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.
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.
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.
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 of Nashville, Tennessee, believed in doing the right thing. Having been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1911, at age 32, he voted to punish espionage acts and to arm merchant ships. When Congress declared war in April 1917, Lea organized a group of Tennessee volunteers to take up arms against Germany, the aggressor.
Within three months after completing their final training in Brittany, Colonel Lea and the 114th Field Artillery he commanded were transported to the front lines. They were in battle continuously until the cease-fire on November 11, 1918.
Following the armistice, peace talks got underway in Paris, with tensions running high and accusations rampant. Luke Lea was determined that Kaiser Wilhelm II should be held accountable for the death and destruction he had caused, even though, having lost the confidence of the German civilian government and military leaders, the Kaiser had abdicated on November 9, two days before the Armistice. Luke Lea believed that Kaiser Wilhelm should still be forced to stand trial for his war crimes, fearing that, otherwise, harsh terms levied against the German people would sow the seeds for yet another war.
Deciding upon a course of action, Lea took a five-day leave and brought along several of his officers and men, who had no idea what he had in mind. He confided in no one as he quietly arranged passports and transportation. The group travelled in two cars, driving from Luxembourg through Belgium to Amerongen Castle in the neutral Netherlands, where the Kaiser had fled.
As the castle came within sight, Lea said, “Men, I have come to convince the Kaiser that he must come forward before the peace conference and take responsibility for his actions.”
“But,” Luke went on, “if he won’t come willingly, then we will take him unwillingly.” Cheers went up as the men agreed.
Driving up to the castle, the men got out of their cars and knocked on the door. They were admitted and asked to state their business. Lea and his men gave their names. “We are here on a journalistic investigation and request an interview with Kaiser Wilhelm Hohenzollern,” they said. They heard their words repeated in the next room, followed by a response from a man who was almost certainly the Kaiser.
Surmising that the Kaiser was guarded and surrounded by German military personnel, Lea quickly realized that his mission would have to be aborted. There was no chance of success.
Although the visitors were treated politely and served water and cigars, the Germans reminded them that they were uninvited guests and soon asked them to leave. By this time, their cars were completely surrounded by armed Dutch civilians. Luke and his men calmly returned to their cars and drove away. The civilians fell back on either side as the Americans sped through the village.
Immediately upon returning to his regiment, Lea was faced with charges of military misconduct. He defended his actions by insisting that he had acted purely as a private citizen. “Never once,” he said, “did I state that I represented the U.S. Military.”
As a Colonel he took full responsibility and received a stern reprimand from General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. He would have accepted further punishment, but the charges were dropped. (1997)
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.
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 theColumbia 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 organizedThe 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.
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.”
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)
In the 1920s Nashville’s Union Street was called the “Wall Street of the South” because of the many banks and brokerage houses had located there. The most famous of these was Caldwell & Company, founded by Rogers Clark Caldwell in 1917 to help Southern municipalities sell bonds. By the time of the Great Crash in 1929, Caldwell & Company was a regional investment banking powerhouse doing $100,000,000 a year in securities sales alone.
Soon Caldwell was involved in investment banking, hotel and newspaper ownership, and the sale of municipal bonds. With the end of World War I the Federal government ceased monopolizing the bond market and the states were able to move in to the market. The South, meanwhile, enjoyed a boom not seen since before the Civil War. Agricultural prices increased every year from 1920 to 1927 and infrastructure that had been untouched for sixty years could now be improved. In short, for most of the “Roaring Twenties” Caldwell & Company enjoyed ideal conditions for profitable expansion. By 1925 most buyers of Southern bonds knew the House of Caldwell and its slogan, “We Bank on the South.”
The next expansion of Caldwell was into bank and industrial ownership. Two Nashville banks, the American National and the First and Fourth National, came under his control. Other banks in Knoxville, Little Rock, Memphis, and various small towns in Tennessee also came under the aegis of Caldwell.
Soon the House of Caldwell controlled department stores, manufacturing and mining companies, and a Nashville baseball team, among many other businesses. Two newspapers, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis and the Knoxville Journal, were under his ownership and an unsuccessful attempt was underway to gain control of the Atlanta Constitution.
