Jamestown.
With mining strong and the railroads at full steam, Oneida quickly became a thriving town, despite the ongoing war. During the first year of incorporation, Carson and the Oneida board of aldermen floated a $20,000 bond to build streets and sidewalks in what would today be called the old downtown area. By 1925, just eight years later, most of Oneida’s streets were paved. It was quite an accomplishment for the little railroad town in a desolate area of the Cumberlands. In fact, historian A.C. Terry would later write, “It has been claimed that Oneida has more paved streets than any town in Tennessee according to population and wealth.”
With businesses popping up and prosperity at hand, the town was able to quickly build infrastructure that extended well beyond streets and sidewalks. A water system had been established by 1920, a sewer system was in place by 1925, and electricity was throughout town. Also in 1925, U.S. Hwy. 27 — then known as Huntsville Road — was completed through Oneida.
By 1921, Oneida had 20 retail establishments, along with a wholesale grocery (Jellico Grocery Co.) and four churches. More than 500 students were enrolled in the town’s brick schoolhouse.
Within three more years, two new hotels were constructed: the Grandview was built by Lucinda Williams, and The Gibson House was built by Alex Gibson. That brought the number of hotels in town to four, as both The Commercial Hotel and the Cross Hotel had predated the town’s incorporation in 1917.
It wasn’t just the town’s business district that was booming in the Roaring ‘20s. New homes were going up all around. A farm owned by Frank Raynor was purchased by H.F. Cooper in 1926, and was subdivided into residential lots. It was the fledgling town’s second subdivision.
By the mid ‘20s, the Oneida Kiwanis Club had been established, as had the Scott County Fair. Two more banks had joined First National Bank — First Trust & Savings Bank, which is today United Cumberland Bank, and the Oneida Bank & Trust Co.
Like the rest of the United States, Oneida suffered through the Great Depression, which began in 1929. Growth slowed, and some businesses did not survive the economic turbulence. But the town survived.
It was not until 1941, nearly a quarter-century after the town’s incorporation, that the first city hall and jail were built. Both were constructed at the corner of Main and Third streets, where the Scott County Senior Citizens Center stands today. When the town had been established, that would have been considered outside of town, but the town was quickly growing north along Main Street. That building served the town’s administrative needs for more than 35 years, until the modern municipal building was built on the four-lane section of U.S. Hwy. 27 in the late 1970s.
One hundred years of worship
The people of Oneida have always been deeply religious — always predominately Christian and always with a strong Baptist persuasion.
Churches have come and gone over the years, but two of the town’s largest churches are also its longest-tenured.
Bethlehem Baptist Church and First Baptist Church both predate the incorporation of the town, making them two of the only Baptist churches to have served the worship practices of the townspeople for the entirety of Oneida’s 100-year history.
However, the Baptists weren’t the only ones who predated the town’s incorporation in 1917. Both the First Methodist Church of Oneida and the Oneida Church of Christ have been around for the entirety of the town’s 100-year history, as well.
Among the two Baptist churches, Bethlehem Baptist wins in terms of longevity, predating not just Oneida but Scott County itself. However, the church has changed locations more than once, and it was First Baptist, not Bethlehem, that was actually the first Baptist church in Oneida proper.
It was in 1834, according to oral history, that a group of people in the Buffalo Creek area of what would eventually become Scott County began meeting for services in the home of one of the church members. Eight years later, Bethlehem’s congregation built its first church house, which was located at the head of Buffalo Creek.
In 1869, still nearly a half-century before Oneida would be incorporated, Bethlehem Baptist moved from Buffalo Creek to the headwaters of Pine Creek — about where Oneida City Park is located today. There, the congregation shared a building with United Baptist Church and with the local Methodist Church. The reason for the move? The Cincinnati-Southern Railroad, which was drawing more people to the area and would eventually lead to the incorporation of the town itself.
In 1888, Bethlehem Baptist moved again, to a wood-frame building on Chester Street, adjacent to the church’s present-day location. While that location is very much centralized in modern-day Oneida, it was located outside the fledgling community at the time. However, Oneida’s rapid expansion in the first half of the 20th century would make Oak Grove a main part of the town. The district got its name from the grove of oak trees that surrounded the Baptist church and the rest of the area. In fact, Bethlehem came to be known itself as the Oak Grove Baptist Church.
For much of the next 100 years, Bethlehem Baptist remained at its Chester Street location, making numerous expansions to the building as its growing congregation required them. First a basement was added, then a two-story west wing, then a three-story east wing.
In December 1981, some 93 years after making the move from Pine Creek’s headwaters to Chester Street, Bethlehem’s modern building was dedicated on nearby Alberta Street. The new church house was a grand piece of architecture for the early 1980s, making it a focal point of the rapidly-growing Four Lane district of Oneida.
