History of Graysville

1st Graysville School


Graysville is the largest town in the southern area of Rhea County and is located near the border of Hamilton County, six miles south of Dayton. It was originally a small settlement of wild green ridges and primitive farms until the early 1890s'. Like other communities in the county, Graysville's history began with the coming of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad in 1880, at which time more people moved into the area.

    John Wesley Clouse, the founder of Graysville, came from Birchwood, TN to survey Graysville and lay out the roads and home sites. He became a close friend of Billy Gray, one of the first settlers in the Graysville area.  As the surveyor, Clouse named the settlement after Billy Gray. Gray was the second postmaster of the Graysville post office, established in 1878. It was said that he kept undelivered mail in a dresser drawer in the building where he lived, known as the Russell place.  John Wesley Clouse was firmly established in the Graysville Community and became a member of the Rhea County Court, thus earning the title of Esquire J.W. Clouse until his death. He acquired large land holdings near the Graysville settlement. These lands were populated by people moving into the area as a result of the railroad. He built a small structure near the railroad where the Graysville Post Office had its official beginning. This site would later be the hotel's location.   

    In 1884, William and Henry T. Fox, who had inherited a large tract of land on the mountain above town, came to Graysville and organized the Fox Coal Company, which opened mines to the west of town and operated until 1900. At that time, Mr. Montague of Chattanooga acquired the coal property and operated the mines for several years. This community became known as Montague.

   The company physician was Dr. James Lans McKenzie, a recent medical school graduate. His brother was Attorney General Ben G. McKenzie of Dayton. Dr. McKenzie left Graysville when the Montague Coal Company was taken over by the Durham Coal and Iron Company. He then set up a private practice in Cleveland, where he lived until his death. The General Superintendent of the Durham Coal and Iron Company was J. Braxton Mansfield, who remained in this position until the mid-1920s when the company ceased operation. After the closing, J.B. Mansfield and I.A. "Bud" Small took over the mine and renamed it the Mansfield and Small Coal Company. Mr. Mansfield operated the mines in the famous Sequatchie Coal Seam, and Mr. Small was the salesman for the coal. In 1940 the mining operation was permanently closed.

   In addition to the coal mining operation, a large deposit of tile and pottery clay was found in an adjoining range of hills. The Dickey Clay Company out of Chattanooga mined much of it, and it was shipped to markets all over the south.

   Graysville, during the first two decades of this century, was actually three communities in one. Montague was a self-sufficient mining community located on the hill.  In addition to individual homes, Montague contained several mines, a commissary, a school, and a hotel.

   The second community, Advent Town, was located in the northern portion of Graysville.  The town was settled and populated in 1891 by members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, led by E.R. Gillett. A year later, Elder G.W. Colcord founded an academy there. A sanitarium was also established, and for years had a large patronage. The academy and sanitarium were later transferred to Collegedale in Hamilton County, and the buildings in Graysville have since been demolished.

   The final community was Graysville proper, which included a large brick school, post office, depot, hotel, bank, drug store, barbershop, restaurant, hosiery mill, doctor, and several churches. The Methodist Church was built in 1885 and is still used today, although it has been remodeled over the years.

 The Graysville Telephone Exchange was originated by George "Ned" Baber who, after his return from World War I, put the switchboard in a room over the Graysville Bank. It was operated by his wife and eleven-year-old son, George, Jr. It was sold to Tom Hicks, who operated it from his home and later sold the company to Southern Bell.

The Graysville Bank was said to be one of the strongest banks in the state. During the Depression years, when K.F. Johnson was president, the bank consolidated with the Dayton Bank and Trust Company. Mr. Johnson was president of the Dayton Bank and Trust Company until his retirement.

When the depot was built in Graysville, the first agent was Mrs. Bacon-Swearingen, a native of Ohio, who everyone in Graysville called Mammy-Swearingen. She was unique because at that time there were few, if any, female railroad depot agents. She served in this position for several years and was 100 years old when she died in Graysville.

The drug store was established by Mammy Swearingen's father, Mr. Bacon.  Esquire Clouse's son, Robert Clouse, a pharmacist, later purchased the drugstore, and Dr. Albert Broyles had his first office above the drugstore.

In the early days, William Yancey "Yank" Denton came from Washington, TN to Montague, where he and his wife, Victoria Perry Denton, operated the Montague Hotel. When the mines slowed down, Mr. & Mrs. Denton moved to Graysville, built the Graysville Hotel near the depot, and operated it for many years. It was said they "set one of the finest tables" in the area, and people came from all over the region on Sunday to eat with them. 