The Nashville Tennessean was owned by Colonel Luke Lea, Caldwell’s partner in many of these deals. Lea was a colorful character who had been a U.S. Senator and a World War I colonel who had led an unauthorized attempt to capture Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who was in exile in The Netherlands. He was instrumental in donating the land for Percy Warner Park, which is named for his father-in-law. In the 1930s Lea and his son were both jailed for fraud in connection with the failure of Caldwell & Co.
Long before the company’s collapse, there were many signs that all was not well. In 1925 the loosely managed accounting department was in trouble. Customers were complaining of not receiving bonds and payments, and a trial balance hadn’t been made in years. Timothy Donovan was hired to sort out the mess and by the time of its bankruptcy the Caldwell & Co. books were straight, but the business wasn’t.
In a short article, it is impossible to describe all the interlocking directorates and movement of money that went on. Thanks to Luke Lea and the demand for bond sales, the company had excellent political connections. In fact, when the failure came, the State of Tennessee lost about 50% of the money it had deposited in various Caldwell banks. Municipalities all over the South lost deposits and individual depositors faced serious losses in those days before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
A good example of the chicanery that went on was the series of road contracts given to the Kentucky Rock Asphalt Company, known as Kyrock. Pressure was put on the state road commissioner to award the company contracts outside of the bidding process. When the commissioner refused, Lea was able to influence the governor to replace him with someone more amenable to seeing things Lea and Caldwell’s way. After that, Kyrock received many contracts for road construction without having to go through the inconvenience of bidding.
After the failure, reported in two Time magazine articles in November 1930, there were many cries for the impeachment of Governor Henry Horton (which did not happen) and jail time for Lea and Caldwell. As mentioned, Luke Lea did go to jail in North Carolina, but he was fully pardoned in 1937.
Caldwell had built a house called Brentwood Stables in 1928. Designed to look like The Hermitage, the building was owned by one of his companies. The State of Tennessee went to court to gain title to the house in partial payment for money Rogers Caldwell owed the state. The process took years of litigation, and it was not until 1945 that Caldwell finally relinquished his home. The State had intended to sell it, but, since the title was not clear, chose to keep it. The property is now the 207-acre Ellington Agricultural Center on Edmondson Pike.
Sorting out the various body parts of Caldwell & Co. and its related company, The Bank of Tennessee, was a long process not completed for nearly 20 years. Many of the related firms were salvaged and continue to exist today, though often as subsidiaries of other corporations. Caldwell & Co. was Tennessee’s first major financial bankruptcy, but it was certainly not to be its last.
McFerrin, John Berry. Caldwell and Company: A Southern Financial Empire. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press), 1969.
Time magazine: “More Aftermath,” November 17, 1930, and “Caldwell Crash,” November 24, 1930. From www.time.com
“Luke Lea (1879-1945). Wikipedia.
My personal recollections of conversations with John Donovan, Vice-President of First American National Bank in the 1970s. John, the son of Timothy Donovan, mentioned in the article, was also my boss at First American.
Two novels also touch on the Caldwell story. These are At Heaven’s Gate by Robert Penn Warren and A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor. I read both for background on this article. Peter Taylor’s father was Hillsman Taylor, an executive at Caldwell & Co.
Adapted by Kathy B. Lauder from the historical research of Nancy Helt and Josef Wilson, founding members of the Donelson-Hermitage Chapter of APTA, and Lu Whitworth, Buchanan-Whitworth researcher.
Members of the Buchanan family have been part of Nashville history from the beginning. Alexander Buchanan died in 1781 in the “Battle of the Bluff,” protecting Fort Nashborough from an Indian attack. Major John Buchanan was living in Buchanan’s Station by 1784. Archibald Buchanan moved his family to the area from Augusta County, Virginia, in 1785 to take charge of a 640-acre land grant called Clover Bottom. When Archibald died in 1806, his son James, who had spent his early years farming this land, inherited half the property (his uncle Robert Buchanan received the remainder), and purchased 310 additional acres from Thomas Gillespie’s original land grant “on Stone’s River.” This second property, which was not adjacent to Archibald’s grant, included the McCrory’s Creek area where James built what we now know as the Buchanan Log House. Eventually James Buchanan sold his share of Archibald’s property to John Hoggatt, who purchased the other half from Robert Buchanan’s heirs.