First Baptist Church, meanwhile, resulted from a convention of men representing Baptist churches in Scott, Campbell and Morgan counties, which began in New River in April 1886. That convention led to the organization of the New River Association, and one of the earliest recommendations of the new body was that a Baptist church be founded in Oneida.
In those days, still 30 years before the town’s incorporation, Oneida was still little more than a railroad depot. But its population was growing, and the need for a house of worship was realized.
First Baptist Church opened in a school building on March 21, 1888. Four people were baptized, and the church became Oneida’s first Baptist assembly.
For the next 15 years, the congregation of First Baptist Church met in the school house, until the church’s permanent home was constructed in 1903, at the corner of Oneida’s Second and Main streets, where the congregation has continued to meet for 114 years.
That property, donated by Claiborne and Connie Cross, became the home to a wood-frame structure that would house the church for many years.
Later, shortly after the town’s incorporation, First Baptist Church built a parsonage, becoming the first church in Scott County to have a home for its pastor. It also founded the county’s first women’s missionary union and, by 1929, had erected the building that continues to house the congregation today.
In September 1926, under the leadership of Rev. George Moody, First Baptist held the Great Revival of 1926, which resulted in the baptism of 69 converts and the addition of 90 members to the church rolls. In 1928, under the direction of pastor T.H. Roark, the church’s permanent home went under construction, with the first services in the new building held in December 1929.
The longest-tenured pastor at Bethlehem Baptist was the late Roy Blevins, who served as the church’s pastor from 1937 to 1984. At First Baptist, the longest-serving pastor was Philip Kazee, who moved to Oneida from West Virginia in 1966 and served until 2000.
The Oneida Methodist congregation, meanwhile, predates either of the Baptist congregations — at least in terms of an Oneida location.
Like Bethlehem Baptist, First Methodist Church of Oneida dates its history to the days before Scott County even existed. In 1837, Rev. Isaac Smith became the first Methodist circuit rider to reach Scott County, and he secured a land grant in the Ponderosa section, which reached all the way to Tunnel Hill. It was there, in the home of his son-in-law, Jim Terry, that the first regular Methodist services took place the same year.
Between 1840 and 1845, the first Methodist Episcopal Church was erected where the club house now stands at the Town of Oneida’s golf course at Ponderosa. It was a log structure with a large fireplace, and services were held there until 1853, when the Methodists joined the Baptists at the location near where Oneida City Park is now located.
Until 1924, Oneida was on circuits with different churches, including Rugby, Burrville, Norma, Oakdale and Coal Hill. In 1902, a church was built where the Tibbals flooring plant was later built, and in 1917 that building was moved to its present location on North Main Street, to land secured from John Baker.
Classrooms were built to the sanctuary building in 1934, and a parsonage on Church Street was purchased from G.B. Williams that same year. In 1950, a block education building was erected behind the sanctuary, including eight classrooms and a fellowship hall. In 1968, a decision was made to purchase a lot of land north of the existing church in order to build a new sanctuary. The new sanctuary was dedicated on Aug. 14, 1977.
The First Methodist Church of Oneida moved into its current sanctuary in October 1997, which was added to the existing education building.
As for the Oneida Church of Christ, it dates its start to 1910, when the congregation began meeting in the home of A.C. Terry, one of the early influential figures in the fledgling new community. Terry was the father-in-law of Fayrene Terry and the grandfather of Patricia Walls, who still attend services at the Church of Christ.
The Church of Christ’s first permanent structure was built in 1913, at the corner of Third and Cross streets. An addition was added in 1940, but the building was used largely without changes for more than a half-century.
In 1965, the Church of Christ’s present church was built, including an auditorium and 11 classrooms. An addition in 1984 included six new classrooms, a nursery, offices, a library and other rooms on the lower level of the church.
One hundred years of education
While Oneida was not Scott County’s first settlement, the fledgling community did have the county’s first school — the Litton School, which was located along present-day Main Street, near where Westminster Apartments now stand.
In 1901, some 16 years before the Town of Oneida was incorporated, the site of the old Litton School became the site of Oneida High School. Pupils were taught in a two-room building behind what was at the time the Conatser store building, which later burned.
For the next 19 years, Oneida’s high school students attended the small school, which later saw a third room added on.
Eventually, though, the town’s educators decided it was time for Oneida to have its own school district — an independent school district that could stand alone and be on equal footing with larger school districts across the state.
To accomplish their goal, the town’s teachers and business leaders persuaded the Tennessee State Senate to take up consideration of Bill No. 1064 in May 1915, establishing the Oneida Independent School District. (The Oneida Special School District was not created until 1975, through a separate act of the state legislature.) The bill defined the school district’s boundaries — which were outside the corporate boundaries of the Town of Oneida that would be established two years later, and remain outside it today — and set forth other guidelines, such as qualifications for teachers and school board members, which were at the time known as trustees of the school system.
