The Elder Mountain Elders

  • Saturday, January 13, 2018
  • John Wilson
George S. Elder home on a bluff of Elder Mountain
George S. Elder home on a bluff of Elder Mountain

The John Elders were early settlers at Ooltewah. Another family of Elders came to Chattanooga from Trenton, Tn. This family acquired a huge tract on Raccoon Mountain and renamed it Elder Mountain.

These Elders included Leander Melville Elder, who was born in 1847 and graduated from Andrew College at Trenton. He then spent three years at the University of Virginia Law School before setting up his practice in Chattanooga. Leander Elder married Mollie E. Saffarrans of Memphis in 1876. He and his cousin, John W. Elder Jr., came to Chattanooga that same year. The Leander Elders lived in the section of Oak Street between Houston and Douglas streets. Leander Elder was elected president of the Young Men's Christian Association, which was organizing to raise money for new quarters. Leander Elder became law partners with George T. White until 1891 when he joined with attorney J.B. Milligan. His health began to fail in 1902 and he and his wife began to travel much of the time. They lived in Havana, Cuba, at one time and later at Mobile, Ala. When he became ill in 1928 one of his daughters brought him back to the Elder Mountain residence. He was there when he died in early August 1928. He was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery.

John Elder was first a lawyer, but he switched to real estate and insurance after he suffered health problems in 1881. John Elder married a daughter of D.C. McMillin at Chattanooga in 1881. His long-time real estate office was at 921 Georgia Ave. He was living on E. Fourth Street when he died in 1928 - the same year as his cousin Leander Elder. 

These Elders were from England and originally settled in Virginia. William Elder came from Dinwiddie County, Ga., to Rutherford County, Tn., about 1810. He was a farmer and was a soldier in the War of 1812. William Elder moved to Gibson County, Tn., in 1837 and died there in 1851 at the age of 85. He was "a passionate man of florid complexion, and high-strung temperament. He was remarkable for the integrity of his character. His word was his bond." William Elder married Mary Towler, daughter of Benjamin and Martha Towler of Charles City, Va., near Richmond. Benjamin Towler was a Revolutionary War soldier. Martha was "a lady of remarkable patience, a most inflexible Christian, of great strength and fortitude of character, yet of a singularly calm and sweet disposition, deliberate and philosophic in her views of life. She was a great lover of Christian literature and always had in her house her religious papers and periodicals." She died in 1865 in Trenton at her son's house.

Children of William and Martha Elder, in addition to John Wesley and Benjamin, were James Elder who was a prominent banker at Memphis and Monroe B. Elder who was a farmer and stock raiser at Trenton. 

John Wesley Elder, the father of Leander Elder, was a well-known Trenton banker and businessman. He was born in 1819 and his education "was acquired mainly in the counting room." He became a clerk at age 11 in the store of Niles & Elder at Murfreesborough. His brother, James Elder, was the junior member of the firm. After four years in this position, he left in December 1834 and, after spending some time with relatives, became a clerk in a store at Shady Grove (Milan). He saved half of his $10 monthly salary. Then he returned to Trenton and worked for his brother, Benjamin Elder, at $200 per year. However, John Wesley Elder received a better offer and went to Jacksonville, Ala., for a post that paid $400 per year. His trip there went through Florence, Tuscumbia, Decatur and Gunter's Landing. He walked from Gunter's Landing  60 miles over the mountains. He was at Jacksonville until the latter part of 1838 when he went on a trip to Mobile and New Orleans. When he returned to Trenton - having just turned 19 - he had with him $600 that he had saved.     

On the first day of 1840, John Wesley Elder went into business with his brother Benjamin. This partnership lasted for 20 years. He was elected a director of the Bank of Tennessee in Trenton in 1852. He was elected bank president in 1854, though he resigned the same year. When the Civil War broke out, John Wesley Elder enlisted with Col. Hill's 47th Confederate Tennessee Regiment. He was badly wounded at Shiloh by a minie ball that made a permanent indentation in his head "deep as an acorn cup." 

John Wesley Elder went to Cincinnati in September 1865 to try to recover his finances. He was employed by Duncan, Ford & Co. at a salary of $200 per month. That was raised to $5,000 per year. He was admitted as a partner in the wholesale grocery firm on Jan. 1, 1867, and he remained there until the end of 1878. Then he returned to Trenton and organized the Gibson County Bank. He was also a director of the Trenton Cotton Seed Oil Mills and the Trenton Cotton Factory. He was a Democrat, having cast his first vote for James K. Polk for governor of Tennessee. He was also an active member of the Methodist Church, serving as Sunday School superintendent for 33 years. There was "not a drop of lazy blood in his system, for he loves work, loves to be honest, and to deal on principles of spare justice and equity." 

