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Richard Joshua Reynolds Sr., founder of the family tobacco fortune, was born on July 28, 1850, in Critz County, Virginia, where his parents, Hardin and Nancy Reynolds, had settled after their marriage in 1843. As a youngster, R.J.’s father had participated in an auction and won a bid to expand on his family’s remote homestead at the foot of Virginia’s No Business Mountain and in the shadows of the Blue Ridge and North Carolina mountain ranges. The 717-acre property, located between the North and South Mayo Rivers, which they fondly named Rock Spring Plantation, was part of Hardin’s huge, eight-thousand-acre local land ownership, and the humble house sat in the middle of the great estate. To maintain the vast plantation, much of which was used to grow tobacco, the Reynoldses owned dozens of slaves.
In the 1840s, the Reynolds family rebuilt, expanded, and remodeled their modest yet aristocratic house as their brood
grew. The two-story brick home included several bedrooms, a dining room, a parlor with a fireplace, a central hall, and solid chestnut wood flooring throughout. A brick cookhouse sat apart, connected by a covered pathway. They had luxuries that few farmers in the area dreamed of—soft beds, a brick milk house, a log ice house, and silver flatware. They even had their own rose-wood piano, books, and photographs, which few other farmers could afford.
The house was surrounded by an iron fence and a simple garden. When family members passed away, they were buried in a small cemetery in the backyard. A tree-lined, mile-long road led from the remote homestead’s main gate to the tiny village of Critz.
From 1844 onward, Hardin and Nancy produced a family of sixteen children, but only eight survived childhood, and Richard Joshua “R.J.” was the second oldest son. Some of Hardin and Nancy’s children died in infancy from disease and later from a smallpox outbreak during the Civil War. All of the lost children were buried in the estate’s graveyard.
After the Civil War, the Reynoldses were nearly broke. The family’s eighty-eight slaves were freed and their cattle pillaged, but thankfully the house was left standing. Young R.J. managed to save the family’s horses during the war as well—he hid them deep in the woods when the Northern troops descended. The family might have been helped by a little good luck, too. Nancy had retained an old silver coin, which had been handed down to her by her father. It was called the “Joshua Coin”—a square, seventeenth-century Peruvian silver piece that Nancy’s grandfather had procured during the French and Indian War. Joshua Cox Sr. had worn the coin around his neck, believing it saved his life during the war. Since then, the coin was thought to bring good luck to those who rubbed it on a piece of gold. The Joshua Coin had to be passed down to male heirs with the name “Joshua.” Naturally, R.J. inherited the coin as a young man and carried it with him wherever he went.
During the fighting, Hardin managed to continue farming tobacco in the hidden areas of the acreage—away from the prying eyes of Southern officials who forbade farmers from growing nonnecessities during the war. They were to grow only food in support of the troops, but Hardin knew he would face economic ruin if he ceased tobacco production entirely. When the war ended, Hardin quickly put his boys and remaining horses to work farming the tobacco plantation again.
The days of Reconstruction were tough for plantation owners in the South. Their land could be taken from them unless they stated that they agreed with the abolition of slavery and the terms of the Civil War. Hardin didn’t hesitate to proclaim that the Civil War was right and just, and he successfully safeguarded his land from Union forces.
Whether Hardin believed what he said or whether he simply wanted to protect his land, no one knew for sure.
As the Reynolds family resumed tobacco farming, Hardin’s boys, including R.J. Sr., who had severe dyslexia and dropped out of college early in his academic career, took wagonloads of tobacco to markets in numerous neighboring states, including Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina. One town in North Carolina called Salem caught young R.J.’s eye. Salem was a predominantly Moravian town, originally settled by Czechs, Austrians, and Germans in the 1700s, with a cultural center square big enough for the county market, and with its soon-to-be developed rail line, it was a prime location for tobacco sales. Many of the wealthy Moravians, who had built some of Salem’s most beautiful old homes, loved tobacco as much as any other Southerner.
