Kingsport has plenty of interesting historical moments, but the legacy of J. Fred Johnson is fundamental to understanding our community’s DNA.

A native of Hillsville, Virginia, J. Fred Johnson came to Kingsport in 1915. He was hired by John B. Dennis as a one-man Chamber of Commerce and fell in love with the land, the people and until 1944, set in motion a spirit that continues to this day.

Last week, after reading several historical accounts, I visited his former office downtown, his original home on Watauga Street and final resting place at Oak Hill Cemetery.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been working on a new project for the City of Kingsport. This venture is a primary Internet destination for our home and one of the recurring questions we continue to explore is…What is the essence of Kingsport? What distinction does this small town at the foothills of Bays Mountain mean to the people, the businesses and visitors to this planned city of 50,000?

There are many superlatives that rise from these conversations and everyone has their own perspective. One of the brightest (among many) and dedicated voices is Jeff Fleming who works for the City of Kingsport. I call him ‘Mr. Kingsport,’ but Jeff’s got something going on behind the scenes and I think J. Fred Johnson is still guiding him from his original downtown office.

Fleming arrives to work each day, opens the door and sits down in the same office J. Fred Johnson built the city of Kingsport. Located on the second floor of the original Kingsport Improvement Building, Jeff and his team handle (among other tasks) the Geographic Information Services for our community. Jeff promotes Kingsport’s “good news” with regular updates on his blog too. Of his many personal achievements, this year is the seat on the board of the American Association of Retiree Communities. The annual convention for this organization will be held at MeadowView Convention Center later this year.

Jeff and I had been discussing an old Rotary Book published by The Kingsport Press in 1937. He and I have been collecting these small green books that document the first published accounts of Kingsport’s history.

In the preface is a statement written by J. Fred Johnson on February 15, 1937. In many ways, these few paragraphs serve as a our constitution. There are many people in city government and the Chamber of Commerce who still quote this commentary which reads in part (see entire excerpt)…

“Rotary has a slogan “Service above Self – he profits most who serves the best.” Without attempting to eulogize, it is my firm conviction that those words truly epitomize what may be said to be the sprit of Kingsport. It matters not what we endeavor to accomplish, in the words of a one-time visitor to Kingsport “the humanics are more important than the mechanics.”

 

So it has been and will continue to be with Kingsport – it it is not good for the community, it is not good for the individual or for the business activity within that community – in that we have a fundamental truth.”

Johnson was an industrialist who helped forged this city with several others including financier John B. Dennis. Together they were land speculators looking to grow their own fortune. However, their vision of “interlocking industries” set in a motion the concept of a planned city that quickly turned Kingsport into an early boom town.

Kingsport had tremendous growth in the day of Johnson. He helped entice George Eastman to come to Kingsport with the idea that the inhabitants of this region represented the true spirit of the “American Pioneer.”

His perception of the people in this region is a strong sound byte in Margaret Wolfe’s book, “Kingsport, A Planned American City.”

She describes Johnson’s idea promoted to national industries as, “the embodiment of the pioneer spirit, southern hospitality, Appalachian distrinctiveness, racial and religious purity, and red-white-and-blue Americanism.”

Johnson had a protestant work ethic with middle class values. His father died in his early teens. From there he was forced to give up his early education to rescue his father’s business and support his mother and two sisters.

When he arrived in Kingsport, working with Dennis, they were able to secure thousands of acres of land for no more than $10 per acre. They worked to attract industries of the day and capitalize on the transportation provided by the new Clinchfield Railroad that cut a path from Elkhorn City, KY to Spartanburg, SC. He was also instrumental in expanding our highways by by heading a delegation to direct the Lee Highway through Kingsport from it’s waypoints connecting New York and New Orleans.

It has been said that J. Fred Johnson was generous to a fault in his personal life. He never had any children, loved his Presbyterian Church and helped to establish several churches in the community.

Johnson’s humility wasn’t reflected in his evangelism of the region though. In fact, he was quite convincing to a number of people – including the success of attracting Eastman Kodak.

The story goes that when Johnson brought George Eastman to Kingsport, they went hunting on the Rotherwood properties and when George shot into the trees 40 birds fell from the sky. It was there an enduring relationship helped to relocate a major industrial plan for Eastman on the banks of the Holston.

J. Fred Johnson lived on Watauga street until his death from a long illness in 1944. It’s a beautiful home and people may drive by it everyday not knowing this is one of our founder’s home.

With his final resting place on the small hill atop Oak Hill Funeral Home, J. Fred Johnson’s gravesite is not as distinct as other early leaders. Together with his two wives (Elizabeth Doggett  and Ruth Evelyn Carter), he lies in rest with a marble slab that reads simply, J. Fred Johnson – 1874- 1944.

Johnson may have never imagined manufacturing would have changed as much as it did when the global markets influenced businesses to locate plants overseas. Kingsport’s future cannot rely on the “City of Industry’ vision and “chasing smokestacks” as some have referred to regarding economic development.

Maybe Johnson left us with something more important to recalibrate our future for Kingsport.

J. Fred Johnson and his colleagues were innovative thinkers. They were men of character who believed in working together with the Rotarian vision “service above self.” Perhaps this is what we focus on as we rethink our future.

I’m reminded every day that Kingsport’s business community is without a doubt, one of the most organized and collaborative group of entrepreneurs in the region. Our town is home to engineers, professionals, executives, thinkers, inventors and hard working people who have a dedication to each other.

The old 1937 book has another phrase that should immortalize Johnson. In the last statement, “humanics before mechanics.”

Small town America has an enduring appeal as we embrace empathy and compassion for your neighbors. Recent visitors to our office from Boston commented “the people are so nice here.” We hear that quite often. That’s an enduring characteristic of many communities across America, but it’s a common statement from outsiders.

Like J. Fred Johnson, Kingsport is a community for the common good and although the past few years haven’t seen much growth, I’m certain the citizens and leaders of this community are adding adding new chapters which will inspire our future much like Johnson.

Personally, I’m priviledged to know several and hope their best attributes continue to influence myself and together, we can make a dramatic for own future in this great American city.