John Wesley Elder in June 1841 married Martha Gillespie Houston at Jacksonville, Ala. Their honeymoon was spent riding on horseback the 265 miles from Jacksonville to Trenton. This was accomplished in seven days. His bride was a daughter of Major Matthew McClung Houston, a native of Blount County, Tn. Her great-grandfather was a brother of Sam Houston. Her mother was Mary Gillespie, daughter of John Gillespie of Blount County. In addition to Leander, the couple had nine other children. They were Henry Houston Elder who died when he was 11, Mary Eloise Elder who died at age three, Sallie May Elder who married Alexander B. White of Paris, Tn., Robert who died as an infant, Irene Amelia Elder who married Dr. Thomas J. Hoppel, Mattie Louise Elder who married Robert F. Ross, Lucie Belle Elder, Gracie Elder, and Albert Sidney Elder who went into banking with his father.

Children of Leander and Mollie Elder included four daughters. Mrs. Halsey B. Leavitt lived in Asheville, N.C. Ms. John B. Hanes was at Kilarnock, Va. Blanche and Irene Elder stayed in Chattanooga. They married Thomas E.H. Urmston and Chester Watkins. The Chester Watkins lived on Lookout Mountain. The Urmstons were residents of Oak Street. Thomas Urmston was manager of Laflin & Rand Powder Company. Irene Elder Watkins was a belle in her young days, and afterward she was known for her taste in art and literature. She was said to have owned the finest antique collection in Tennessee. Irene Elder Watkins died in 1957 while living at 1108 E. Brow Road, Lookout Mountain.

A son of Leander and Mollie Elder, George Saffarrans Elder, bought several thousand acres at Raccoon Mountain and changed the name to Elder Mountain. He made the vast land acquisition after returning to Chattanooga in the early 1920s from a remarkably successful business career in St. Louis.

Born in Chattanooga on Dec. 12, 1879, George Elder attended Baylor School. He went to St. Louis when he was 20 and first worked as a clerk for Ferguson-McKinney Dry Goods for eight years. Afterward, he was in the employ of Ely-Walker Dry Goods for another eight years. He was manager of the manufacturing department. George Elder in April 1916 organized the Elder Manufacturing Company, which produced clothing for men and children, including the Tom Sawyer line. This grew to be the largest business of its kind in the state. Elder Manufacturing shipped its products throughout the United States and to many foreign countries. During World War I, two of its factories were geared up for war production. They turned out khaki uniforms, flannel shirts and tents.

George Elder married Hazel Garrison on Oct. 16, 1907, in St. Louis. She was the daughter of Oliver L. Garrison, a prominent industrialist. The George Elders decided to leave St. Louis and return to Chattanooga. While living in a nearby log cabin, they built a handsome stone house commanding a distant view on a bluff of Elder Mountain. The stone for the house was carved from the mountainside.

George Elder was said to possess "outstanding executive ability and sound judgment in business matters." He had a genial personality and "a distinctive love of beauty and the better things of life." He had been planning to establish extensive apple orchards on Elder Mountain. It was said of him that "his robust physique and cheerful countenance, together with his tendency to dress for the mountain rather than the city, made him a striking figure." He was formerly a city person, but after retiring to Elder Mountain was decidedly a country person. He was particularly attuned to the needs of the less fortunate in the vicinity and he would often summon a doctor for someone who was seriously ill. On one occasion, he paddled a canoe a long distance up the Tennessee River on an icy cold night to secure a doctor for a poor neighbor. Learning that a country woman had been deserted by her husband, George Elder sent the family a week's supply of groceries. When he learned there were about 100 children near the mountain without a school, he applied to Marion County to furnish a teacher. When the county declined to do so, he put up the salary for the teacher himself. George Elder loved the wildflowers of the mountain and spent hours roaming the woods in search of them. He also was fond of the song birds, especially one that had its sweetest song about 3 o'clock in the morning. He would retire early so he could be awakened by the bird. He became interested in astronomy and his wife surprised him with a fine telescope that they enjoyed together.

George Elder planned to go into the fruit business, but he died suddenly in May 1926. This was only a few short years after his Elder Mountain home had been completed. A newspaper account said he had been suffering from indigestion for two days and was on his way to visit his physician. He drove his car toward town, but stopped to examine a new piece of machinery that had been put into use on his property. He got back into his car, then drove only a short distance. After about an hour, some of his workmen decided to check on him. He was slumped over the steering wheel dead. Dr. Joseph W. Johnson was called to the scene accompanied by Dr. J.H. Barnett. Dr. Johnson said the cause of death was acute indigestion. George Elder had retired early from business partly due to a serious heart problem. He was just 46 at the time of his death. It was noted that George Elder "had become immensely interested in helping crippled children, had made substantial donations to local organizations for this purpose, and in the future planned a hospital and home for crippled children." A friend said it had been planned to erect the hospital on Elder Mountain at the site of what was known as Healing Spring. George Elder had planned to transplant native flowers and shrubs to the site.  