Prior to the legislature’s action in 1915, the General Assembly created Oneida City Schools in 1905. That system was abolished in 1913, leaving the schools independent for two years before the special school district was created.
The boundaries of the school system essentially followed the ridgetops that surrounded the town, creating a district that was eight square miles.
The first Oneida board of education consisted of E.B. Smith, Bailey Thompson, C.B. Hall, George King and G.S. Owens.
One year later, still a year before the Town of Oneida’s establishing charter, local leaders were successful in persuading the state legislature to authorize the issuance of bonds, up to $50,000, for the school board to build a new school building.
That came about in 1920, and Oneida High School moved to its permanent home, where it is still located today. The move was just up the street from the old high school, on five acres of land that were purchased from A.C. Terry, one of the town’s influential early leaders.
With the new school building completed in 1920, the school board presented the state legislature with another private act to levy a special tax on those living within the boundaries of the school district to pay for another high school.
A series of tax acts eventually led to the construction of a library, study hall and additional classroom space at the high school and grammar school in 1931, some 14 years after the town was incorporated.
But the town’s educational facilities would suffer a series of setbacks even as the community was still attempting to deal with World War II. In 1941, part of the high school was destroyed by fire. The original part of the structure, which had been built in 1920, was lost in the blaze before firefighters from Oneida and Harriman brought it under control.
New construction began, and was ready for occupancy in 1943. But then fire struck again, destroying the elementary school building. By 1948, that, too, had been replaced, at a cost of $220,000. While construction was being completed, high school students moved to First Baptist Church further south on Main Street, freeing up classroom space for elementary students.
After the second fire, only the school’s wood frame gymnasium had not been burned. Built in 1925, it was the first gymnasium in Scott County, and stood until it was eventually demolished to make way for a more modern gym. That gym, in turn, was used until the 1990s, when the present gym was built.
In 1961, the school’s structures that were used to house the agriculture, band and home economics departments were removed from the school ground to make way for the construction of a new school building, at a cost of just over $175,000. That school was completed in September 1962, and featured a 200-capacity cafeteria, an agriculture shop, modern restrooms, a guidance center, science classrooms, a library and a classroom.
For the next 30 years, Oneida’s school buildings served their purpose, with no further construction or expansions. By the 1990s, however, those buildings were beyond a state of disrepair. That marked a coming together of the townspeople, who raised $4.5 million for new schools. With 85 percent of the school district’s registered voters approving a tax increase in May 1990, a $1.5 million bond was approved. Additionally, $5 million was donated by a not-so-secret anonymous donor, to be paid over a 10-year period, and the charitable foundation of B. Ray Thompson chipped in another $1.5 million.
In all, funding for the new schools topped $10 million, which made way for a new elementary school on Claude Terry Drive, behind what would eventually become Oneida’s Walmart Supercenter. And a new middle and high school complex were built on the original school grounds.
One hundred years of rail
In some ways, Oneida’s roots date back to 1869 — in Cincinnati, Oh.
It was then and there, just four years after the conclusion of the bitter Civil War, that a state law was enacted that enabled the creation of the Cincinnati Southern Railway. Weeks later, voters of Cincinnati approved a resolution that designated Chattanooga, Tenn., as the southern terminus of the railroad, and the railroad route was officially underway.
One decade later — on Dec. 10, 1879 — construction of the railroad was officially completed, including the section that passed through what would ultimately become Oneida. The first freight train rolled down the tracks on Feb. 21, 1880, and the first passenger train made the trip on March 8, 1880.
Dreams of a railway connecting Cincinnati with the South actually dated all the way back to 1836. It nearly happened, too, but an economic recession one year later foiled the plan. Later, when the Civil War was in its early stages, U.S. General Ambrose Burnside — who would later march through Scott County as he invaded East Tennessee and wrested control of the region from the Confederacy — recommended a railroad for military purposes, and President Abraham Lincoln recommended it to Congress. Again, though, the plan was abandoned.
As for the Oneida depot, there are competing theories about how it received its name, with different oral versions of the story coming to completely different conclusions. The most popular theory, though, is that it was named for Oneida, N.Y., which was home to several of the railroad executives who followed the Cincinnati Southern to the Cumberlands. Oneida, N.Y., was, of course, named for the Oneida Indian tribe — as was the Oneida silverware company nearby. Hence, the reason Oneida Special School District’s mascot is the Indian.
The Town of Oneida had not yet been incorporated when another railroad came into play in the early 1900s. The growing coal and timber industries created a need for the companies who owned the resources west of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River — primarily the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company — to create a way to access them.
The Stearns company owned all of the “Big Survey,” a large expanse of land that would eventually be incorporated into the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. It tried various methods to extract the coal and lumber from the rugged region, including dumping logs over the 400 ft. cliffs that lined the river gorge in order to float them to Kentucky.
