The Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Wake Forest University spoke to a crowd of Mount Airy Rotary Club members at Cross Creek Country Club on Tuesday.
Dr. Michele Gillespie told the story of Mount Airy native Katherine Reynolds, the wife of tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds.
After Rotary President Matt Edwards collected donations, announced birthdays and informed members and guests of upcoming events, he handed the stage to Gillespie. Gillespie told the audience that upon moving to North Carolina and Wake Forest University she visited the Reynolda House.
Gillespie said that she took an immediate interest in the couple behind R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, especially in Katherine. Gillespie said she was able to gain access to boxes filled with documents at the Reynolda House. She then started on a ten-year journey to write a book about Katherine Reynolds.
According to Gillespie the book was supposed to tell only the story of Katherine. However, half-way through Gillespie realized that she couldn’t tell Katherine’s story without telling the story of R.J. She became the first historian to write a biography on either of the Reynolds.
While R.J. Reynolds was born in Patrick County, Virginia in 1850, Katherine was a Mount Airy girl. She was born in 1880 to parents Zachary Taylor Smith and Mary Susan Jackson, according to Gillespie. Katherine’s father owned a tobacco farm and the home in which she grew up was where the Ollie’s store is currently located.
Gillespie said that Katherine was the first of seven Smith children. The driven young girl, who went by “Kate,” took education seriously. When she was 15 years old Katherine became known as “Colonel Kate” for her accomplishments in her newly founded coed public school.
When R.J. Reynolds’ mother died in 1903 he and Katherine, who was 30 years younger than her husband, began writing letters to one another. Katherine ended up working as a secretary for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Gillespie said that Reynolds was a woman who was ahead of her time.
Katherine soon assumed the role of managing the corporation’s money, even giving herself raises that brought her salary well above that of her male counterparts in the office. However, according to Gillespie, Katherine was doing well at managing her own money too.
Gillespie said that some time after she began working for the tobacco company Katherine started investing on Wall Street, earning more than $10,000 over a period of only a few months. Gillespie said Katherine’s earnings were even chronicled in an article in her hometown newspaper, The Mount Airy News.
R.J. and Katherine married in 1905 before proceeding to have four children in five years. Katherine’s business wit and forward thinking are obvious with just a glance at her former estate, now called the Reynolda House. Katherine purchased about 30 parcels from 1909 through 1918 in order to build her estate. Gillespie told the audience that in a relatively unprecedented move for the time Katherine put all of the property in her name alone.
Katherine continued to be a progressive thinker, setting up two schools on her estate. One school was for white kids and the other for black children. What was progressive about the set-up for that time in history, according to Gillespie, was that the two schools were truly equal in everything they provided to students.
After R.J. died in 1918, Katherine began seeing a World War I veteran. They married in 1921. However, Katherine died in New York three days after the couple’s first and only child was born in 1924.
Gillespie said that people all over the Piedmont area lined the streets as Katherine’s body passed on its way home. While a number of area pastors eulogized Katherine, Gillespie pointed to one comment made by the pastor at the Winston-Salem Moravian Church. The pastor called Katherine “a new woman for a new day.”
“If I were from Mount Airy, I’d be super, super proud to claim Katherine Reynolds,” Gillespie told the crowd gathered at Cross Creek as she finished her presentation.
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at the Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or [email protected]