By Nancy Harman


By Nancy Harman

     Rufus A. Ayers was born on May 20, 1749, in Bedford Co., VA. (1) After living there for a few years, he and his family set out for Texas to make a new home. However, on the way, the family stopped off at Goodson, now Bristol, to visit. They liked that section of the country so well that they decided to stay there. Ayers later came to Southwest Virginia, in the Big Stone Gap vicinity. So really it was quite by chance that he came to settle in this area. (2) 

     Rufus attended Goodson Academy, until he ran away to join the Confederate Army, when he was fifteen years old. After the war he came back and settled at Estilville, now Gate City, where he engaged in farming. However, he gave this up after a rather short time.

     Then he went into the mercantile business. He spent a few rather unsuccessful years in this business before finally deciding to devote his time to the study of law. In my opinion, this was a very wise decision, judging from the outstanding law career which followed. In 1872, having completed his law study, he was admitted to the bar. (3) About two years later, he became Commonwealth's Attorney of Scott Co. It was in his role as a lawyer that Ayers won deep respect
from people all over Virginia and was praised by people all over the nation. The most famous case in which he was involved was the Virginia Stage Debt Question. (4) This case involved grievances that certain bondholders had against the state of Virginia. There raged bitter legal battles between Virginia and her bondholders. Ayers fought the case to the Federal Courts, and was finally

arrested for contempt of court by Judge Bond of Maryland. He was sent to jail, but was freed by a writ of "habeas corpus". The people of Virginia praised Ayers highly for the way he upheld the law of Virginia in this case. He had more to do with the settlement of this case than any other man involved in it. This case probably had more to do with Ayers' success as a lawyer than any other

one thing throughout his law career. (5) He set up law offices in both Gate City and Big Stone Gap where he and his son, Harry J. Ayers, were in joint practice. They had an outstanding firm and were often called into many important area cases, such as the Shoemaker Will Case.

     Ayers was prominent in politics, serving a term as attorney-general of Virginia. It was at this time that people began calling him "General" Ayers. Contrary to what many people probably think, he was not given this name because of his being a military man, but instead, because of his being attorney-general. (6)

     He was a prominent Virginia democrat during his lifetime. After his term as attorney-general, Ayers was persuaded to run for governor of Virginia. He was nominated and accepted on the Democratic ticket, but after a few weeks, he dropped out of the race and decided to devote his time to the development of Southwest Virginia. (7) In my opinion, Ayers was never really a politician at heart. I think he participated in politics mainly for the advantage of promoting his
interests in Southwest Virginia and its development. There were possibly several ways in which he could have used his political influence to the advantage of Southwest Virginia, such as for the purpose of obtaining railroad franchises and similar things for the area.

     After leaving politics, (I suspect it is incorrect for me to say he actually left because his influence was always there) he began his efforts toward developing Southwest Virginia's potentialities.

     One of the very early achievements of Ayers was his plans for the development of brick plants, (8), one of which he constructed near Big Stone Gap. Although he was a lawyer and promoter, he still had a keen eye for business. This can be illustrated by the so-called Brick Enterprise, an agreement between Samuel L. Parsons of Louisville and General Ayers, by which the former purchased the brick machine, and agreed to put it in working condition at once. (9)

     Ayers probably made his most notable achievements in the promotion of the coke and coal industry and in the building of railroads. He is given credit for being the first active promoter in the Virginia coal fields. (10) He was largely responsible, through his hard work and active promotion, for bringing iron industrialists to this area. Because of various coal and coke exhibits, planned and made possible by Ayers, British industrialists became interested in the potentialities of Southwest Virginia. Here, I might mention that perhaps Ayers had a greater influence on the British iron industrialists than Andrew Carnegie because, despite Carnegie's protests, the British Iron and Steel Institute came South, after having seen the exhibits planned by Ayers. The coal and coke industry of this area was also promoted by Ayer's suggestion of having coal and coke exhibits from this area shown at the World's Fair of 1891.

     Ayers was also instrumental int he founding of the Virginia Coal and Iron Company and served on its board of directors for many years. Besides working with the Virginia Coal and Iron Company, he helped organize and served with several other companies. Some of these were the Appalachia Steel and Iron Company and the Virginia, Tennessee, and Carolina Steel and Iron Company. (11)

     Ayers made his greatest contributions to the town of Big Stone Gap through the Big Stone Gap Improvement Committee, of which he was the organizer and president. This committee was instrumental in the development of all industry in and around Big Stone Gap. This committee is said to have fathered the coke furnaces, electric lights, and water works and to have heartily supported the railway, interstate tunnel, Mountain Park Association, planing mills, and brick
plants. (12) Ayers worked untiringly through this Committee, though he sometimes became discouraged and accused the people of Southwest Virginia of not really appreciating the work of the Committee. However, he never lost interest in these people and their needs.

     In 1891, Ayers tried to put into effect the outdoor recreation program no used on both a state and national level. This idea took the form of an organization known as the Mountain Park Association.

     James F. Fox, president of the Mountain Park Association wrote:
     "I was put in this position without my knowledge and General Ayers, who is the father of the Association will, after the annual meeting next May, be the president in name as he has been in reality, having acquired the land for us on the most favorable terms from Mr. (Patrick) Hagan at a time when the Norfolk and Western Railway people (who always know a good thing when they see it) were bidding high for it for a summer resort, directed the survey and made all other
necessary arrangements." (13)

     The work of the Mountain Park Association had just begun when the depression of 1893 struck. Therefore, the Association's plans were disrupted.