In 1912, the Jamestown Railroad Company was incorporated by the Tennessee Coal & Lumber Company, which was headquartered in southern Scott County’s Elgin community. The intended purpose was to construct a railroad from Glenmary to Jamestown. Less than a year later, the name of the charter was amended, becoming the Oneida & Western Railroad Company. The amended plan was to build a railroad from Oneida to Albany, Ky.
Before construction of the railroad could begin, the Stearns company filed a lawsuit claiming that it was being built illegally. Ultimately, construction of the railroad began on the Oneida end in November 1913. By June 1915, the bridge over the BSF River — 10.2 miles along the route — was completed, after a steep whipple bridge was disassembled and moved to Oneida. By the following year, the line extended to Gernt, then to Christian, then to Stockton, before finally reaching Jamestown in 1921. The 30-mile railroad connected the two northern plateau cities.
In addition to providing a shot in the arm to the coal and timber industries, the railroad created new jobs in the region. Waterboys, who worked 10-hour days, earned 15 cents an hour, while section hands earned 25 cents an hour. It was a prosperous time for Oneida and the surrounding communities in Scott County.
In 1930, nine years after the original 30 miles were completed, the O&W was extended seven more miles to take it into the heart of Jamestown, making it 37 miles in all. But the resources were already beginning to play out west of the river, and automobiles were becoming more popular, making passenger rail travel less popular. With improvements made to U.S. Hwy. 27 and other highways in the region, more freight was being moved by road instead of rail, which further hampered the railroad.
In 1946, the O&W served notice of abandonment, and the last train ran in 1954. Willie Douglas, who worked for the O&W for 34 years, fired the first engine to run the line in 1920, and also fired the last engine to run the line in 1954.
In its heyday, the O&W was a popular connector between Oneida and Jamestown. Trains left Oneida six days a week — with Sunday being the exception — at 7 a.m. They arrived in Jamestown at 10 a.m., departed for Oneida at 11 a.m. and arrived back in Oneida at 2:20 p.m. At its peak, the railroad saw six daily round trips made between Oneida and Jamestown.
It was once thought that construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s dam at Wolf Creek would save the railroad, allowing it to be expanded. However, those plans were ultimately abandoned. Once the O&W filed for abandonment, local residents who depended on the railroad for jobs attempted to fight the decision in court. They were unsuccessful.
The corporate offices of the O&W, located in a multi-story brick building at the intersection of Beets Avenue and U.S. Hwy. 27, were sold to Plateau Electric Cooperative. The building was later sold to Dr. George Kline and is today owned by his daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Kline Burress, veterinarian, and houses Highland Veterinary Hospital.
One hundred years of business
When Jellico Grocery’s Oneida warehouse fell victim to the Great Recession that began in 2007 and also claimed another long-running Oneida business — Armstrong’s local wood flooring plant — one of only two businesses that had existed for the entirety of Oneida’s history as an incorporated town became just one.
That one is First National Bank. Founded on Oct. 4, 1904, as The Scott County Bank, First National Bank actually predated incorporation of the town by more than a decade, and was the only bank along U.S. Hwy. 27 between Burnside, Ky., and Harriman, Tenn.
The booming local economy at the turn of the century led to the establishment of the bank, with W.C. Anderson gathering local civic and business leaders to charter the new bank. With an initial capital of $20,000, the bank quickly grew — and was quickly joined by other banks in Robbins and Huntsville. When the bank surpassed $25,000 in Liberty Bonds sales, it achieved a record among all banks in the South.
It was two years after the incorporation of Oneida — April 25, 1919 — that Scott County National Bank became First National Bank of Oneida, following a vote of the bank’s shareholders.
Soon, the bank’s location also changed. Having been established at the corner of Bank and Depot streets, the bank moved to its new home at the corner of Main and Depot streets in 1921. There, it occupied land that had housed Oneida’s first hotel — the City Hotel.
The hotel, earlier known as the Oneida House, started as a two-room log cabin, eventually became a three-story structure that also housed Oneida’s first restaurant. The Oneida House was owned by William Parrot — the father of Paul Parrot, who was born in the hotel and went on to become the founder of the famous Poll Parrot shoe company. Poll Parrot manufactured children’s shoes and eventually sponsored The Howdy Doody Show on NBC in the 1940s.
Following the elder Parrot’s death, the hotel was sold to Eli Cooper, and its name changed to City Hotel. Ben Hail was hired to manage the hotel and the restaurant, and it was later sold to Joe Blevins.
When the hotel was sold yet again, Oneida’s first taxi service was added, with Fred “Seed Tick” Cooper hired to drive the taxi.