Hazel Garrison Elder, known for her church, civic, cultural and social activities, lived until 1972 when she was 86. Raised a Catholic, Hazel Elder became active in Christian work through the tutelage of Dr. Harris Gregg of the Chattanooga Bible Institute. She was long a faithful member of First Presbyterian Church. She often taught in that church's mission churches, including Lookout Valley and Alton Park. She helped start a community Bible class for women. She was also a supporter of the Florence Crittenden Home, Bethel Bible School and Bachman Home.   

The children of George and Hazel Elder were Oliver L. Garrison Elder and Mary Garrison Elder. Mary Elder attended Girls Preparatory School and Garrison Forest School for Girls in Baltimore. She married attorney Charles Boyd Coleman and then Augustus Howard Bickerstaff Jr. Bickerstaff was the son of Augustus Howard Bickerstaff, who was born in Russell County, Ala., a few years after the Civil War. The family later moved to Columbus, Ga., where his father had a brick company. He became a brickmason at the company when he was 18 and later was president. He was also president of the Home Federal Savings and Loan Association of Columbus. He married Nora Walton. He died in 1965 when he was 94. Augustus Howard Bickerstaff Jr. studied at Washington and Lee University and the University of Georgia School of Law. Later, he worked for TVA, then he joined Elder & Co. and later was with J.C. Bradford. 

Mary Garrison Elder was the mother of Boyd Coleman by her first marriage. Children of her second marriage included Hazel Walton Bickerstaff, Augustus Howard Bickerstaff III and Garrison Elder Bickerstaff. Hazel Bickerstaff, who was named for her grandmother, fell in love with horses as a young girl. Her mother had ridden up Elder Mountain on horseback when the family first returned to Chattanooga from St. Louis. She set up a horse ring as well as a horse riding course on the mountain. Hazel Bickerstaff taught many others how to ride horses, and she decided to stay on Lookout Mountain after spending time with the Deakins family near Brow Lake.

Boyd Coleman married Mary Nelson, and their daughter, Laura, married attorney Tom Bible. Another daughter was Donna Nelson Coleman. A Bible daughter was named Mary Elder Bible in honor of her great-grandmother.

Howard Bickerstaff III, a self-employed real estate agent, spoke to the Chattanooga Civitan Club in 2001 about life on Elder Mountain. He said the mountain was still just about 10 percent developed. He said for years there were only about 30-35 families living on Elder Mountain, but by 2001 there were about 100. He said lots at the time sold for about $40,000 to $80,000. The most expensive houses on the mountain may cost around $10 million. There are quite a few doctors, he said. Bickerstaff said the community managed its own quail and deer populations through hunting, and the mountain was not home to a great deal of political activity. “The biggest controversy is the deer community,” he told the club. A. Howard Bickerstaff IV also went into real estate. Garrison Elder Bickerstaff lived at Henegar, Ala. 

Garrison Elder was away at school in Boston at the time of his father's death. After completing St. Mark's Episcopal School, he studied at Harvard University. Garrison Elder served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy on the carrier U.S.S. Chenango. He saw extended service in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

Garrison Elder received his financial training at the American Trust and Banking Company, where he started as a runner. In the spring of 1932, he had been promoted to assistant manager of the securities department of the bank. It was then he slipped away to New York on a mission known only to his family and a few close friends. In May 1932, when he was 24, he acquired a seat on the New York Stock Exchange for $79,000, which was considered a rare bargain. He was able to turn a profit of $250,000 in less than 18 months before returning to his home town. In Chattanooga, he opened a brokerage office in October 1933. He still had not turned 25. It was the first brokerage concern with headquarters in Chattanooga and a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He later sold Elder and Co. to J.C. Bradford and Co. and was a partner in that firm until his retirement. 

Garrison Elder married the vivacious Alice Dalton, who was from Milton, Mass., just outside Boston. She studied at a girls school in Switzerland and at the University of Lausanne, acquiring a certificate to teach French. Returning to the U.S., she went to New York City to seek a career on the stage. She met Jane Wyatt, who was later famous for her role on Father Knows Best. Alice Elder later recalled, "We'd go around together looking for jobs and she'd get them and I wouldn't." At one time, they were both players at the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, Mass. Alice also studied singing at the Metropolitan Opera House with a teacher from Connecticut. She was later spotted by Walter Hampden and toured with his company for four years. They did stock in New England theaters in the summers. Then, in 1933, she came to Chattanooga as the bride of Garrison Elder.