     Ayers was very distressed at the stagnation of American business and industry during the depression of 1893. He believed that the main trouble lay in the Sherman Silver Purchase Bill, and he was in favor of the repeal of this bill. It was at this time that he was very outspoken as to his feelings in the Presidential election. He once said, "I change my mind as often as anyone. I have always been a Cleveland man, but I must confess that I am beginning to change my mind." (14)

     Usually, as General Ayers' opinions and sentiments changed, so Southwest Virginia' sentiments changed.

     General Ayers exerted a great influence on the governmental and political affairs of Big Stone Gap and Southwest Virginia. He served for a time as a trustee or town councilman of Big Stone Gap. During this time he introduced a resolution that would fix the salaries of town councilmen at $1.25 per twelve months. Thus Ayers was responsible for bringing about the first act aimed at fixing salaries of the Big Stone Gap town officials.

     General Ayers was usually selected to represent the people of Southwest Virginia in both state and national political matters. He was clerk in the House of Delegates from 1875 through 1879 and was supervisor of the census of the fifth district of Virginia in 1880. (15) He also served as a member of the Democratic Executive Committee of Virginia and was a delegate to the National Convention in 1884 and to the Constitutional Convention in 1801-02. While involved in these
various political matters, he often succeeded in reversing expected Republican majorities to Democratic victories. He ran for Congress in 1912, but was defeated by C. Bascom Slemp. This was the first time he had run for an office since his term as attorney-general of Virginia.

     Ayers was interested in the farmers of the area, as well as the business and industrial people. He was president of the Committee on Permanent Organization, the purpose of which was to plan a fair at Big Stone Gap.. (16) He was very much in favor of a fair because he thought that the farmers of the area needed an opportunity to show evidence of the hard work they were doing.
Probably, the main reason Ayers was interested in the farmers was because he himself had engaged in farming for a few years. In fact, even after he gave up farming as an occupation, he maintained a 2,500 acre farm and estate at Holston Springs and still traded cattle and other livestock.

     Besides his interest in industrial, civic, and political affairs, Ayers also dealt in real estate. He once traded tracts of coal land to E. H. Ould for all of Ould's real estate in Big Stone Gap. After this trade many people in the Big Stone Gap area said, "Ayers' faith in Big Stone Gap has never wavered for a moment." (17)

     Ayers often compared Big Stone Gap to Connellsville, Pennsylvania. He said that any man who had visited Connellsville in 1881 and could see its great growth and prosperity would have no doubt about the future of Big Stone Gap. Besides buying all available real estate, Ayers also provided for the construction of many new houses and building in and around Big Stone Gap. In 1891, General Ayers was one of the two largest taxpayers on building in Big Stone Gap.

     Rufus A. Ayers also played a part in the financial affairs of Southwest Virginia. He established the bank of Gate City, then the only bank between Bristol and Cumberland Gap. He also established and ran the R. A. Ayers and Company Bank at Big Stone Gap and had dealings in practically all of Big Stone Gap's financial affairs.

     Besides his work in the coal industry and in railroad, Ayers made other contributions, perhaps less well-known ones, to Southwest Virginia. He was responsible for the construction of a tannery in Big Stone Gap. Although the tannery was very small, it produced the highest quality of leather, which, because of its good quality, always commanded market prices. Ayers later sold his tannery to U. S. Leather Company in New York. The extension of electric power to Big Stone Gap was also greatly influenced by Ayers.

     General Ayers' life had still another facet; he was a very good public speaker. He was very often called upon to speak at various club meetings, banquets, and political meetings. His speeches no doubt made a deep impression on his listeners because he was very often quoted.

     Besides speaking at meetings, he always gave the commencement address at Gladeville College, and was called on to make speeches at King College and other area schools. He was generally regarded as a literary man, as well as a promoter and progressive.

     Indeed it seems as if he were a "jack of all trades" because he influenced (in the positive sense of the word) practically everything that went on in Southwest Virginia during his life.

     On May 14, 1926, General Rufus A. Ayers, after many years of hard work as a promoter of Southwest Virginia, died at the age of seventy-seven. He died in a Radford hospital, having suffered a general breakdown in health. His death was greatly mourned by Southwest Virginians, as well as by all Virginians.

     General Rufus A. Ayers, Wise County's great pioneer developer, had been the leading figure in the affairs of the county for over half a century. It is said that no one man ever transacted more business deals involving the transfer of vast boundaries of mineral lands and location of railroads in this part of Virginia. (18) He had also been responsible for all early business enterprises in this area. 

     Ayers has been described in many ways. He has been called a self-made man, a man of affairs, and a broadminded and liberal man. In my opinion, he could be called all these and more. I feel safe in saying that he probably had a stronger hold on the people of Southwest Virginia than anyone before or since him. He was able to keep this hold because of his undying faith and interest in these people and their wishes and needs.

     FOOTNOTES: (1) Dabney, Virginus. Richmond Times Dispatch, April 30, 1939. (2) Addington, Luther F., THE STORY OF WISE
COUNTY (Centennial Committee and School Board of Wise County) 1956, p. 213. (3) BIG STONE GAP POST, May ,1926 (4) Op. Cit.,

Addington, pp. 216-217 and "POST". (5) Ibid (6) Addington, op. Cit., p. 217. (7) Op. Cit., "Post" (8) "Post", op. Cit. (9) Ibid (10) Addington, Op.

Cit, p. 213 (11) "Post", Op. Cit. (12) Ibid (13) "Post", January 2, 1890 (14) "Post", Election Issue, 1892 (15) "Post", May, 1926 (16) "Post", Op. Cit

(17) "Post", Op. Cit. (18) "Post", Op. Cit.

     Pages 41 to 47

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