John Isaac Copeland

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

John Isaac Copeland


Photograph of John I. Copeland and His Neighbors, Charles Gilbert Johnson Collection (1)

Franklin D. Roosevelt had his Louis M. Howe (1871-1936). Downtown Knoxville had its John R. Neal (1876-1959). Fountain Cityís eccentric genius was John Isaac Copeland. Probably "marching to a different drummer" makes life difficult, but those who do so can make a difference. Louis M. Howe, John R. Neal and John I. Copeland did (2, 3).

John I. Copeland was born in the Wheat community (13 miles from Harriman) in Roane County, Tennessee on May 14, 1880, the son of James K. Copeland and Katherine (Qualls) Copeland. He did not start school until he was 17 years old, first attending Mount Horab school on Bear Creek near his fatherís farm. He would observe later that he had split firewood along Bear Creek in his youth and that the Atomic Energy Commission was splitting uranium atoms there later. The family farm became a part of the Oak Ridge Atomic Energy Commission compound (4).

After two years of college at Roane College in the Wheat community, he began teaching at the age of 19, only two years after he started school. He taught at several schools in both Roane and Anderson Counties (Bethel, Naffs, Wake Forest and Pleasant Home). He came to Knox County in 1908 and taught at Lebanon, Carpenter, Ball Camp, Rocky Hill and Heiskell Station. For a year he returned to teach at Anderson Countyís Scarboro High School.

When he came back to teach at Heiskell Station, he also sold insurance for a Knoxville concern. He decided that to teach school and sell insurance both he would need an automobile. He bought a Hupmobile 20 (an automobile he described as "being about as large as a big wheelbarrow"). During the first month of ownership the car cost $168 in repairs and his teacherís salary was only $65 per month. John I. Copeland was always resourceful. He decided that, if he intended to keep the car, he would need to be his own mechanic. He pushed it into a former cowshed in Fountain City and went to work. He was quoted as saying, "(I) overhauled it completely. Took out some of the factory parts and put in some I made myself. Never had a minuteís trouble with it after that."

Copeland said there were nine others in Fountain City who owned automobiles in 1912. When they heard of his success with his car, they were soon seeking his services for repairs. A mechanic did not need a shop in those early days. He simply went to the ownerís home and worked in the back yard. However, in about 1913, as he became busier, he founded Fountain Cityís first garage (see photo) near the intersection of Garden Avenue and Broadway, where he also maintained living quarters which included his impressive library. Some time later he also added the sale of gasoline. As late as 1924 Copelandís was the only gas station north of downtown Knoxville (5).

(Copeland's Garage, Circa 1915)

Photograph from the Collection of Charles Gilbert Johnson

Those who knew him describe John I. Copeland as something of a wizard with electricity at a very early time in its development.  When he was working on a Model T Ford and needed to "kill" the engine to do some further work on it, he simply put his two hands across the four spark plugs and grounded out the electrical charge to the magneto.  This saved some time and the few steps it would take to turn off the ignition.  Experts in working with electricity report that this may have resulted in as much as a 20,000 volt shock (although of low amperage), but John did not even flinch.  They go on to say that this is not a recommended procedure as  moisture in the ground or on the pavement on which one is standing could establish a "ground" and be very dangerous.

Motoring was an adventure in those days. Copeland told writer Vic Weals of an interesting trip he and Fountain City grocer J. H. Newman made to Agee on the Powell River (in Claiborne County). John said, "I told him I wanted to see the country and that I would take him if he bought the gas and gave me $1 for oil." They made the "deal." It was a beautiful day and they got to Andersonville without much difficulty, crossing fields and following fence rows where there were no roads. Out beyond Andersonville, they met Fountain City physician Dr. J.H. Gammon.

Weals quotes Copelandís narrative describing the trip (6):

Doc Gammon hitched his horse and climbed in with us, said he had to visit a patient up where we were going. Well, we got to a steep hill the other side of Andersonville and as we started down the other side the car went faster, faster, and faster.

I tried the brakes and everything else, but couldnít hold it to save my life. The grease had got hot and run down on the brake drums. Directly we came to a wide place--a kind of passing place they used to make in one-lane country roads.

I thought to myself, Iíll hit the bank and see if I canít stop the thing. But it scooted right over the bank and kept going.

Then I headed it for a rail fence. Just before we hit, Dr. Gammon jumped. Rails flew up in the air and came down all over him. Mr. Newman and I were scratched, so we worked Doc free and thought at first he was dead.

Directly he opened his eyes and said, "Is anybody hurt?"

He got allright in a few minutes, except that his hands were bleeding pretty bad. He insisted on walking on. I backed the car out of the fence and started to file on the brake rods. So we went up to the river and didnít have any more trouble. Made it up there and back in a day, quite a trick in those times.

John I. Copeland was an institution in Fountain City and his garage was the community's largest. He worked hard and repaired a multitude of cars, but he always found time for some fun. Roy Acuff was a frequent after school visitor there. Prior to his sunstroke in 1929 Royís father had given him some elementary instruction on the fiddle, but it was John I. Copeland who taught him how to really play and encouraged him during his almost two years of convalescence. He also taught Roy many of the hundreds of plaintive ballads and lively tunes from his repertoire. Copelandís garage was the scene of many sessions during which Roy honed the skills that would later make him a star of the Grand Ole Opry (7).

