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Old Gleason Photos Provided by Joyce Wray

Gleason, Tennessee: Fancy Hotels and Sweet Potatoes

By Virginia Vaughan

From Weakley County, Tennessee

Gleason had two hotels in the early days of its history. The Jones Hotel was located across from where Ruby’s Restaurant was. The space is now a modern parking lot complete with lamp poles and landscaping. The other hotel, the Whitworth, was across from the depot.  Both were used by the many drummers that came in on the trains and plied their wares in Gleason and surrounding areas. The Whitworth was said to be the finest hotel between Memphis and Nashville. Elegantly furnished rooms rented for $2 a day and there was a grand ballroom for dances and entertainment. 

In the early 1900’s, an opera house was built above Ammon’s Drugstore. The electric lighting came from privately installed dynamos across the street. With a seating capacity of 200 people, the space was often filled when traveling theatrical companies came to town. Moving pictures were often shown and once, Cole Younger, the famous outlaw, gave a performance. 

Some of the firsts for Gleason are; first hotel by Andrew Swaim; Jake Parks owned the first steam engine; the first town well was in the middle of Center Street; the Masons were organized in 1861; the first dry goods store was owned by Polk Alexander; the first garage was run by Max Levy and E. A. White, who owned the first automobile in 1913; the first brick building was build by George Lassiter; Joe McGlothin built the first frame house; the first running water was in 1905; Obe Parks owned the first motorcycle in 1912; the first fire engine in Gleason was purchased in 1927; the first telephone was in the Jones Hotel; the first graph phone was owned by Frank Trevathan in 1915; the first radio was owned by Aubrey Phelps and the first television by Harry Edwards. The first cotton gin was operated by Bill Bragg; the first tobacco factory was operated by Leonard Freeman. In 1913, W.R. Hawks introduced the first sweet potato hampers used for shipping sweet potatoes and, in 1916, W. R. Nants operated the town’s first veneering mill where the sweet potato hampers were produced. It closed in 1954. 

At one time Gleason was known as the sweet potato capital of the United States. The growing and shipping of sweet potato plants began in the 1920’s and in the beginning there was only one variety, the “Nancy Hall.” Later, J. D. Bradberry and two friends ordered sweet potato plants from Puerto Rico and, through grafting with Southern Yam plants, they produced a variety of sweet potato which they named the Puerto Rican. In time, there were 12 different varieties produced in the area. In the heyday of growing plants for shipping, there were about 30 different shippers. 

In the late 1980’s only two companies shipped sweet potato plants, the Margrave Plant Company and the Steel Plant Company. In 1999, the Steele Plant Company is the only one still in business. Started in the 1950’s by W. Claude Steele and his son-in-law, Dudley Sanders, it was not uncommon for trucks to load a million plants for transporting to markets throughout the south. Ken Sanders, the son and grandson of the founders, carries on the business today. “We supply our own mailing list and also rely upon seed companies for our market,” he said. “I can remember the days when plants were shipped by parcel post trucks and shipped by Railway Express. Millions of plants left Gleason every week during the growing season. As a result of the large shipments, our post office was upgraded from a third class to a second class facility.” According to Ken, the sweet potato is making a comeback in the vegetable market. It is one of our most nutritious foods and is loaded with beta-carotene, which helps fight cancer.” 

In 1974, the newly organized Gleason Gazelles, a civic organization composed of women in Gleason, who were interested in the welfare and growth of the community started the annual Tater Town Special. In 1998, the event celebrated its 25th anniversary. Source: The Weakley County Press (Provided to Gleason Online by Joyce Wray).

W. Claude Steele Photo Courtesy of Steele Plant Company

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