South Pittsburg, Tennessee, is marking its 150th birthday in 2023, and officials and the community are holding a yearlong celebration.
A series of moves in the early 1870s by companies interested in taking commercial advantage of the natural resources of the region's coal and iron deposits led up to the birth of the city as a company town in 1873.
The South Pittsburg Co. then purchased 3,000 acres in 1885 to develop the city that stands today, according to history included in a city proclamation declaring 2023 the Sesquicentennial Year of the City of South Pittsburg, signed by city Mayor Samantha Rector on Jan. 21.
"We're actually going to celebrate it for the whole year -- an event every month," Rector said in a phone interview. "We're trying to plan one event a month. When it's the 150th, it's a pretty big deal."
The city calendar posted online doesn't have all events listed yet, but plans for more celebratory affairs are in the works, the mayor said.
South Pittsburg marks 150th anniversary in 2023
Different groups and industries in the community are taking responsibility for monthly events in each quarter of the year, as the celebration develops, she said. Some events set so far include:
— A scavenger hunt starting March 1 in which South Pittsburg folks will be able to download an entry form from the city's website or Facebook page to use to seek out various places around town where they can scan a QR code and find a hidden letter. Once found, the goal is to unscramble the letters inside to get a mystery word. They can then bring a completed entry form to South Pittsburg High School or South Pittsburg Elementary School on or before March 31.
— Recognition of the anniversary during the National Cornbread Festival, set for April 29 and 30.
— A May festival in the park for children.
— A June "dinner on the grounds" on Cedar Avenue.
— A 150th anniversary square dance and picnic July 30.
— An Oct. 30 event will feature a trunk-or-treat party with live music.
— On New Year's Eve, officials plan a community singalong to celebrate South Pittsburg's century and a half in style at the Holly Avenue United Methodist Church, closing out the year of festivities.
The schedule will continue to grow, Rector said, as organizers develop ideas for celebrating.
After the Civil War, British investors engaged a man named James Bowron to explore coal and iron deposits in the Southern U.S., according to official documents.
They wanted it to be the "Pittsburgh of the South," but with no "h," according to Rector. The dropped "h" distinguished the southern town from its northern sibling in Pennsylvania.
By 1873, Bowron had picked an ideal location for iron works, and a model town – South Pittsburg – was founded, according to officials.
The Southern States Coal, Iron and Land Co. -- also known as the Old English Co. -- purchased land for the model city and acquired mineral rights for properties in the Sequatchie Valley. Blast furnaces began operation in 1876.
The community's course changed when tragedy struck in the deaths of Bowron in 1877, company President Thomas Whitwell in 1878 and two major shareholders shortly after him, according to the proclamation, the South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society and listings on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the wake of decisions made by English directors and inexperienced management in Tennessee, the Old English Co. sold all of its property to the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. Three years later, in 1885, that company sold the model town to W.M. Duncan, a Nashville banker, who in December 1886 sold the city properties to the South Pittsburg City Co., a real estate promotion firm.
The company purchased 3,000 acres of land in 1885 to build the town.
The city company had civil engineer Frederick Putnam Clute make official drawings of the town, and he changed all the names of the avenues to the names of trees.
Clutes' map is still used in the original sections of South Pittsburg.
Milestones of note
South Pittsburg's first elected mayor was John Gillespie Kelly in 1886, according to historical information on the Historical Preservation Society's website. Soon after, schools were established for white students at McReynolds High School, and a Rosenwald School was established for Black students in Marion County and Jackson County, Alabama.
January's anniversary proclamation notes that major local businesses flourished in the community, including Lodge Cast Iron, U.S. Stove Co., Atomic Fireworks Co., Marsh Service Co., Dixie Freeze, the Pirate Drive-In (which closed recently, much to the heartbreak of many South Pittsburg residents and especially fans and alumni of South Pittsburg High School), Hammer's Department Store, Moss Motor Co. and Rogers Funeral Home.
The proclamation gives a nod to the Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative, established in 1939 when TVA was establishing dams to provide electricity, for its positive impact on the community and local industry.
The town is known for the National Cornbread Festival, now entering its 26th edition in 2023, and for the South Pittsburg High School Pirates football team, winner of multiple state championships and a perennial threat for the state title.
Folks in town will tell you no other city gets behind its team like South Pittsburg, and Rector said that community pride bears out in nearly everything people of the community undertake.
Unique to South Pittsburg are its concrete streets and sidewalks, many dating back to the 1930s, according to historian Carolyn Kellerman Millhiser, of the Historic Preservation Society.
She's the great-granddaughter of the founder of Lodge Manufacturing, a world-famous maker of cast iron cookware. That man, Joseph Lodge, started the company in a house built in 1877 that has grown into a major regional industry over the decades. The company's new museum, opened in 2022, boasts what the company claims is the largest cast iron skillet in the world.
Another of downtown's major features is the Princess Theatre, closed in the 1980s and on the verge of collapse in the 1990s, refurbished and reopened to the public in 2011 as ongoing preservation work has continued.
The Princess has links in its history to Hollywood, according to Historic Preservation Society records and accounts. The town not only had a theater operating as early as 1908, it had a direct connection with big-screen star Tom Mix, who starred in dozens of early westerns. Mix once worked in security and management at the local Penn-Dixie cement plant before leaving Tennessee for Hollywood.
South Pittsburg native and Hollywood star Jobyna Ralston played the leading lady in many early films, with many having been shown in South Pittsburg, according to historians. Ralston, who died in 1967, is memorialized on a Tennessee Historical Commission marker standing about halfway between Third and Fourth avenues on the east side of South Cedar Avenue.
Lots to celebrate
"We have a rich history we need to celebrate," Millhiser said Friday in a phone interview. "We need to recognize it -- 150 years of being a Southern city --we've gone through a lot together."
Individuals, groups and organizations from across the community are coming together with ideas, she said, noting that area churches plan an event every fifth Sunday of the months with five Sundays, and schools are backing March's scavenger hunt. Other ideas are forming, but more volunteers are needed, according to Millhiser.
"We hope to have a parade in December with floats depicting some of our past," she said, but that's still in the planning stages and help is needed to make it happen. "We are looking for organizations to build floats. We don't have as many civic organizations and organized groups as we used to in this town, but everybody can pull together to do something.
"It helps bring the community together to have group events that we all participate in," Millhiser said. "You don't have to live in South Pittsburg to be involved. We're happy to have any volunteers who want to step up and assist."
For more information or to offer help or ideas, South Pittsburg City Hall can be reached at 423-837-5003, and the Historic Preservation Society can be reached via email at email@example.com.
THE CHRISTMAS NIGHT SHOOTOUT OF 1927
It was Christmas night 1927 in South Pittsburg, and violence was inevitable.
A deadly clash fueled by politics and a fight over the unionization of the town’s largest employer, H. Wetter Manufacturing Co., would rattle the community and linger in the memories of its residents for generations.
In the mid-1920s, company owner Henry Wetter wanted to operate his stove factory on Cedar Avenue as a nonunion shop, but many of the company’s employees and four local unions wanted it to remain unionized, according to a 2004 Tennessee Historical Quarterly article written by Barbara S. Haskew and Robert B. Jones III, both formerly of Middle Tennessee State University.
Rather than relent, Wetter closed the factory’s doors to union workers at the end of 1926 and surrounded the plant with barbed wire, while inside, a skeleton crew of nonunion workers labored under the angry eyes of strikers outside on Cedar Avenue.
In the tumultuous year that followed, Wetter’s decision caused the local economy to suffer, and residents faced increasing fear, anger and picket lines. Many chose sides. Republican Marion County Sheriff Washington Coppinger led one group of union sympathizers. Ben Parker, South Pittsburg’s night marshal, led the other faction, according to the 2004 history.
In the fall of 1927, the Wetter company posted a man with field glasses on the roof to identify union workers who passed by the shop in violation of an injunction issued that summer prohibiting union supporters from “picketing and patrolling” near the plant.
South Pittsburg Mayor Alan Kelly, who represented Wetter, prosecuted and convicted 11 of 70 union men for defying provisions of the injunction, but the injunction was dissolved at the end of November.
Workers still were locked out when Christmas arrived, with only strike benefits to provide for their families, and the split was visible in the two community Christmas trees — one erected by the city and the other raised by union supporters. Union and nonunion men armed themselves, and nonunion workers were escorted to Wetter by armed company guards.
On Christmas morning, a group of more than a dozen angry men accosted Kelly on the street, demanding that the guards and strikebreakers be disarmed and threatening to do it themselves, according to the historical account.
Emotions ran high through the day, and an altercation between city and county forces increased tensions.
Around 9 p.m., Coppinger and three other deputies arrived and encountered the “city gang” at the intersection of Cedar Avenue and Third Street, where a group of men with shotguns joined the city officers, among them some Wetter guards.
Coppinger told the group he wanted no trouble, but that the officers who had drawn their guns on his deputy would have to be arrested, according the the account.
In less than 10 minutes, five men lay dead in the street; another would die later from his wounds. Twenty-six children were left fatherless. In a parked car 150 feet away from the gun battle, a little boy cowered in the cold as an exchange of shotgun blasts at close quarters shattered a window and blew away the car’s radiator cap.
Onlookers reported that there was an initial hail of gunfire, followed by a lull, then an endless exchange of fire as the city and county forces blasted away at each other, separated by a scant 30 feet.
More than 100 shells were found at the scene, gunshots pocked nearby buildings’ brick and shattered store windows, and the governor was forced to call in the National Guard to restore order.
The shootout claimed the lives of Coppinger; his deputy Lorenza A. Hennessey; Parker; Smith; Wetter guard Oran H. LaRowe; and South Pittsburg Police Chief and county Deputy James Connor.
At least 20 men were believed to be involved in the shootout, and at least four were injured but survived.
In the course of their authors’ 2004 study, they came across one woman’s account of her childhood memories of that night.
Charlsie Bean Lynch, in her late-80s when she died several years ago, wrote of a Christmas cantata that was attended by many South Pittsburg residents and how the night’s music and joy filled her as she lay in bed until she heard her father come home late that night, according to the 2004 article Haskew helped write.
Lynch’s father came in crying.
“She went in her nightclothes to hear him,” Haskew said. “He was saying, ‘He was dying. I held him in my arms.’ Then she said she saw him cry, so distressed that he slipped down to sit in the floor against the wall.”
The moment lingered in Lynch’s memory.
“I’ve never been able to sing ‘Silent Night,’” she said, according to Haskew’s account. “I can’t hear that song without thinking of seeing my father so unhappy about something so terrible.”
The Christmas Night Shootout of 1927 is memorialized by a Tennessee Historical Commission marker erected in 2014 at the corner of Third Street and Cedar Avenue, the town’s main drag.