‘Gem City of the Mountains’

Jellico was—and is—an unusual place. It was a mixture of hard-bitten coal miners and loggers, polished merchants and professional people. It produced Grace Moore, the internationally famous opera singer of the 1930s and 1940s, and Homer Rodeheaver, evangelist Billy Sunday’s song leader. Jellico native Tom Siler became a nationally known sportswriter with The Associated Press and later settled back in East Tennessee as sports editor of The Knoxville News-Sentinel. Two-time Putlizer Prize winner Don Whitehead grew up in a nearby Kentucky mining camp, but always considered Jellico his childhood home base. Patricial Neal, the Oscar-winning actress, came from nearby Packard, Kentucky., and grew up in Knoxville. Many others achieved prominence in a variety of fields, from politics to academics.

The writer John Fox Jr. (1862-1919) spent some time in Jellico early in his career before settling in Southwest Virginia. He is perhaps best known for The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, a Civil War novel whose protagonist is torn between his mountain up-bringing and his bluegrass roots, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

The Jellico area was the setting for Fox’s novel A Mountain Europa. In the novel, New Yorker Clayton is returning to the mountains after a trip home. Describing the town as it appeared around 1895, Fox wrote:

The journey to the mountains was made with a heavy heart. In his absence everything seemed to have suffered a change. Jellico had never seemed so small so coarse, so wretched as when he stepped from the dusty train and saw it lying dwarfed and shapeless in the afternoon twilight. The state line bisects the straggling streets of framed-houses. On the Kentucky side an extraordinary spasm of morality had quieted into local option. Just across the way in Tennessee was a row of saloons. It was “payday” for the miners and the worst element of all the mines was drifting in to spend the following Sabbath in unchecked vice. Several rough, brawny fellows were already staggering from Tennessee into Kentucky ….

The Jellico of my youth was a far cry from the one described by John Fox. The saloons and other dins of iniquity were closed down by Prohibition, and never reopened after it was repealed. A city ordinance prohibited beer sales within a mile of the city limits. The Kentucky side, where morality apparently reigned in Fox’s time, had become the source of just about anything illegal, from booze to sex. The unincorporated area across the state line was off-limits to Jellico police, and too far away from the county seat in Williamsburg for the Whitley County sheriff to pay much attention to it. Kentucky state troopers rarely ventured that far south of Williamsburg.

Today, Jellico is reached via Interstate 75 that runs atop majestic Pine Mountain. In my youth, the main highway was U.S. 25W, the western leg of U.S. 25, which in those days ran from Port Huron, Michigan, to Statesboro, Georgia. U.S. 25 split into 25W and 25E between Corbin, Kentucky, in the north and Newport, Tennessee, in the south.

The highway was a main Midwest-South route both for semi-trailer trucks hauling goods between the two regions and tourists from the Midwestern states, heading south to Florida and the Great Smoky Mountains or north to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Canada.

The last 15 miles of the 60-mile stretch from Knoxville to Jellico on 25W was known locally as “the Narrows,” a twisting road alongside the Clear Fork River at the eastern base of Pine Mountain. The Narrows provided a challenge to drivers as well as spectacular mountain scenery for the tourists.

The Jellico of the first half of the 20th century was a vibrant center of commerce for all of northern Campbell County, Tennessee, and southern Whitley County, Kentucky. The downtown businesses included my grandfather’s wholesale dry goods firm that sold throughout the Southeast, a wholesale hardware business, a mine supply company, a jewelry store, a music store, a bakery, grocery stores, variety stores, restaurants, clothing stores, including one run by my uncle, Kyle Miller, three drug stores, a movie theater, two furniture stores (both of which doubled as undertaking parlors), two banks, two hotels, two bus stations, a small private hospital, law offices, insurance offices and various other business offices. The air was scented with the smell of fresh roasted coffee from Cumberland Coffee Company and spices, including vanilla and lemon extract, from Elk Manufacturing Company. There was a Coca-Cola bottling plant on South Main Street, and the distinctive Coke bottles of those years with “Jellico” on the bottom would turn up in cities all over the country. A wholesale grocery business started in Jellico and flourished there for many years. A private power company’s coal-fired plant produced electricity for the region, until TVA extended its service to the area. A knitting mill, a large tannery, a foundry, and a raincoat factory as well as the nearby coal mines and lumber operations provided employment for dozens of people. The town had regular passenger rail service and a bustling train station.