James was 46 years old when he finished the three-room log structure in 1809, about 50 years before the Two Rivers and Clover Bottom mansions were completed. A year after completing the house, James married 17-year-old Lucinda “Lucy” East and moved his young bride into the house, where the first of their sixteen children was born in 1811. Their home was one of the earliest log structures built in Middle Tennessee and is one of the few examples of two-story log construction still on its original foundation.
The original building exhibits construction techniques typical of frontier houses. Resting on solid unmortared limestone, the half-dovetail notched logs are chestnut, oak, and yellow poplar. The two-story single-pen original structure measures 18 by 26 feet, with exterior limestone gable-end chimneys flanked by double-hung sash windows. The two-room first floor has a 10-foot ceiling with exposed beaded poplar floor joists. A “ladder” stairway led to the upstairs room, which features a fireplace with an unusual arched limestone lintel marked by an incised keystone.
By 1820, after ten years of marriage, James and Lucy already had eight children. Needing more space, they constructed a one-and-a-half-story addition measuring 16 by 18 feet. This addition, with an exterior gable and a limestone chimney, created what is known as a saddlebag-type house. Even with the new section, the floor space still totaled only about 1430 square feet, into which they crowded eight more little Buchanans over the next few years. All sixteen children lived to adulthood, and many remained in the Donelson-Hermitage area, where a number of their descendants live today.
Because of the Buchanans’ land holdings and the number of slaves they held – about 15 – the family would have been considered quite wealthy for the period, falling into the upper 10% of the population.
When James Buchanan died at the age of 78 in 1841, he became the first person to be buried in the Buchanan Cemetery* across the road from the house. His tombstone carries this inscription:
Farewell my friends, as you pass by As you are now, so once was I As I am now, so you must be Prepare to die and follow me.
With the help of Addison, her fourth child, Lucy kept the farm going for another 24 years after her husband’s death. She died in 1865, at the age of 73, and was buried near her husband. Her epitaph echoes his:
As thou hast said, I follow you As all the rest must shortly do Then be not guilty of any crime So you may live in heaven sublime.
Her faithful son Addison received a 50-acre plot 1/4 mile east of the family home, where he built a two-room log house (one room downstairs, and one room up). This building has been moved to the 2910 Elm Hill Pike location, just behind the main log house. The move required “chopping” the roof so it could pass under the power lines, and taking the chimney apart, stone by stone, to be rebuilt at the new location. Renovating the Addison Buchanan house included removing the siding to expose the cedar logs and to repair or replace the chinking.
Soon after Lucy’s death, just as the Civil War ended, the property (except for the one-and-a-half-acre Buchanan cemetery) was purchased by Thomas Neal Frazier, a criminal court judge for Rutherford and Davidson counties. Frazier, a Union sympathizer, was impeached by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1866 for a conflict involving the 14th Amendment, but the impeachment was overturned in 1869. Judge Frazier’s son, James B. Frazier, who was a 10-year-old boy when the family moved into the log house, was elected governor of Tennessee in 1903. His administration is remembered primarily for advances in public education. He resigned as governor in 1905 to complete the term of U.S. Senator William B. Bate, who had died in office. Frazier was elected to three more terms in the Senate but lost to Luke Lea in 1911 and returned to his law practice in Chattanooga. Governor Frazier’s mother, Margaret McReynolds Frazier, lived on in the Log House until her death in 1910. Living with her were her daughter Sarah, with her husband John Harris, and Sarah’s brother Samuel J. Frazier, with his wife Fannie (Whitworth) and their son Neal, who later became a professor and dean at MTSU. Sarah, John, and Samuel, who lived on in the house for close to twenty years after Margaret’s death, all eventually died there. Neighbors referred to the house for years thereafter as the “Frazier place.”
Since 1927 the names on the mail box at 2910 Elm Hill Pike have included Payne, Richardson, Stark, Hudson, Keathly, Williams, and Greer, each of whom made a few changes and additions to the house. In May 1992 the property was purchased by the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, who soon transferred it to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA), a statewide organization dedicated to the restoration and care of historic sites. Located seven miles from downtown Nashville, the Buchanan Log House is now managed by volunteers from the Donelson-Hermitage Chapter of APTA. Three of James Buchanan’s children married Whitworth siblings, and their descendants care for the Buchanan cemetery to this day.
*Note: this is not the same as the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery.