Reuben Neil Kesterson

Copyright (2002) * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference

Reuben Neil Kesterson


Perhaps no other Fountain Citian had such a positive effect on so many lives as did Dr. Reuben Neil Kesterson. As Knoxville’s first practicing dentist, as a professor in the dental department of a medical school and as the developer and owner of the Kesterwood subdivision and Greenwood Cemetery; he spent many years assisting Fountain Citians and others in nearby cities. Dr. Kesterson made a difference.

Born near New Tazewell in Claiborne County, Tennessee, on July 12, 1858, Reuben Neil Kesterson was the seventh child of Reuben (1820-1882) and Adaline (Henderson) Kesterson (1820-1861), who were married on August 26, 1845. Adaline was the fourth cousin of President George Washington (1).

Reuben Neil attended the local schools in Claiborne County and graduated from Mossy Creek Academy. His dental education was acquired at the University of Louisville Medical School Dental Department, from which he graduated with a DDS degree in 1883 (2).

Dr. Kesterson opened his dental office in Tazewell, Tennessee. Frances Otey, who was born in Bedford County, Virginia on November 14, 1861, was attending a girl’s college there and was living with a widow near the school with three other school girls. The other girls peeked through the shutters to view the new, young doctor as he passed by the house. Frances was not interested, she had a bad toothache. Soon the landlady took her to Dr. Kesterson to have something done. Years later Frances (Fanny) Otey reported, "He hurt me so bad I couldn’t tell what he looked like and I never wanted to see him again." However, her attitude would change. Four years later, in 1885, she married the doctor and, after residing a year in Richmond, Kentucky, they came to Knoxville to establish their permanent home (3).

Bedford Oaks, the Kesterson House, 2006

The Kestersons lived on Tazewell Pike early in their marriage; but in 1928 they built Bedford Oaks, their stately home on Kesterwood Drive. The house with its elegant stone architecture and the impressive stone wall have long been the centerpiece of the Kesterwood subdivision (4).

East Tennessee National Bank Building

(Baumann and Baumann, Architects)

(University of Tennessee Special Collections)

From 1887 until failing health forced his retirement 35 years later, Dr. Kesterson practiced dentistry in the East Tennessee National Bank Building at Gay and Union (505 South Gay). He was said to have been Knoxville’s first dentist. 

The  Kesterson's first son, Robert Neil, was born November 4, 1887. In the greatest sadness to come into his young parents’ lives, Robert succumbed to a communicable childhood disease at only three years of age on August 8, 1890. Their second son, Tom Otey Kesterson was born January 11, 1890, and thus was only eight months old when his brother died. Frances felt she had to be the brave one to care for the infant, but Dr. Kesterson’s grief almost wrecked his health.

Eventually, the tragedy led him to a new interest—planning and developing a suitable resting place for his beloved son. This occupied many of his remaining years. The couple traveled all over the country, studying cemetery layout and operation and eventually found a model cemetery in New York State. In 1900 they bought a 175-acre tract on Tazewell Pike and founded Greenwood Cemetery. The cemetery extends from a rolling valley near Beverly almost to the crest of a distant ridge. 

They moved their son’s coffin there from Old Grey Cemetery, previously the only public cemetery in Knoxville. In 1908, Dr. Kesterson temporarily gave up the practice of dentistry to devote full time to making Greenwood "a place of beauty forever." The doctor’s personal interest in the design and planting of the cemetery resulted in it being recognized as one of the most beautiful in the South.

The many miles he traveled stimulated another interest. In 1902 the doctor traveled to Detroit and ordered one of the first Cadillac cars from the factory.  He spent some time there to familiarize himself with the car. The following spring, it was sent to Cincinnati via the railroad, and Dr. Kesterson and his son Tom picked it up there. The car was "guaranteed to go 25 miles an hour," and it created quite a sensation around town. When Mrs. Kesterson was interviewed in 1956; the open roofed, red Cadillac roadster with immense wheels still occupied the garage at their home in Fountain City.

The Kestersons had long planned an appropriate memorial for their son. In 1928, they erected a 45-foot marble obelisk at his gravesite. Thin and straight as a sword, the shaft was the second tallest in the country at the time--second only to the 65-foot shaft at the gravesite of John D. Rockefeller. 

The marble was quarried in Georgia, shipped to Knoxville by rail and carried to the cemetery on several large wagons pulled in tandem that were supplied by Gaines M. Harrill, Sr. The Knoxville papers carried photographs of the enormous load as it proceeded through the gap at Greenway on its way to the cemetery. It is said that the monument was planned so it would be visible from the upstairs dormer windows of the Kesterson home, a distance of one-half mile (5).

On December 4, 1931, Doctor Reuben Neil Kesterson died at 73 years of age at St. Mary’s Hospital following a short illness. Funeral services were held at the family home and he was buried in the family burial plot in Greenwood Cemetery near his son.

Mrs. Kesterson survived him by 28 years, continuing her interest in her flowers and shrubs and traveling widely. In an interview near her 97th birthday, she recalled a scene she viewed in her youth from the yard of her Uncle John Otey’s hotel in Cumberland Gap. She saw a group of Indians walking along the crest of the ridge near the Gap on their way to Washington to collect bounty. Her Uncle John had been the first white settler of the Gap and later deeded a burial plot there for Union and Confederate soldiers (6).

Mrs. Kesterson died on June 23, 1959 at her home on Kesterwood Road. She had remarked not long before that she felt "like the last leaf on the oak." More than a half-century after his death, many Fountain Citians regard Dr. Reuben and Mrs. Kesterson as "strong oaks" who left their mark on the community and left Fountain City a better place to live. One son, Tom Otey Kesterson, a pioneer aviator, survived them (7, 8).

d-kstrsn.doc (12/4/01, 6/4/02, 7/4/02, 8/26/02)

1.  S.E. Roberts, Kesterson Family Workpapers, McClung Historical Collection, Knoxville, Tennessee, 1987.

2.  S.J. Platt and M.L. Ogden, Medical Men and Institutions of Knox County, Tennessee (1789-1957) (Knoxville, 1969).

3.  "Dr. Kesterson Dies, Aged 73," Knoxville News-Sentinel, December 4, 1931; "Dentist’s Widow, Mrs. Kesterson, Dies," Knoxville News-Sentinel, June 24, 1959; Pat Fields, "Stately Oak Grove Means Much to Mrs. Kesterson, Nearing 96," Knoxville Journal, November 11, 1956.

4.  Personal Communication with D. Brewer, AIA.

5.  Vic Weals, "Home Folks (One Big Hauling Job)," Knoxville Journal, Undated. This story relates that Gaines Harrill Sr.’s moving company supplied wagons to move the stone from a downtown railroad siding to its permanent site. Actually, two shafts were brought on a flat car to Knoxville from the Georgia quarry. The first one broke at about the half way point before reaching the cemetery. It is said that the superintendent sent up from Georgia to supervise the job fainted when the shaft broke. Another stone was quarried and shipped to the cemetery successfully.

6.  Shirley Price, "97 Years Old Friday (She Remembers Indians--’The War’ Too)," Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 12, 1955.

7.  Tom O. Kesterson (1891-1978) was a pioneer aviator who received his private license in 1920. He was a member of the Knoxville Flying Club, founded by his father, which was based on Sutherland Avenue, near the present site of West High School. In the early 1930s he started a flying charter service on Dickenson’s Island, which later became Island Home Airport. From 1934-1946 he was chief pilot for TVA. He later founded Kesterson Inc., a charter flying service at McGhee Tyson Municipal Airport and in 1954 formed Cherokee Aviation Service. In his lifetime he owned from "50 to 75 airplanes from one to 28-passenger" and in his half-century of flying he logged almost 17,000 hours. He knew Wiley Post and was personal friends with the legendary Jimmy Doolittle, World War II hero; and with Frank Hawks, famous Texas Oil Company pilot. Just as many Knoxville families could thank Dr.R.N. Kesterson for their first ride in an automobile, many Knoxvillians had their first flight with his aviator son, Tom Kesterson. E.Y. Hill, "Tom Kesterson, 68, Logs More Hours Than He Did at Beginning of Career," Knoxville News-Sentinel, September 13, 1959; "Tom Kesterson, 88, Local Flying Pioneer, Dies Following Illness," Knoxville News-Sentinel, October 22, 1978; "Pioneer Pilot, Kesterson, Dies," Knoxville Journal, October 23, 1978.

8.  Op. cit. (Platt and Ogden, 1969. Dr. R.N. Kesterson was included in this history of the Knoxville Academy of Medicine because he was one of the first deans of the Dental Department of the Tennessee Medical College. He generously supported the college in later years and donated his gold-headed cane and a handsome case of dental instruments to be displayed in the Museum of the Knoxville Academy of Medicine.

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