Gas stations in the early years were mostly pumps at grocery stores. Jellico in the 1930s had three full-service stations, an Esso station on Fifth near the intersection of Main Street and a Texaco station at the top of the hill just outside the then city limits on 25W going toward Knoxville. The third, a Pure station on South Main Street, was owned by Mr. Smith, who sang bass in the Jellico Methodist choir. They were all pretty primitive stations by today’s standards. Right after World War II, a young man named Bixler returned from military service and used his mustering-out pay to start a more modern Gulf service center on Main Street just across from the Central Drug Store. Bixler was a vigorous man who was constantly on the go, trying to make his station a success, and he succeeded, not just with the local residents but primarily with the thousands of tourists who traveled through Jellico on U.S. 25W. A story made the rounds of town—denied vehemently by Bixler at every opportunity—that a luxury car with tags from a Midwestern state pulled into the station one day. Bixler was all over it, filling it with gas, checking the oil, wiping the windshield, checking the air pressure in the tires—the routine in those pre-self-service days—when a lady in the car asked, “Do you have a rest room?” But her accent was such that Bixler understood whisk broom. “No, ma’am,” he replied, “but I can get the air hose and blow it out for you.”

Jellico also had a public library, a large post office, a thriving Masonic lodge, various civic clubs and churches of various denominations, including a small Catholic church, St. Boniface, just across the line in Kentucky. St. Boniface and its sister church in Newcomb, Sacred Heart, served a predominantly Italian population that had originally arrived in the area to work on the railroads. The streets were crowded with shoppers and business people during the day, and even more crowded on Saturday nights when miners, loggers and farmers came to town to take advantage of late store closings.

Businessmen gathered at the drug stores for coffee. One day a group of men were chatting on the street in front of the Central Drug Store when Jack Ellison, a native son who had recently returned home to open a dental practice, came up. Like most of the Ellisons, he was a large man. One of the men in the group, noted as a blowhard, cracked, “Jack, with hands the size of yours, I don’t see how you get them in people’s mouths!” Ellison, without missing a beat, replied, “If everybody’s mouth was as big as yours, I wouldn’t have any problem.”

‘King Coal’

Coal was king in Jellico. The mountains throughout the area were laced with thick seams of high-grade bituminous coal, and Jellico served as the hub for the coal business throughout the region. A popular coal variety, Blue Gem, was likely responsible for Jellico’s nickname as “the Gem City of the Mountains.” The coal industry spawned other major business enterprises in Jellico such as Imperial Cantrell, a welding firm that grew into a manufacturer of coal-mining equipment, and McComb Supply Co., a wholesale mining supply business. When the coal industry began to wane in the 1950s, so did Jellico’s bustling economy. Technology—mainly huge augers and strip mining techniques—made the deep mining in the rugged Cumberland Mountains less and less profitable. An auger in Pennsylvania could extract more coal in an hour than a crew of miners in a deep mineshaft in southern Appalachia could in a day.

Another major industry was hardwood lumber. The mountains around Jellico were covered with yellow poplar, oak, beech, elms and other varieties. The Kitchen Lumber Co., co-founded by my grandfather, Elbert S. Miller, at one time claimed to be the largest hardwood lumber company east of the Mississippi.

A town is born

Jellico-born historian David Harkness wrote that a small settlement grew up at the foot of Pine Mountain in 1795, a year before Tennessee became the sixteenth state. The first business, as often was the case in those pioneer days, was a tavern/inn. Harkness told a story of how a tavern keeper of the early 1800s, whose home was on the state line, avoided state officers by running back and forth across the state line as the need arose.

The town was originally known as Smithburg, because the name Smith predominated among the early settlers. In 1883 it was changed to Jellico and the settlement was incorporated. James Hayden Siler in his “History of Jellico Tennessee” cites an October 12, 1912, article in the Advance Sentinel, Jellico’s weekly newspaper, which explained that Jellico was “originally incorporated for the purpose of selling whiskey here. The law at the time prohibited the sale of whiskey within four miles of a schoolhouse, except in incorporated towns.” The origin of the name is disputed, but the most likely story is that it was named for the Jellico Coal seam, which in turn is said to have gotten its name from the angelica plant that grew in the mountains. The miners called the plant “jelica” and that eventually was transcribed as Jellico. Others argue that it was the other way around: the coal seam was named because of the town, and that the original name of the town was to have been Jericho, but was misspelled in the charter documents. Since the coal seam undoubtedly predated the naming of the town, I subscribe to the first version. Siler cites references to the name Jellico (spelled variously as Jelica, Gelica, Gilico, Gillico, Gelico, and Gilco) as early as 1813, referring to Jellico Creek. However the name came about, it is unique in the world. The only other place named “Jellico” was a small settlement in northeast Tarrant County, Texas. According to a document produced by the Grapevine (Texas) Historical Society and passed on to me by my cousin Boyce “Butch” Griffith of Oak Ridge, Jellico, Texas, began as a general store “on the north side of the Keller-Grapevine road.” A settlement grew up around the store and the town in 1897 got a post office under the name “Jellico,” named after the Jellico Ranch, which had been started by early settlers from Jellico, Tennessee.

Jellico, Texas, prospered for a while with a cotton gin, a blacksmith shop, a grist mill and a syrup press, but the post office closed in 1903 and the general store went out of business in 1912. The only reminder of Jellico, Texas, today is a shopping center called Jellico Corners, built in 1984, the Grapevine document said (see:


For years I carried a Brazilian driver’s license that highlighted the uniqueness of the town’s name. It read simply: “Birthplace: Jellico, North America.”

Jellico in the 1930s

The dominant physical feature coming into Jellico is Pine Mountain. The mountain runs about a hundred miles from Tennessee through Kentucky and into Southwest Virginia. Jellico sits just northwest of a gap in Pine Mountain formed by the Clear Fork River.

Indian Mountain and Jellico Mountain lie to the west. To the north in Kentucky are Mount Morgan and Vanderpool Mountain.

The main part of the city lies in the flood plain of Elk Creek, which rises in Jellico Mountain and joins the Clear Fork in Kentucky north of town. The city itself is built on the slopes of several hills, mainly Reservoir Hill, Heckler Knob and Branham Hill.

We lived just outside of town south of Jellico. In those pre-war days, our milk, in glass quart bottles from a local dairy, was delivered by a horse-drawn wagon driven by a black man named Scammy. Ice also was delivered to the door. Across the street was Don Wilder’s grocery, what today would be considered a convenience store. I was regularly dispatched to buy coal oil , bread and other small items. When I had a few pennies left over I would get a “penny prize”—a wrapped piece of candy that had a “prize” inside—or a box of Cracker Jacks, which also contained a small prize and cost a nickel. Soft drinks, also a nickel, were kept in a large stand filled with water and ice to keep them cold. To get one, the customer had to put his hand in the icy water and grope for his favorite soft drink. Each bottle had a distinctive shape and feel. Many of the favorite brands are still around: Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Dr. Pepper, 7-UP, Nehi, RC Cola. Don Wilder was a taciturn, reclusive man who lived with his mother in a house behind the store. The house was protected by a high fence that ran from the back of the store to the back of their property. Mrs. Wilder was a large, fearsome woman whose presence kept all kids away from their yard and garden. Alongside the grocery was a small barber shop. There were two other grocery stores about a block away, Little’s in front of my grandmother’s house, and  Smiddy’s just inside the city limits on South Main Street. We also had regular visits from the “rolling store,” a large truck whose enclosed bed was jam-packed inside and out with produce, canned goods, dry goods, notions and dozens of other products. The driver would sell his products or barter for produce, poultry, home canned goods and the like from farmers. I remember that Mother always liked to get her eggs from the rolling store because the driver always guaranteed they were “the frashest aigs.”

The town’s elite would gather at the Central Drug Store midway up Main, or at the Brown Drug Store at the corner of Main and Fifth. On Saturday nights, the streets would be packed with people, and many others would sit in their cars and watch the passing parade of people, chatting with various friends through the car window.

Mr. Dupuy waits for customers at his popcorn wagon

A fixture on Main Street was the popcorn stand of Mr. Dupuy (we pronounced it dew-pee). Mr. Dupuy usually had his cart in front of the Central Drug Store or the Little Wonder Café, but he also rolled it down to the train station to meet the incoming passenger trains that still backed into Jellico in the 1930s. His full name was James Rosecrans Dupuy, and he was born August 29, 1865, just four months after the end of the Civil War. Our house was near the Jellico Cemetery, and almost every day Mr. Dupuy would walk by on his way to visit his wife’s grave. He always had a smile and a pat on the head for any youngsters he met one the way, and usually would hand out shiny new pennies. He died September 30, 1942. His funeral at the Jellico Methodist Church was one of the first funerals I attended. I remember the surprise of the pastor and ushers as the church started filling up, mostly with children. This quiet, simple little popcorn vendor had endeared himself to hundreds of Jellico children—and before them to their parents—and dozens, maybe hundreds, of people turned out to bid this kind, humble man farewell, packing the church to capacity.

In those pre-television years, people sat on their porches when the weather was warm. People mostly walked to where they wanted to go, and friends would come up on the porch and “sit a spell” before continuing their stroll. Air conditioning and television ended the front-porch era and, in my opinion, our country is the worse for it.

One of my favorite porch-sitters when I was a teenager was Mrs. Dinkelinker, widow of a coal operator who lived a few doors down from the house on Fifth Street that we moved to around 1949. I passed that way frequently on my way to and from town and often would stop to chat. We became great pals. Mrs. Dink, as we called her, was a crusty old lady who didn’t mince words and had an opinion on everything. Her not-so-secret vice was cigars. She would often get a big corona cigar of the finest quality and sit on her screened in back porch and puff away, hidden from prying eyes and wagging tongues. One afternoon, however, she was contentedly smoking when a nurse—undoubtedly a newcomer to Jellico—at the small hospital next door looked out and saw clouds of blue smoke billowing from the porch. She promptly called the fire department and within a few minutes the fire truck—the town had only one in those days—and eight or 10 volunteer firemen were swarming all over Mrs. Dink’s private domain. She was furious. And the story of her cigar smoking was all over town within minutes.

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