She threw herself into a variety of local causes - focusing first on the Junior League's Children's Theater. As the war talk began, she helped organize and later ran the local Bundles for Britain. While her husband was away with the Navy, Alice Elder adopted hospital auxiliaries as her new cause. She was one of nine women in the U.S. selected to organize a national women's auxiliary. While president of the Woman's Auxiliary of Erlanger Hospital, she helped raise $10,000 and was named Woman of the Year by the Curling Iron Club in 1951. 

Alice Elder became deeply involved in Republican politics and was a leader of Women for Wendell Wilkie in 1940. In 1952, she was named head of the Hamilton County women's division of the Dwight Eisenhower campaign. She was active in organizing Women's Republic Clubs and was made president of the Tennessee Federation of Women's Republican Clubs. She spoke all over Tennessee as head of the women's effort for Eisenhower and Nixon in 1956. Alice Elder made frequent trips to Washington, and she was on a first name basis with presidents, cabinet members and members of Congress. Once she returned home from Washington, then returned the next day for a breakfast with the President. She became involved in Muscular Dystrophy work and became friends with the widow of Lou Gehrig. Other causes included the United Fund, a Mothers March on Polio and the Citizens Committee for Public Schools. She was a trustee of Bright School. In 1965, when she was active in a March of Dimes campaign, she brought her longtime friend Jane Wyatt to Chattanooga to help out. It was noted that the two first met on a train en route to a house party at the Franklin D. Roosevelt home at Hyde Park, N.Y. Their dates were Jimmy and Eliott Roosevelt. They also recalled the time they were stuck in a dumb waiter. Alice Elder in 1976 was presented the A to Z Award during a banquet at the Read House.

Garrison Elder died in 1987 and Alice Elder died in 1989. Their children were Susan, who married John M. Martin, George Saffarrans Elder II and Philip Dalton Elder.

Susan Martin lived with her husband, an official of the Fletcher Bright Company, on Lookout Mountain. She became very active at Reflection Riding.

Philip Elder spent summers as a boy riding horses and at 13 started helping at Sky Valley Camp in North Carolina. He became an instructor in horse safety, care of the horse and trail riding. He competed in various equestrian competitions. He graduated from McCallie School and the University of the South. Philip Elder spent a year after college playing professional rugby in New Zealand and another year riding and working cattle in Australia. He later found a 1,640-acre property in southeast Kansas for a ranch property. He continued to compete in equestrian events, going to nationals several times. He married Becky Love.

George Elder II attended Woodberry Forest School in Orange, Va., McCallie School and the University of Chattanooga, where he was a member of the Honor Council and secretary of the Young Republicans. He often worked alongside his mother in charitable causes. This was especially the case when the time for the March of Dimes campaign came around. He had developed polio in one leg as a child, but, fortunately, recovered in three months. George Elder II joined TAPS (Teen Action Program) and took part in auctions and road blocks for the March of Dimes. He was named chairman of the TAPS entertainment committee in 1958. He organized country and western dances to raise funds. Later, he organized the Pete Fountain Concert to benefit the fight against polio. He was on the board of the Ben Mott Community School (Volunteer Community School). George Elder was employed by Modern Maid Homes, where he was the leading salesman. He went into real estate in 1972, joining the long-standing C.V. Brown & Bro. firm. He was later a partner in the Elder, Healy & Co. commercial real estate firm. 

George Elder II married Martha Yarbrough of Columbus, Ga. Their children were Garrison Elder and Dalton Elder. Dalton Elder Mook lived on Lookout Mountain and worked at BlueCross Blue Shield.

John MacDonald bought the Elder home after the death of Hazel Elder. The castle-like home at 960 Cumberland Road, that was expanded by the MacDonalds, went back on the market in 2013. The new buyer was just the fourth owner. It was noted at the time that the Elder House, as it was formally known, was completed in 1923. After a residence of 37 years, the property was sold to the MacDonald family. Being in the construction business, the MacDonalds expanded the main house adding garages and another private residence. The Krishock family purchased the home in 2004 and conducted a ground-up restoration, bringing all rooms back to their original beauty. They allowed the grounds to return to their organic and natural state, preserving a bit of nature with natural boulders and rock gardens inviting an abundance of wildlife. The oldest documented gingko tree in the state of Tennessee serves as an amazing centerpiece for the landscape. The historic all-stone exterior is crowned with a Spanish Barrel tile roof. The home is surrounded with open air patios to provide optimum outdoor entertaining. There are multiple tiered outdoor seating areas to maximize the views from every angle. A flagstone path leads to the front door of this private retreat with old world charm. The home immediately gives you a gratifying welcome with exposed stone walls, arches, solid oak vaulted ceilings, slate floors, lovely stained glass windows, wrought iron chandeliers, and a wide gentle curved staircase. Amenities and features are too many to mention. A home of this grandeur would be truly impossible to replicate today.

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