Over the years, Graysville boasted many retail businesses. These included the Gross Mercantile store, W.I. Williams Variety Store, Will Fox Lumber Company, Baber General Merchandise Store, a large Seventh-day Adventist store called Van Voohries, and the W.D. Marler Grocery Store.  The grocery store was a popular gathering place for local men.  Later bought by S.F. Hoover, the store attracted a crowd around its coal burning stove. Bea Pierce, an excellent cook, started the small Pierce's Restaurant which she later moved to Highway 27.   With her son, Marvin Pierce, she operated a lucrative catering business from their modern restaurant. The restaurant closed when her son was killed in an automobile accident.

In the mid-1920s, the Graysville Hosiery Mill was established in Graysville, but was later moved to Dayton. The Driset Mill, which manufactured infant wear, employed mostly women. It soon moved to Chattanooga. With the loss of these final few large businesses, Graysville became, and remains, a largely residential community.

For many years, on the Fourth of July the community held baseball games, parties in homes, and a town picnic.  The railroad played a major part in the social activities, too, when on Sunday afternoon, groups of youngsters in the area would walk to the depot to see who got on and off the train. There was a local accommodation to and from Dayton which Graysville residents called the "dinky-track!" There was an "up train" in the morning and a "down train" in the afternoon for people who had to go to the county seat to work, shop, or transact business.

In contrast to these wholesome family events, Graysville was not without its share of the moonshine business. Until 1877, moonshine made in the mountains attracted very little attention, and it was often a family practice. During Prohibition, stills were operating in the mountain area of Graysville, and revenue agents often found the stills by using tracking hogs who got tipsy on discarded mash. Ben McKenzie defended many Graysville residents for the manufacturing and distribution of moonshine whiskey. The "still line" in Rhea County ran up the Graysville Mountain and across to the Morgan Springs area.

In the 1920s, there was an incident that shook the Adventist Community in Graysville. Six men, members of the Adventist Church, were arrested and charged with violating the Blue Law (working on Sunday).  After their conviction, they were forced to work on Saturday on the chain gang. News of this event was widely circulated among Adventists throughout the country. Ben Mckenzie, Dayton attorney, volunteered his services to represent the six men in a court of law. Mr. Mckenzie secured their freedom by proving they had the right to observe the Sabbath on Saturday.

The history of Graysville would not be complete without mentioning the Melungeons, a mysterious group of people who inhabited the Southeastern highlands. They had very dark eyes and complexions and straight black hair. Local lore described these people as having shy natures, and they lived in mostly secluded mountainous areas. There was such a colony living up on the mountain in Graysville. At one time in the mid-1920s, there arose a bitter controversy in Graysville about the Melungeons not being able to attend the white schools of the county because they were of the Negro race. Ben Mckenzie was incensed and he solicited the services of his friend, the Honorable Lewis Shepherd of Chattanooga, who had won the celebrated "Melungeon Case" in 1872 in Hamilton County. Mr. Mckenzie filed a discrimination suit against the Rhea County Board of Education. This was the first discrimination suit of its kind in the area. Based on the theory employed by Judge Shepherd in the earlier case that the Melungeons were of Carthagenian or Phoenicien origin, McKenzie won the case and laid to rest the controversy in Rhea County. To this day, the origin of the Melungeons has been debated from time to time and never ceases to be of historic interest.

Graysville is not without its share of citizens who served in World War I. One of the most outstanding from Graysville was Staff Sargent Clifford Hambrick, the son of Everett Hambrick. He was with the Rangers who spearheaded the Allied invasion of North Africa, which turned the tide for the Allies.

He was the hero of the battle and was decorated with the Purple Heart, a Presidential Citation, and the Expert Combat Infantry Badge. After discharge from service, he returned to his home in Graysville.

Graysville is a small community rich with a history that many are unaware of.  Today, Graysville consists mostly of homes and an elementary school.  The evidence of the residents' deep ties to the past are clear in many of the families still located in Graysville.  Families such as the Densons, Elseas, Everetts, and Reels have sent four generations of students through Graysville Elementary School.  These students, along with students from families new to the area, are the backbone of Graysville's future.As with any community, the richness of its inhabitants is found in the youth of tomorrow.