If you’re ever in a trivia contest about what a particular site around Chattanooga used to be, “farm” is always a good answer. It’s difficult to visualize today after years of urbanization, but most of the land in the city was in an agricultural status one hundred years ago or more. Today’s Central Avenue was once called East End Avenue, because rural lands lay to the east of the thoroughfare.
East of Missionary Ridge were even more farms. A portion of the Brainerd community still retains the name given to a large estate by its owner, William Riley Crabtree. “Belvoir,” French for “beautiful view” and a name shared with other places around the globe, was what Mr. Crabtree called his property where he raised Jersey cattle.
William Riley Crabtree was born in 1867 in Franklin County, Tennessee. As a young boy, he moved with his family to the Trenton, Georgia area. There, he later went to work at the Rising Fawn furnace owned by the Roane Iron Works. At the time, Dade County was experiencing a post-Civil War boom, with various businesses springing up to tap the natural resources of the area.
Crabtree used his experience to pursue several other interests. He was engaged in the Kensington Land Company, and served as manager of the Lookout Inn. Lookout Mountain was also seeing development in response to tourism and residential demand.
He became a real estate developer, and founded Crabtree Transfer and Storage Company.
In the early 1900’s, William Crabtree acquired an interest in The Chattanooga News, a competitor of The Chattanooga Times. The News was owned by Jerome B. Pound, who was also a developer of real estate in the area of Eleventh Street. Crabtree became the business manager of Pound’s publication.
His interest in journalism later led William Crabtree to establish his own weekly newspaper, Crabtree’s Saturday Press. Circulation grew throughout the state, to the point that The Memphis News later acquired the newspaper from Crabtree.
The field of politics soon attracted William Crabtree. According to “Tennessee and Tennesseans Volume VII,” by Hale-Merritt, Mr. Crabtree served as an alderman in the city of Chattanooga during 1893 and 1896. His values and ideals mirrored the political reform movement taking place nationally. Crabtree felt that aldermen should be elected based on qualifications, and not through the cronyism of the ward system.
Credentials in city government enabled William Crabtree to be elected mayor of Chattanooga without opposition. Though retaining his country home at Belvoir, Crabtree and his wife, the former Virginia Isbester, also lived in Chattanooga in a home at Oak and Douglas streets. As mayor, he continued to champion reforms, culminating in 1911 with the adoption of a commission form of government for Chattanooga.
Events occurring during Crabtree’s years as mayor included the laying of the cornerstone for the new City Hall. Chattanooga gained a new, magnificent passenger train station that is now the Chattanooga Choo-Choo tourist resort. The city also saw its first skyscraper, the James Building, rise above downtown.
After his term as mayor, Crabtree served in the Tennessee State Senate and gained the honorary designation as Tennessee Colonel. In 1920, he decided to challenge Governor Albert H. Roberts in the Democratic primary. Roberts had become unpopular across the state due to his endorsement of ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment for the right of women to vote, tax reform, and use of state troops against organized labor.
Crabtree lost in the August primary, though Roberts would later lose in the general election to Alfred Taylor. According to William Crabtree’s obituary, the gubernatorial primary race exacerbated his hypertension and heart disease. He died on October 4, 1920 at his Belvoir home.
The aforementioned Hale-Merritt history described William Riley Crabtree as having “an unquestionable devotion to public welfare and a sort of efficient honesty that is everywhere needed in public service. As a former mayor of Chattanooga and an official who promoted and used the influence of his position to secure not only the current welfare of the city, but to strengthen all branches of local government for permanent usefuless, Mr. Crabtree became well known throughout eastern Tennessee.”
If you have other information about William Crabtree and his Belvoir farm, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.