The topic for this column led straight to William H. Simmons.
First, his son-in-law was the subject of a previous column about the spy Intrepid.
Second, in columns about water in Tennessee, mills were mentioned. Simmons owned Walnut Grove Mill, familiar to many as Hill’s Mill.
Third, schools are trying to open and will furnish topics for future columns. William Simmons himself was a pupil of J.M. Walton, president of Neophogen College. Simmons taught school for awhile to finance his college agenda.
“In the Eagle’s Eye” directs a closer look at William Simmons at every turn.
Simmons was the son of Sallie Ann O’Guin and John Simmons. She died when he was one year old. John Simmons left the state and never returned. Relatives raised the child.
He did attend school, and when he was older, became interested in agriculture. He became involved in the tobacco business and started out in Greenbrier.
Eventually he moved to Springfield, where his decisions caused him to prosper.
While his tobacco warehouses may still be seen in Springfield, he also built a planing mill and sold lumber.
A copy of an old newspaper clipping details the sale of 90 of his Hereford steers to the Nashville market. The steers weighed an average of 900 pounds each.
In a 1941 newspaper column, W.W. Pepper said, “If I were to select a man who has been the most useful to his native county, I would name William H. Simmons.”
Proof of Pepper’s thought would be the concern that Simmons had for the sharecroppers on Walnut Grove Farm.
It must be noted that in 1937, Simmons had planted 10,000 black walnut seedlings on the farm. It was a reforestation project for him. He also believed in terracing and cover crops, but walnut trees may still be seen along the road to Port Royal today.
More important to him, however, were those who lived and worked on the farm. In an article written by J. Percy Priest, there is the mention of 22 hired hands and 2,300 acres.
Simmons insisted that each worker have a mule, plow, cow, and garden plot so that the needs of the family could be supplied. Simmons discussed the garden spot with each worker to be sure it was big enough.
There was a commissary that provided “everything from carpet tacks to house furniture.” The cost of 10 pounds of sugar was $.55. Forty-eight pounds of flour cost $1.40. Settlement was made with the commissary once each year.
Simmons also had a private power dam built so that his tenants could have electricity. At a cost of $30,000 he had the dam built across Sulphur Fork Creek.
One 80-horsepower turbine would grind cornmeal on an ancient millstone. The other would furnish electric current.
Simmons once said that the share-cropper was the underdog. If the worker could have a chance “to take his rightful place in the social and economic set-up, and if he makes a living and I break even, then I am satisfied.”
One can look at the magnificent house where Simmons and his family lived in Springfield. One can see his name, still visible on tobacco warehouses.
Surely his treatment of those who worked for him is the best legacy of all.
In the Eagle’s Eye is sponsored by the Robertson County Historical Society. Call 615-382-7173 for more information.