Local history: Old mcDonald had a farm

Staff file photo / McDonald Farm is seen on Dec. 15, 2021, in Sale Creek, Tenn.

Hamilton County government's recent acquisition of the McDonald farm in Sale Creek with plans for a community gathering site has given rise to a renewed interest in the McDonald family. While many citizens recall with pleasure their own encounters with Roy McDonald, founder of the Home Store groceries and the Chattanooga Free Press newspaper, most are unaware of the family's involvement in the early history of the region.

The Scots-Irish McDonald family traces its colonial origins to Bryan McDonnel, son of Alexander McDonnel, who left Ireland in search of a new beginning. He arrived in New Castle, Md., in 1691. Early documents recount that Bryan McDonnel had been a soldier in the army supporting James II's attempt to maintain his throne after the English parliament had "invited" his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, to rule England. When William and Mary's forces emerged victorious, leading to the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the signing of the English Bill of Rights, James II and many of his followers fled the isles.

Bryan McDonnel and wife Mary purchased land at Mill Creek Hundred in Delaware and lived there until their deaths. It was their son, Bryan McDonald II, who changed the spelling of the name. The historical record shows that Bryan II and his wife, Catherine Robinson McDonald, moved to Augusta County, Va., just before the French and Indian War. Bryan II died in 1757.

Within three generations, the McDonalds were in northern Hamilton County. James Richard McDonald settled in Sale Creek in the 1820s. After purchasing 1,500 acres near the Hiwassee Garrison, his father, Revolutionary War veteran Edward McDonald, moved the family westward across the mountains and settled in Rhea County. While Edward became a justice in his new county of residence, James Richard moved southward with his wife, Kitty Jones, to build his own home near a creek. Their home, a log cabin eventually covered by clapboard, stood as a testimony of the McDonald pioneer origins until it was destroyed by fire in 1970.

James Richard and Kitty McDonald had a large family. Their son, Benjamin Jones McDonald, took control of the Sale Creek farm that played an important role during the Civil War, providing a mill and water source that would be used alternately by Union and Confederate forces.

Benjamin Jones McDonald married twice and fathered 11 children. His eldest son by his second wife was Franklin "Frank" Jones McDonald, born in 1870. Frank married Nannie Ketner, a name well-known by area residents today because her parents operated the Ketner's Mill on the nearby Sequatchie River. The Ketner family traced its lineage to Johannes Heinrich Ketner, who was born in the Rhineland, Germany, in 1724, fled the continuing wars of religion during the vast German migration, and immigrated to Pennsylvania.

Frank McDonald moved to Chattanooga before the Great War and opened his first Red Store on Whiteside Street (today's South Broad Street) in 1908. By 1920, Frank McDonald's Red Stores, 40 of them, and his Rolling Red Stores, a modern peddler's business, had changed grocery business in the region. The Red Food stores were a mainstay of the community until 1980, when they were purchased by a French food distribution firm. After several transitions, many of the stores today wear the Food City banner.

When Frank McDonald's eldest son, "Mr. Roy," died in 1990, United Press International carried the announcement and profiled the man who, until the day before his death at age 88, "worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, taking off only on Sundays to attend church." He "started publishing during the Great Depression, putting out a weekly circular to promote the Home Store groceries he owned" and that would become the Free Press in 1936. After purchasing the Chattanooga News in 1942, "Mr. Roy" merged the two papers into what became known as the News-Free Press.

In addition to his business interests, Roy McDonald served Chattanooga as a civic leader for more than 50 years. Among the dozens of leadership positions during those years, he may be best remembered for championing health care as board chair of Erlanger and Children's Hospital and envisioning a pre-paid hospitalization plan that would become Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tennessee.

Three more generations of McDonald descendants enjoyed family time in the Sale Creek home that will now serve as the centerpiece of an agricultural laboratory for area students. Old McDonald's farm has become our community's farm, complete with its history.

Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, serves as vice chair of the Medal of Honor Heritage Center and honorary regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR. Visit chattahistoricalassoc.org for more information.