In R.J.’s early selling days, the Moravians had also established a rare women’s college in Salem, which two of R.J.’s sisters later attended. The female students lived on campus and kept their own horses, which was unheard of in those days. The college was a testament to the progressiveness of Salem—a trait that R.J. admired and further attracted him to the region. The shared values of R.J. and the Moravians would soon turn into a lifelong business and civic partnership. In years to come, the Moravians would not only buy Reynolds tobacco products, they would eventually work directly for R.J. The Reynoldses considered the Moravians responsible for their early success and later worked to preserve as many of the original Moravian buildings in Salem as possible, as well as the museums and the old Salem town square where they got their start. And by the time R.J. was middle-aged, he served as host to numerous receptions for the female graduates of the progressive Salem Female Academy he had admired for so many years.
While still a teenager, R.J. Sr. hauled overflowing wagons of tobacco to town all over the country and became one of the best bargainers at market. Sometimes selling could be tough in the Reconstruction era, and on at least one occasion R.J. returned to Critz after a sale with wagonloads of textiles, animal skins, furniture, and other household goods—anything he could barter—but no cash. The family was livid. In response, R.J. sold some of the bartered supplies for a bigger profit than he would have earned from selling tobacco. He was never questioned again.
By age twenty-five, R.J. had gained extensive experience as a tobacco seller and he was hungry to venture out on his own. He became convinced tobacco would flourish in a town with a rail line and accessible labor. He talked to his father about selling his interest in Rock Spring Plantation early and moving to Salem to build his own tobacco factory. Hardin was supportive and gave him $10,000 in exchange for his forfeited interest in the family farm. With that, R.J. left Rock Spring for good in 1874.
Young R.J. eagerly set out for Salem on horseback to start his business. Out of respect for the wishes of the townspeople of Salem, R.J. opened up his first tobacco factory about a mile away on Depot Street in Winston, and invested $7,500 on his first purchase of flat plug (pressed cake) chewing tobacco. To make the plug, the tobacco was sweetened and pressed into sheets, then cut into thick strips and rolls that resembled beef jerky. The strips and rolls were sold directly to consumers and chewers would bite off the tobacco directly from the roll.
R.J. came to love the smell and sound of his factory at work, and he lived and worked in his personal office above his factories for most of his life. Today, one of R.J.’s old factories still stands, along with the rail line that trailed through it.
Young R.J. was a tall and handsome man—six foot, four inches—and although he spoke with a stammer, he was thoughtful, confident, and intriguing to the town’s ladies. In spite of the attention he received from women in Winston, R.J. stayed intensely focused on his work—a trend that would keep him from settling down for decades to come.
As an employer, R.J. was known for his fairness, his self-control, and his industrialist attitude. He felt that any man could make a million dollars honestly. R.J. was a hard worker and expected the same of his employees; he was always at his office early and worked alongside his employees all day, six days a week. He kept to this schedule even after he became a millionaire.
For years, R.J. had distinguished himself through the use of bright leaf twist and flat plug chewing tobacco with saccharin flavoring. After decades of success, R.J. eventually made the departure to burley smoking tobacco. One of R.J.’s most popular twentieth-century products was the burley-based, light-air-cured-leaf pipe and smoking tobacco—a brand he called Prince Albert. He launched the brand in 1907 with an aggressive advertising campaign and it quickly became a hit.
By the turn of the century, R.J. was rumored to have single-handedly created thirty to fifty millionaires in North Carolina, and he employed three hundred people in his factories and another two hundred in his administrative offices. As his products soared in popularity, the tobacco company became a stockholder’s dream. R.J. was excellent at keeping many of his self-made millionaires involved in reinvesting, and he was kind to and generous with everyone who worked for him. One of R.J.’s most ingenious moves was to offer his labor force stock options as well, which created an unmatched sense of employee and investor allegiance to RJR Tobacco.
R.J. was equally generous with his own family. Not only did he take his two younger brothers, Walter and Will, in under his wing at the tobacco factory in Winston, he took in his ailing mother, Nancy Jane, in 1893 and extended his bachelor years even longer so he could care for her until her death in 1903. When four of his young nieces lost their mother in 1900, he brought the girls and his brother-in-law to his large Victorian house on Fifth Street in Winston-Salem. R.J. had lived in the Merchant Hotel for years before he moved into the new home in 1893. The towering, turreted Queen Anne home with the welcoming wraparound porch was the largest in town. Soon, Fifth Street was lined with homes of the city’s wealthy, self-made men and was regarded as “Millionaire’s Row.” R.J. also co-founded the country estates of Roaring Gap with his brother Will so he and his family could have a mountain retreat.