After purchasing the City Hotel, the bank sold the hotel building at auction for $300, and its owner removed it. On Aug. 9, 1921, First National Bank moved into its new building, where it was headquartered until 1967, when it moved to its present-day location on U.S. Hwy. 27.
In 1961, Dr. Milford Thompson and Howard H. Baker Jr. purchased controlling stock in First National Bank from Hamilton National Associates, and approached Helenwood lumber mill operator W.H. “Bill” Swain with an offer to run the bank. Swain accepted, and served as the bank’s president for many years. Today, his son, Michael Swain, serves as the bank’s president.
While First National Bank is the only business in Oneida to have been in operation for the entirety of the town’s 100-year history, there is another that comes close — and it is also a bank.
In 1923, six years after the Town of Oneida was chartered, First Trust & Savings Bank was established. The new bank was chartered on Sept. 9, 1923, and became FDIC-insured in 1934. It became the third bank in Oneida, joining FNB and the Oneida Bank & Trust Company. Oneida Bank & Trust occupied FNB’s original location at the corner of Depot and Bank streets for several decades, but ultimately closed.
The Great Depression claimed both of the Scott County banks located outside Oneida, with First National Bank of Huntsville closing in 1932 and the Robbins Bank & Trust Company closing in 1937. While Oneida Bank & Trust Company survived the depression, it ultimately closed as well.
Like First National Bank, First Trust & Savings Bank ultimately left Oneida’s downtown area, moving its main office to the Four Lane district on the north side of town. In 2014, FTSB merged with the Bank of McCreary County, which was founded in 1906, to become United Cumberland Bank.
A successor of a long-time business
While FNB, at 100 years, and UCB, at 94 years, enjoy the status of being Oneida’s longest-tenured businesses since the town was incorporated in 1917, there is another business name that comes close — in a round-about way.
The Lay furniture brand has been in existence since 1920, when Arlie Lay moved to Oneida and opened a furniture store on Depot Street. The 23-year-old Lay built a highly successful retail business, making credit — or buying “on time” — a successful business model in Oneida.
Lay’s Oneida Furniture Co. stayed at its Depot Street location for 12 years before moving to the corner of Main and Second streets in 1932. There, it occupied a two-story brick building until it closed in recent years. The building was razed last year after being purchased by First Baptist Church of Oneida, to make way for the church’s planned new fellowship hall.
While Lay’s Oneida Furniture Co. no longer exists, Lay’s grandson, Jerry Lay, continues to operate Lay Family Furniture on the Four Lane section of Alberta Street.
Arlie Lay was 93 when he died in 1990, and was one of Oneida’s earliest — and most successful — businessmen. He was instrumental in the movement to build the Scott County Hospital in the 1950s, was the first president of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce, and played a key role in the early industrial development of Oneida. He served as chairman of the board of directors of First Trust & Savings Bank.
The man who built downtown
Perhaps the best-known of Oneida’s early businessmen was Horace LaFayette Cooper, the owner of Cooper’s Store on Depot Street.
H.F. Cooper was 29 when Oneida was chartered in 1917, and was by that time already a successful businessman. He had moved to Oneida with his family at the age of 13. In a 1924 autobiography, he wrote that he arrived in town with a steer and $37.50 in cash. He sold the cow for another $25, banked the $62.50 he owned, and began looking for a job.
Cooper soon hired a horse and began purchasing fur skins. He turned the $62.50 into $90 by selling his skins, and continued hunting and trapping until he had turned the $90 into $360.
H.F. Cooper, known to his family and friends as Fate, took over his father’s store in Oneida at the age of 15. He wrote that the store was not successful, and his father originally intended for him to watch the store for a few days until someone else could be found to manage it.
“I knew the business was ‘sick’ so I began to find out what was wrong,” Cooper wrote. “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.”
In fact, young Cooper’s guidance caused the store to turn a $500 profit that year. He gave $250 to his father, kept $250 for himself, and a businessman was born.
The $500 profit that first year became a $1,000 profit the second year. “The third year I doubled the profit and continued to do so until 1913, when I bought dad out,” he wrote, adding that he purchased his dad’s ownership of the store because he wanted to expand while his father was content to “let well enough alone.”
Despite becoming the business’s sole owner, Cooper continued to give his father half of the store’s profit until 1918.
As for expanding, Cooper did that, too. He built a two-story brick building around the original wood structure in 1915. The 80 ft. by 100 ft. structure was the largest building in Scott County — and eventually expanded to become the largest building within a radius of 100 miles of Oneida. Sales grew from $8,000 in 1904 to $140,000 in 1924 — and continued to grow after that.
Cooper was a man of multiple talents, who gave haircuts for 15 cents and a shave for 10 cents when he first arrived in Oneida as a young teenager — making him the town’s first barber. Once his store expanded, it became the town’s first department store, offering groceries, dry goods and medicines. It was also Oneida’s first gasoline station.
Cooper sold caskets and coffins, and even began embalming the dead in 1927. Embalming procedures were carried out on the second floor of his store, before the operation moved to the corner of Cross and Second streets. The undertaker hired by Cooper eventually started Hickman Funeral Home at the corner of U.S. Hwy. 27 and West 3rd Avenue. It was sold to Lee and Vernon West and became West Funeral Home, and later West-Murley Funeral home.
Cooper also operated an ambulance service.
Over time, Cooper built three adjoining buildings, one of which was Oneida’s first theatre. He also had a warehouse.
The Cooper operation was so large that, when telephone service came to town, the Cooper stores had a switchboard and an operator to help field and direct phone calls.
Cooper played a leading role in the foundation of First Trust & Savings Bank and was also at one time a director at First National Bank of Oneida. He served as president of FTSB for the last 13 years of his life.
Coopertown, the residential and farmland development on the west side of Oneida, received its name when Fate Cooper purchased the Welsh Colony that was originally known as Brynyffnon between Pistol Lane and Toomey Road. He began a farm, complete with lakes, chicken houses and trucks, and also financed tracts of land to small farmers. He sold his land for between $5 and $10 an acre on five-year terms to nearly 100 people, most of them first-time homebuyers. Ultimately, Cooper helped 85 chicken farmers set up farms that had capacities for between 5,000 and 10,000 chickens each.
To help the growing chicken industry he had started, Cooper eventually built the feed plant that stood on South Depot Street for many years.
Finally, Cooper was responsible for organizing the Oneida Water Company, and served as its first president. The company was purchased by the town in 1951. Cooper also helped build a light plant, installed the town’s sewer system, and formed the News Publishing Company, which became known as the Bell Press, which publishes the Scott County News. He also played instrumental roles in the formation of Plateau Electric Cooperative and the Scott County Chamber of Commerce.
Cooper, who donated the land that New Haven Baptist Church was built on in the Coopertown neighborhood, built a receipt box to resemble a church, allowing customers to write the name of their church on the store receipt and drop it inside the box. Cooper then donated a percentage of each shopper’s purchase to their church.
Cooper and his Depot Street neighbor, Arlie Lay, were said to make waves in the Oneida business community when they broke tradition by keeping their stores open on Wednesday.
Today, not only is Oneida’s Cooper Street named after Fate Cooper, but so is LaFayette Street, and Coopertown Road.
Cooper, who came to Oneida when it was still little more than a railroad depot with a single steer and $37.50 in cash, and proceeded to build the town, died in 1967, at the age of 79. He is buried alongside his wife, Myrtle, at Cooper Memorial Garden — named for him, of course — next door to New Haven Baptist Church.
Industry comes to Oneida
Several prominent manufacturing operations defined the second half of the 20th century in Oneida. Among them were the Boss Glove factory on Stanley Street, and in more recent years, HBD Industries on Industrial Lane and Denim Processing off of West 3rd Avenue.
But perhaps the most prolific factory of all was the Tibbals wood flooring plant, which opened shortly after the close of World War II near the very spot where it all began for Oneida — the train depot.
Brothers Todd and Charles Tibbals moved to Oneida following the war, purchasing Pearson Wood Flooring Co. and establishing the Tibbals brand of hardwood flooring.
As the post-war housing market soared, so, too, did the Tibbals operation. In the late 1950s, Tibbals discovered and patented a method for manufacturing parquet flooring using pieces of wood that were initially considered worthless. The Hardwood Tile Company, or Hartco for short, was established.
For the next half century, Tibbals and Hartco were household names in Scott County, and the wood flooring plant — which also had operations on Industrial Lane — was Scott County’s largest industrial employer. At its peak, Tibbals employed more than 520 people and pumped more than $30 million per year into the local economy.
When Donald Trump’s “Trump Tower” was constructed in New York, it was Hartco’s parquet flooring that was chosen for the lobby of the magnificent new structure.
Charles Tibbals’ son, Howard Tibbals, and other shareholders sold the company to Premark International in 1988. Two transactions later, it wound up under the ownership of Armstrong World Industries. Production at the flooring plant continued until 2010 before being mostly idled.
Jeff Tibbals, the grandson of Charles Tibbals, currently serves on the Town of Oneida’s Board of Aldermen and is a former mayor of Scott County.
It has been said that there are pieces of Scott County in homes all over the world, thanks to Hartco wood flooring. If that’s true, there are also pieces of Oneida in log homes all over the world.
In the mid 1970s, Barner & Danner Co. began production of log homes in north Oneida. Later named Jim Barna Log Homes after Hungarian native Jim Barna Sr. acquired his partner’s holdings in the company, Barna became a world leader in the log home industry, with 150 distributors throughout the United States and nearly 20 in Europe. At one point, Barna was said to be the world’s largest manufacturer of log homes.
Development of the Oak Grove district
As with most towns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was a movement of businesses away from downtown to suburban areas. This could have resulted from the post-war suburban housing project “boom” and the inherent need of these families for groceries, gasoline, household items and clothing convenient to where they lived. This suburban movement in Oneida was toward Oak Grove. It was rarely referred to as a suburb, though, it has always been referred to as the “Oak Grove Section.”
Because of the huge oak trees that dominate the locale, and the original site of Bethlehem Baptist Church in particular, is probably how the area came to be referred to as Oak Grove. The Oak Grove Section encompasses the general area of three-tenths of a mile circle from traffic light #4 on Alberta Avenue (Highway 27).
This story focuses on the businesses that were in existence or built in Oak Grove in the 1940s and 1950s and how they have evolved.
In 1888, a wood frame building was erected at what is now the corner of Main and Alberta (Highway 27) streets in Oak Grove. This was the fourth location of the Bethlehem Baptist Church which was organized in 1834 at the head of Buffalo Creek in what was then Campbell County. The second location was in a log house on Pine Hill and the third site was in a school house near the present Oneida City Park and lake.
For 97 years the church remained in this location, undergoing countless remodeling and building projects.
When the Rev. Roy Blevins came to pastor Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1937 he was 33 years old. He remained pastor until his death in 1984. Under his leadership, the church began to experience a period of growth which has yet to cease. And along with the growth of its membership, the church building itself began to undergo a series of changes, enlargements and additions, culminating in the present building that was dedicated in 1981.
Prior to the late 1940s, there were only a sprinkling of businesses in what is now known as the Oak Grove section. According to H. Clay Smith’s Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, one of the oldest stores in Oak Grove was sold in 1904 to Frank Raynor and was located near the Oak Grove Church. It has been told many times that he would never sell the last of any item in his store, remarking that “If I did, I would be out!”
Some time during 1927, Mr. Milt Terry built a little log cabin restaurant on the corner of Highway 27 and the Litton Road, where a modern building is now located and occupied by Cross Medical Equipment, (the site has been occupied by: Paul Johnson’s Barber Shop, Dr. McDonald’s Office, along with the Session Judge’s Office, a clothing store, Porter’s Barber Shop, Kern’s Bread Outlet, a trophy shop and an ice cream shop.)
Also, Mr. Smith recounts, The W.A. Terry Building was first erected by Milt Terry (John Moore recalls this was erected by his wife, Estelle Terry Moore), and was situated near the “V” just off Main Street, facing the highway . . . it has been occupied by several people and various businesses. It had first been a general store operated by Mr. Terry himself, then it was run by his family.
And it became the first restaurant on Highway 27 in Oneida and was known as “Service Cafe”. This was from 1926 to 1934. John Moore recalls a tourist court near the cafe that his wife Estelle had built, with three sleeping rooms and one bathroom for all renters to share.
Mrs. Ovia Cross converted the place into a grocery store and general store, then in 1943 sold to Luke Coffey. Here Luke and his father, Harry, stayed with the business during most of World War II before moving to the Shoemaker grocery building. The store building was later occupied by Tommy Jeffers.
Mr. Sherman Phillips and his son, Fred, built a store in the Oak Grove section at the junction of Litton and Grave Hill roads. This business gave way at the death, in 1926, of Mr. Phillips, and his son took up carpentering.
In the early 1930s, Robbins brick pavers were laid on about; a mile of Highway 27, which included the Oak Grove Section and were evident (see accompanying picture) in a picture in the late 1950s. Going from gravel to brick made the sounds of traffic traveling on the highway seem extremely noisy.
By 1937 the Preston Shoemaker-and-wife business in Mountain View had grown to where they decided to build another store in Oneida, as they had several Oneidians as customers of the Mountain View Store. That same year, the Shoemakers bought a plot of ground (in Oak Grove) from the Davis heirs and built their first general store. The business grew at such a rapid rate that they put up two other buildings, one for a hardware department and the other to house clothing. (This was a forerunner of our “strip malls” of today.) That was in 1946. Luke Coffey leased the grocery store from the Shoemakers and ran it until 1961. In later years a beauty salon was added and was operated by Chester Sexton, then Eva Stanley, and later Lorene Gosnell. Also, a photo shop was added which was operated to begin with by Dexter Burke, son of John Burke. Mr. Shoemaker operated a garage and a Pontiac dealerships, also part of the store building.
John Litton leased part of the building in 1974 that fronted on Litton Road and operated Big John’s Supermarket. In 1986, with the help of the fire department, the original Shoemaker grocery building was burned to make way for the current occupant, Big John’s Foodette. Big John Litton was killed in a freak accident the day after the burning of the store building in 1986, Today, a garage, video store and a merchandise liquidation store share space with Big Johns Foodette in part of the building which began a. Shoemaker’s General Merchandise Cash Store almost 60 years ago.
