In 1933, Zella Armstrong was the prime force in creating the yearly Cotton Ball in Chattanooga which became the premier “coming out” of young ladies primarily from Hamilton County and surrounding communities.
It was a lavish week-long celebration with many teas, parties, and luncheons presented by the parents and others of the debutantes from many of the Chattanooga area's most prominent families. The selection and announcement of a young queen and successful older king was the highlight of the event that took place usually at the Memorial Auditorium amongst elegant surroundings carefully orchestrated by the event founder, Miss Armstrong. Lovely ladies in beautiful gowns and dashing young men in coat and tail tuxedos were presented to the adoring audience of proud parents and friends amidst a backdrop of pageantry reminiscent of the splendor of the Old South.
Zella Armstrong was a spinster from a Southern family dating back to the Civil War when her father, John M. Armstrong, in June 1862 was a young lieutenant in the Confederate Army who commanded the cannon that returned fire when Federal troops first shelled Chattanooga. Born around 1872 (she never revealed her age) her love of history, tradition and the South aspired Zella to become the originator of the first Cotton Ball in 1933.
A published author and one of the earliest female reporters, she was one of the founders and a former president of the Tennessee Women’s Press Club. Her list of occupations included editor, poet, author of numerous genealogical sketches and papers, several volumes of Notable Southern Families, play writing, and she was the Hamilton County Historian appointed by County Judge Will Cummings.
In 1940, Chattanooga Mayor Ed Bass presented Miss Armstrong with a silver medal identifying her as “Chattanooga’s Number 1 Woman Citizen” in recognition of her “loving her city, state, her nation and her Southland, with fervor and a constancy that few could boast.”
The overwhelming majority of debutantes that were fortunate enough to be presented as Queen or members of the Court credit Zella Armstrong with instilling the same qualities of service and philanthropy that helped them to grow into productive parents and members of the community. The same has to be true of the Kings and young men who escorted the ladies on the night of the coronation. Most of them have also served as leaders in the city, county, state and nation.
When she died on April 12, 1965, while confined to a nursing home she still directed the operation of the Lookout, a journal of social and historical items that for years appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on a weekly basis.
Her legacy continues today with the annual Cotton Ball continuing its tradition of recognition and selection of outstanding young ladies to be presented at the gala event who mostly grow into the leaders of philanthropy in our community.
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Jerry Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org