Luke Lea in the Great Depression

by Doris Boyce.

As Luke Lea and his son Luke Jr. entered the grim walls of the North Carolina State Prison at Raleigh in May 1934, they wondered how long it would be before they would pass through those gates again. Lea’s only request was granted: he and his son would share the same cell.

·         Luke Lea (Library of Congress photo, LC-DIG-hec-03657, Harris & Ewing photograph collection)

At one time Luke Lea had developed policies for the state of Tennessee and had influenced decisions on the national level. Now he could no longer direct even his own affairs or those of his son, but his absolute belief in their innocence made him determined to win their freedom.

After the stock market crash in 1929, Lea had learned that his political enemies would do almost anything to get rid of him. The foundation of his political power was the newspapers he published: Lea Sr. was president of the Tennessean Publishing Company, and his son was business manager.

Unemployed men line up outside a depression-era soup kitchen, 1931

Luke Lea was convinced that a certain Nashville banker, in a calculated political maneuver, had set out to destroy him while also working to impeach Governor Henry Horton. With Lea’s newspapers out of the way, the banker would be able to suppress unfavorable financial news; with a governor of his choice in office, he would be able to funnel badly needed state deposits into his bank.

As charges of banking violations were brought against Lea in both Davidson County and North Carolina, his Memphis and Knoxville newspapers were put into receivership. Not having been present in North Carolina at the time of his alleged offenses, Lea could not be extradited there. However, sure of his innocence, he voluntarily traveled to Asheville to clear his name. A special term of the Buncombe County Court had been appointed to try cases growing out of bank failures. It was commonly understood by attorneys across the state that the judge appointed to hear these cases was expected to obtain convictions.

Luke Lea’s sentence was for six to ten years, His son was fined $25,000 and was to be jailed until the fine was paid, but both men understood that paying the fine would have been an admission of guilt.

Inmate showers in Old Central State Prison, Raleigh, NC, in cell block, no date (c.1950-1960s); photo courtesy Keith Acree, NC Department of Corrections. State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.

They appealed the verdict and entered into a lengthy but unsuccessful fight for a retrial.The Nashville Tennessean was put into receivership in 1933. The Davidson County case against the Leas was dropped when they entered prison. At last, while they were still incarcerated, an independent audit proved them to be innocent of the charges for which they had been convicted.

Luke Lea Jr. was paroled in July 1934, but it wasn’t until after the mass hysteria over bank failures had died down and a new North Carolina governor had been elected that Luke Lea was paroled in April 1936 and finally pardoned in 1937. He knew he faced an uphill fight to reestablish his status and reputation, and he prayed that “the will to win” would sustain him in whatever lay ahead. Unfortunately, however, he died while legislation to allow him to regain control of the Tennessean was still incomplete. (1998)

Luke Lea: A Biographical Sketch

by Doris Boyce.

Luke Lea was born in Nashville in 1879. His grandmother was a descendant of Judge John Overton, law partner of Andrew Jackson. His grandfather, John McCormack Lea, was mayor of Nashville in 1849. His father, Overton Lea, was an attorney. At the time of his birth his parents owned 1,000 acres of land between Granny White and Franklin Pikes known as Lealand, part of the original acreage of Travellers Rest.

Judge John Overton, 1766-1833 (Tennessee Portrait Project)

Lea enrolled at the University of the South at Sewanee in 1896 and was awarded his master’s degree in 1900. Later that year he travelled briefly in Europe and then entered law school at Columbia University, becoming editor of the Columbia Law Review in 1903. After graduation he opened a law office in the Cole Building in downtown Nashville. In 1906 he married Mary Louise Warner, daughter of Percy Warner, and their sons were born in 1908 and 1909.

Lea organized The Tennessean Company in 1907, and by 1908 the paper was up and running efficiently enough that he was able to return to his law practice. In 1910 he chartered the Belle Meade Company for future real estate development of the 5,000-acre farm of that name, and the company presently donated 144 acres to the golf club which later became the Belle Meade Country Club.

Luke Lea was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1911, at 32 years of age, in office until 1917, at which time he took on the task of recruiting volunteers for the 114th Field Artillery. He served as their colonel until the end of the First World War.

Senator Luke Lea (1911-1917)

When Lea came home from World War I, he shifted his focus toward managing his newspapers, the Nashville Tennessean and the Evening Tennessean. Late in the 1920s he also became publisher of the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Knoxville Journal, which he jointly owned with Rogers Caldwell.

During that same decade Lea acquired a number of properties, and he built Nashville’s first ramp-style parking garage on Seventh Avenue between Church and Commerce Streets. In 1927 he donated 868 acres for a public park that would be named for his father-in-law, Percy Warner.