Even today, more than fifty years later, many Fountain Citians recall that Copeland tutored them after school, usually in mathematics and algebra. Bob Johnson, founder of the Bob Johnson Insurance Agency, credits tutor Copeland for assisting him with math during his early school career. In just a few tutoring sessions he developed math skills that stood him in good stead through high school and university.

Joe Harrington said this about his friend, "Over 30 years ago (the 1920s), he (Copeland) was talking about the power of atoms and the energy available if they could be harnessed. He kept a modern library in the garage and was well read in modern science (8)."

A number of traits exemplified John I. Copeland, such as his scholarly bent and his ability to successfully mentor the youth of the community.  Perhaps no other hobbies would have fitted his personality like his fiddle playing and his fox hunting.   He loved his fox hounds and kept them "at the ready" in a pen behind the garage so he could leave at a moment's notice to fox hunt with two or three of his buddies.

John I. Copeland was 71 when he passed away on May 14, 1951 at St. Maryís hospital. Although he had experienced circulatory problems for some time, the immediate cause of death was influenza. Gentry Mortuary assisted in the service and he was buried in the Fountain City Methodist Church Cemetery. His friends erected a monument in his honor. Although he "marched to a different drummer," John I. Copeland made a difference in the life of Roy Acuff and in the life of many who came in contact with him over the years (9).

d-coplnd.doc (5/6/02, 8/21/02, 8/25/02, 10/28/02, 12/26/02)

1.  Those neighbors in the group photo with John I. Copeland are Geneva L. (Jody) Mynatt, Beulah Johnson, Clarence Wallace, Lillian Bookout, John I. Copeland, Roxie Holbert Mynatt and Alma Bookout.

2 . Louis M. Howe (1871-1936) was born into one of the most influential families in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father, Edward Porter Howe, and his mother, Eliza Blake (Ray) Howe, were both descendants of Indianaís first families. His father lost his fortune in the Panic of 1873 and the family had to share a relativeís home in Saratoga, New York. His father became a reporter for the local Republican newspaper, The Saratogan, but eventually became owner of the Sun. At age 21 Louis became co-editor and proprietor of his fatherís paper. Howe first met Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1911 when Roosevelt was fighting Tammany Hall in a bid for a seat in the New York State Senate. Howe admired FDRís persistence and eventual victory and recognized that he was presidential timber at that early date. He became the advisor who would follow FDR through the Governorís office and to the White House. Although Eleanor Roosevelt disliked his eccentricities, his odoriferous Sweet Caporal cigarettes and his unkempt ways; she recognized his political genius.  Howe had quarters in the White House during the Presidential Years until his untimely death in 1936.  Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny (1882-1928) (New York, 1993), FDR: The New York Years (1928-1933) (New York, 1985, 1994), FDR: The New Deal Years (1933-1937) (New York, 1986) and FDR: Into the Storm (1937-1940) (New York, 1993).

3.  John Randolph Neal (1876-1959) was born in Rhea Springs, Tennessee, on September 17, 1876. He was a Knoxville attorney, an eccentric genius in the law who earned a BA from the University of Tennessee (at one time the youngest graduate at age 14), LLB from Vanderbilt and a PhD from Columbia. He was an expert in constitutional law, ran his own law school (the John R. Neal School of Law), was elected to the state legislature, brought Clarence Darrow into the "Scopes Monkey Trial," and served with him during the trial and advised President Franklin Roosevelt on the establishment of the TVA. In later years he would be seen in downtown Knoxvilleís S&W Cafeteria, his hair uncombed, his shoes untied, his clothes unkempt and thousands of dollars in negotiable bonds in the inside pocket of his ragged coat, which he sometimes left hanging on the cafeteria coat rack for days. He died of pneumonia in Knoxville on November 23, 1959 at age 83. B.E. Hicks, "The Great Objector: the Public Career of Dr. John R. Neal," Thesis for MA, University of Tennessee, 1968; "Dr. Neal, Figure in Trial, Dies," Knoxville Journal, November 24, 1959; "Neal Praised by Kefauver, Baker," Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 24, 1959.

4.  Vic Weals, "Old Hunter Hasnít Quit, Only Letting Foxes Rest," Knoxville Journal, April 16, 1950.

5.  Nannie Lee Hicks, A History of Fountain City, Fountain City Town Hall (Knoxville, 2000).

6.  op. cit. (Weals, 1950).

7.  A.C. Dunkleberger, King of Country Music, The Life Story of Roy Acuff (Nashville, 1971).  Some authorities, like Elizabeth Schlappi, Roy Acuff, the Smoky Mountain Boy, (Gretna, 1980), minimize the importance of John I. Copeland in Roy Acuff's musical development, but none question that many practice sessions were held in Copeland's garage.  Additionally, most authorities agree that John I. Copeland's encouragement and support helped Roy overcome the very bad emotional time he experienced for about two years after his severe sunstroke that might have been fatal if Acuff had not been so strong physically.

8.  "John Copeland, First Autoist in Fountain City, Dies at 71," Knoxville Journal, May 15, 1951; Personal Interview with Bob Johnson, October 19, 2002.

9.  op. cit.. (Knoxville Journal, May 15, 1951); "Last Rites for Copeland Set Today," Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 16, 1951.

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