Jerry Summers: Did FDR Drink Here?

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The late Hamilton County Judge Will Cummings was a powerful political figure who was closely aligned with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the 1930’s-1940’s.  Roosevelt made several trips to Hamilton County which included 1938 when he participated in the laying of the cornerstone of the Chickamauga Dam Tennessee Valley Authority project.  In 1940 he returned to dedicate the facility as it neared further completion on Labor Day, September 2, 1940.

On both his visits he touched base with the titular head of the Democratic Party, Will C. Cummings (1872-1969).  After several devastating floods over the years Cummings had long been an advocate of a proposed dam that would harness the uncontrollable raging waters of the Tennessee River.

On at least two occasions that are documented by the presidential diaries of both Eleanor and Franklin on November 21, 1938 they visited the Cummings farm prior to the dam ceremonies.  This is further substantiated by an article by historian Kay Gaston in 2018.

Former Chattanooga Times reporter Fred Hixon in 1962 wrote a book on the life of Judge Will C. Cummings entitled The Age of Will Cummings from Miniballs to Rockets.  He likewise confirmed visits to the Cummings farm in 1938 and 1940 by the Roosevelts to see what Judge Cummings had done in the area of soil conservation.

FDR commented in a note to the judge dated November 29, 1938, “That was a delightful visit we had in Chattanooga.  I was very much interested in the splendid soil conservation work you are doing.”

The author has recently been entrusted with a piece of historical furniture that was purchased by Susan Phillips Cardwell when the furnishings of the Cummings house were ultimately sold on July 23, 2005. 

Ms. Cardwell is related to the Cummings family through her mother’s aunt by marriage, Pearl Coggins Layne, who was Judge Cummings' second wife, Lillian Coggins Cummings.  When Lillian died in 1977 she left all of the furnishings to Pearl, and they were subsequently sold prior to Pearl moving into St. Barnabas Apartments. 

Susan Cardwell purchased a small bar and liquor cabinet and painting.  She and her mother were told by Pearl that the bar was located in Judge Cummings study when President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Chattanooga for the laying of the cornerstone in 1938 and dedication of the Chickamauga Dam in 1940.

A note is attached to the bottom of the bar in Lillian’s handwriting and states, “Bar in Judge’s study used during FDR’s visit, September 1940 LCC 1954.”

The note is silent as to actual consumption of alcohol by the president, but Lillian Cummings’ statement circumstantially presents a good inference that it possibly might have been tasted during FDR’s multiple visits to the Cummings farm.

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Jerry Summers can be reached at jsummers@summersfirm.com


 


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