More family members, in-laws, and nieces and nephews followed. Across the street lived one of his favorite nephews, Richard S. Reynolds, who was the son of R.J.’s brother Abram. He had worked at RJR since 1902 when R.J. persuaded him to quit law school and come work in the tobacco factory. From then onward, they were more like father and son than uncle and nephew. Richard S. was a bright entrepreneur, and because of his intimacy with R.J., he believed he’d eventually inherit a stake in the tobacco company he helped build.
When R.J. was in his fifties, he was still a bachelor, and was still caring for his elderly mother on Fifth Street. When he was fifty-three years old, she passed away, and R.J. began to consider, for the first time, settling down and marrying. At the same time, his cousin from his mother’s side of the family, Zachary Taylor Smith of Mount Airy, North Carolina, wrote a letter to R.J. discussing his daughter, Katharine, who had returned from college with an independent spirit and wanted to work for a living instead of being married off, at least for a few years. At the time, she was teaching painting classes in Mount Airy after graduating from North Carolina’s Normal School and Sullins College in Virginia.
R.J. agreed to hire her as a secretary, and invited her on a trip to New York to transcribe his dictations. In Winston-Salem, his nieces oriented Katharine and trained her for her new position. Katharine worked at the factory for nearly six months when R.J. held a contest and offered a thousand dollars to anyone in his staff who could produce the best advertising design for the next marketing campaign. R.J. was most impressed by Katharine’s design and awarded her the prize. He famously joked that he’d have to marry Katharine to get his money back.
Maybe it wasn’t much of a joke, because shortly after, R.J. began courting her. R.J. had spent dozens of years on his own, and he already felt that it was time to finally find a partner. While he dearly loved his company and the life he led, it had not been without its loneliness. Just a year later, R.J. proposed to his twenty-five-year-old cousin, who was thirty years his junior. She accepted, and they set a date to marry.
After their morning wedding on February 27, 1905, in her father’s rose-filled parlor, they traveled to Europe on a four-month honeymoon, and conceived their first child shortly after their return. In Winston-Salem, Katharine rushed to prepare the Fifth Avenue townhouse for the baby’s arrival. In fact, Katharine had plans to completely remodel the home and garden over the next few years with the help of Philadelphia designers Hunt, Wilkinson, & Company. No expense would be spared for their growing family.
On April 4, 1906, exactly nine months after Katharine and R.J. Sr.’s return from Europe, a beautiful, nine-pound baby boy was born. R.J. Sr. was elated by his firstborn son’s arrival and Katharine showered him with attention and affection. He would be named Richard Joshua Reynolds Jr. That also meant he would one day inherit his father’s ancestral Joshua Coin.
While little R.J. Jr., nicknamed “Dick” like his father, was still a newborn, R.J. and Katharine took him on vacations and signed their holiday postcards in their son’s name. The charming jest was also symbolic—after decades of hard work and bach-elordom, the tobacco visionary finally had an heir who would one day represent him. As R.J. Sr.’s boundless energy turned toward fatherhood, the future of his legacy lay in the form of this little boy. RJR Tobacco finally had its first blood successor. R.J.’s years of fortune building had come full circle.
Excerpted from Kid Carolina by Schnakenberg, Heidi Copyright © 2010 by Schnakenberg, Heidi. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 9, 2010
This bio of R.J. Reynolds (the heir, not the founder of the tobacco company) is pretty well-done. The man was an alcoholic and a playboy, having married four times and fathering numerous children, and his personal life is definitely the most fascinating part of the book. He was also something of a politician and businessman, and he was an exceptional sailor. He seems relatively unknown today even though he was a prominent public figure during the time of his life. The writing is a little dry, but otherwise it is a good profile of an important figure that can't help but be interesting given the lifestyle of the subject.
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Posted January 15, 2011
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Posted March 10, 2011
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Posted October 15, 2011
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