In 1929 Tennessee Governor Henry H. Horton appointed Lea to the U.S. Senate to fill an unexpired term, but Lea declined, saying he could “do the greatest good and be of more service to Tennessee as a private citizen.”

Depression-era bank run on the American Union Bank, New York City. April 26, 1932.

The Great Depression brought ruin to Lea’s business affairs because of devalued assets, cash flow problems, and political maneuvering by his enemies. He was convicted of banking law violations in 1931, and his newspapers were silenced. He served two years in the North Carolina State Prison.  

Less than a month after Lea was paroled, backers approached him about running for governor of Tennessee. Still hoping to re-enter the publishing field, he turned them down.

Although Lea eventually regained his health, which had deteriorated while he was imprisoned, he never regained his wealth. When he died in 1945 at age 66, a congressional investigation was underway that might have restored the Nashville Tennessean to him once again. (1997)

“He Came into This World Drawing” Ernest A. Pickup (1887-1970)

by Beverly St. John.

In 1912 at age 25, my father, Ernest A. Pickup, set out on two journeys–marriage and a profession as a commercial artist. When he told his father about his career plans, his father responded, “Son, you go with my blessing, but if you don’t succeed, don’t come back to me looking for a job.” The family had moved to Nashville in 1902 and had established G.A. Pickup & Son, a rubber stamp business that is still in existence. While working for his father, in his spare time his mother allowed him to hide in the attic of their home, where he studied a correspondence course on the basics of art.

Block print of Nashville’s Parthenon by Ernest Pickup
(Courtesy of Beverly St. John)

The lessons paid off, and he became one of the first commercial artists in Nashville. He was so successful that he needed to keep an apprentice with him in his studio. The first was Herman Burns, who went on to become the Art Director at the Baptist Sunday School Board. Next came Lewis Akin, who became the Art Director for the Methodist Publishing House. Subsequent apprentices included Castner’s Department Store artist Mariah Ferris, Curtis Snell, and cartoonist Bill Wall. Even I was one of his apprentices during my high school and college days. I later worked for Mr. Burns at the BSSB until 1942.

In 1930, when the Great Depression devastated our nation, my father’s commercial work came to a halt. With time on his hands, he began honing the skills necessary to make woodblock prints, an ancient medium that he had long admired. With the encouragement of his artist friends, he submitted his work for an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. His career as a wood engraver took off, resulting in about 65 woodblock prints made during the 1930s and early 1940s.

One of his greatest honors came in 1937, when the Society of American Etchers chose his print Finis–a Study in Finalities as one of The Best 100 Prints of American Artists, a collection selected to go on a tour of Europe, beginning at Stockholm, Sweden. My father was a very modest man, but when he saw his name listed in the exhibit catalogue next to Thomas Nason, his woodblock hero, he was ecstatic.

His most popular prints were of Nashville landmarks: the Capitol, the Parthenon, the Hermitage, Scarritt Tower, and the Battle of Nashville Monument. He also loved making prints of trees and rural scenes. He used boxwood, a very hard wood with no grain. Woodblocks were made up of two or more pieces of wood glued together. Whenever one would break, he made miniatures out of the pieces, and these are among my favorites. When the curator of the Graphic Arts Division of the Smithsonian saw my father’s work, he asked if we would donate the collection. Because he also wanted the blocks and tools, I turned him down. Some of his work, however, is archived in the Tennessee State Museum.

For over thirty years my father’s art studio was on the 5th floor of the old Cumberland Presbyterian Building, which was located on 4th Avenue about where the AT&T Building is now. When he decided to retire in 1963 at age 76, it was as if his life had come to an end. He could not envision life without his cluttered office, the smell of ink and paint thinner, the whir of the airbrush, or the occasional knock at the door: “Mr. Pickup, I have a job for you–do you think you could do it for us today?”

Then one day the phone rang. Mr. John Ambrose of Ambrose Printing Company called to ask my father if he was willing to join the company as an art consultant “whenever you feel like it.” He “felt like it” until he turned 80, when he announced his full retirement. From then on, he had little interest in anything but sharing stories about his years as an artist, a sometime farmer, a grandfather, and a Sunday School teacher. My father left us a quiet legacy of integrity as well as a collection of woodblock prints. His mother often said of him, “He came into this world drawing pictures on any piece of paper he could get his hands on!.” The year before he died, I found these words that he had written: “Things I want for myself: to be cheerful in the face of difficulties, to merit the esteem of my friends, to be grateful for all that other folks have done for me, and to know no heartache of my own making.”