Chester Martin Remembers His Uncle, John Wesley Smith

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - by Chester Martin
John Wesley Smith
John Wesley Smith

My great uncle was born in the village of Washington, Tn., on the banks of the Tennessee River in Rhea County. He grew up in a typically large family of the day, and one of his sisters was my grandmother, Mattie Smith Young.

The Civil War treated his family very un-civilly, witnessing the burning of his home by neighbors after the Battle of Chickamauga. He endured a number of unpleasant encounters with enemy soldiers which he never forgot.

Ever driven by the desire to succeed, he got a degree from Emory University and became a Methodist minister. His first church was called St.

Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and was at Pulaski, Va. He named his only son "Paul", after the church. The church is still there in 2015.

Uncle J. Wesley was interested in Science as well as Religion, and wrote scientific articles which were published in such newspapers as the Atlanta Constitution. He also published several books, one of which was titled, "Mountaineers - or Bottled Sunshine for Blue Mondays". It was highly popular in its day, and I still have my mother's copy.

Methodist ministers are frequently moved about, and he had at least one pastorate here in Chattanooga which occurred while he was still young and unmarried. A yellow fever epidemic hit our entire area while he was here, and he was one of only four men of the cloth who stayed in town to minister to those afflicted. He was heavily involved with the burials and would spend all night attending to those unpleasantries, only to rush home for an hour's sleep before starting a new day's voluntary duties. (A second of those four ministers who remained in town was the Presbyterian minister Dr. Thomas McCallie.

Eventually the fever epidemic simply went away - with thanks to no medical intervention -  and life normalized. Only then could he find time to marry a Virginia bride - Lucy Jordan. Two children were born to them - a boy and a girl. The boy (above) was named Paul in honor of Uncle John's first church, and his full name was Paul Jordan Smith. More on him in another of my articles.

Uncle J. Wesley was struck by some of the Utopian ideas of the later 19th Century and envisioned a self-supporting university on some property he acquired at Hooker, Ga., just west of Chattanooga. It was to be called, "Tenooga". Revenue would be raised through several industries which would be set up there, such as a pottery operation, which actually got under way, and produced some concrete planters - samples of which I still have. A large plot of his land at Hooker was reserved for a cemetery, for which he sold lots. My grandparents Young purchased a number of these, and they are buried there at Hooker Cemetery.

John Wesley Smith was a man of influence and clout, and was able to attract a seminal faculty, largely from outside the area, and so the university started out. But sadly it fell almost immediately on hard times resulting in disgruntled - and stranded - faculty who were unable to easily return home. Uncle John's house mysteriously burned to the ground one night, making things doubly bad.

I know of another such Utopian dream which was realized - successfully - not far away, and at about the same time as the Hooker, Ga., venture. It was by former Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. His  enterprise flowered into Sewanee University (The University of the South) at Sewanee, Tn. His great-great granddaughter, Maria Kirby-Smith, is a close friend of mine, with equally close ties to Chattanooga. I hope to soon write about her and her outstanding work as a sculptor.

Uncle John Wesley Smith was able to carry on with his ministry for a number of years, although his wife, Lucy Jordan, died unexpectedly - a blow from which he never fully recovered. I have been fortunate in very recent years to re-establish contact with one of the branches of his family now based in White Plains, NY.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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