When Floyd Shoemaker, son of Preston and Josie Shoemaker, returned from his service as a pilot during World War II, he and his wife, Helen Martin Shoemaker, built a home at the corner of Davis Lane and Alberta Avenue. After many remodelings and additions due to the needs of a family of eight children. It doesn’t even resemble the way it looked in the beginning in the early 1940s. It’s a comfortable home today for Helen, filled to the brim with interesting memorabilia collected over a lifetime of raising a family, traveling and keeping in contact with the servicemen with whom Floyd served during the war,
A. Z. Long came to Oneida in 1924 from near Jellico, Tennessee and operated a wholesale and retail business near the Tibbals (now Hartco) mill in South Oneida. In 1939 and 1940, Mr. Long moved to Main Street, built a modern, two story structure consisting of two stores downstairs with large upstairs space, end carried the full line of a department store. In 1927, he had erected Oneida’s first Holiness Church on property he owned on Highway 27 in the Oak Grove community.
Mr. Long was the pastor of the church and gave much of his time to it. He took over the old church grounds at Oak Grove, which was in a large grove, and built a now store with the following departments: furniture, hardware, building supplies, clothing, and other lines. This was in 1947, and also in that year he built the new Holiness Church on Second Street.
Bill Price came to Scott County In 1939 from Texas during what was referred to as the area’s second “oil boom”, and married Miss Zona Rosser. He opened the ‘B&Z Grill and Rooms” on Highway 27 in September 1947 in what Bill remembers as, “in the country”.
There were no business neighbors close by and very few residences! The rooms, in 1947, consisted of apartments upstairs over the restaurant. The motel rooms were added in 1950. Mr. Price ran the business for 36 years. The restaurant building was torn down in 1986 and the motel now goes by the name of Classic Inn and is owned by Kenny and Toby Mays.
In 1948, Fred Ellis and his wife, Dorothy, opened a confectionery known as Ellis Sundries. Patent medicines, household medical supplies and cosmetics were among the items offered for sale, and a soda fountain that provided a “hang-out” for teenagers and delicious meals for the lunch crowd. With the advent of supermarkets and aisles dedicated to sundry items, Mr. Ellis began looking for other areas to venture into that would enhance his sundries and fountain business. In the early 1960 he added the pharmacy, complete with a licensed pharmacist who filled prescriptions.
Danny Cross, licensed pharmacist, bought the drugstore from Mr. and Mrs. Ellis in June of 1964. Danny’s Drug’s remained in this building until it burned in 1975. Miraculously, in three days, a temporary facility for Danny’s Drugstore was established across the street in the Shoemaker building. Construction of a new, modern facility that housed Danny’s Drugs and Lorene Gosnell’s Beauty Shop, was completed on the site that included the corner service station, which was built by Luke Coffey and Eugene Daugherty. Among the operators of the service station over the years were: Bill Mays, Harold Strunk, Howard Sexton, Jack Coffey and Scottie Carson. George Roark had operated the service station since 1956 until he built a new Amoco Service Station in 1965, just south of the War Memorial Building, across from the A. Z. Long Building.
In 1989, the offices of OMEDCO located in the drugstore building and Danny’s Drugs relocated in the space added on to the building occupied by Dr. Bruce Coffey. Dr. Coffey’s office is the remodeled home built by Harold and Maude Cross, located on Main Street just behind the drugstore. This property was the homeplace of Mildred Stanfill Sharp and her family.
On May 1, 1949, the American Legion’s War Memorial Building at Oak Grove was dedicated. Besides being the headquarters of American Legion Post #136, the building has served many other businesses, the Employment Office, insurance agencies and a pre-school.
On January 1, 1951, the Scott Motel was opened by Rusell Troxell, Harold Cross and Lonnie “Rusty” West. It was managed by Lonnie West and also had the services of the Scott Restaurant, owned by Russell Troxel and operated by Mrs. Bill (Hanna) Newport. The motel was subsequently owned and operated for about 25 years by Argil and Beulah Byrd, and they were also longtime operators of the restaurant. Ralph Price was interim owner before the property ownership passed to Dr. Bruce Coffey and is currently being used for medical and health related office space.
The property now occupied by the enterprises of David Ellis was the site of the beautiful homes of Mr. and Mrs. Preston Shoemaker and the Rev, and Mrs. Roy Blevins.
This has been a glimpse of how Oak Grove developed from farmland, complete with corn fields and hog pens, to a thriving business district. Although still identified as the Oak Grove Section, and still a viable business district, it now is an area on the way to yet another business area that developed further from “downtown”. Development of the “four-lane section” of Oneida is another story!