Winston Salem, North Carolina is like many modern cities: it has flourishing businesses, arts, and schools throughout. The city is also rich in history, and its success stems from one man whose innovative tobacco company brought life to the Camel City: R.J. Reynolds. He was a genuine philanthropic man whose desire for elevated working conditions and community involvement were shared by his wife and children. As the city of Winston Salem flourished from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Reynolda house flourished to become one of the nation’s leading art museums.
The Founding of a Company
R.J. Reynolds left his father’s plantation in Patrick County, VA in 1875 when he was 25 and moved down to Winston Salem, NC. With $7,500 he bought a plot of land and a house and continued the tobacco trade he learned from his father (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). In 1888, he founded R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. In 1899, JB Duke’s American Tobacco Co was the majority shareholder for the company, but they kept R.J. Reynolds as its president. In 1907, he introduced Prince Albert smoking tobacco on the market. In 1909, a US circuit court declared Duke a monopoly and broke it up, leaving R.J. as an independent company. In 1913, he introduced the infamous Camel brand of cigarettes to the market (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits)
R.J. Reynolds said the secret to his success was ‘finding real pleasure in working out a task that others would not do” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). His “genuine concern for [the employees’] welfare was said to be crucial to the success of the company” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). Because of this success, Winston Salem’s businesses, hospitals, orphanages, and colleges “flourished” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). On July 30, 1918, The Winston Salem Journal wrote: “The city’s civic, religious, and social institutions advanced with the growth of the tobacco company. The triumph of Prince Albert and Camel cigarettes caused factories to spring up all over the city, and attracted thousands of new people. By the time of his death in 1918, R.J. Reynolds had brought prosperity to an entire region of North Carolina” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits).
The Birth of Reynolda
In 1899, Katharine Smith told her college roommate, “When I marry, I shall go to Europe on my wedding trip and I shall bring home a wonderful work of art. And then I shall buy a great estate and I shall have a thousand cattle on a hill and flowers all around” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). In 1905, R.J. married Katharine, and after collaborating with multiple architects and landscapers for years, she built her estate and called it Reynolda, using the feminine suffix. She bought a piece of “desolate and eroded” land in 1906 and hired landscape engineers to sculpt the lake, gardens, and barns (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). She also hired architect Charles Barton Keen for the village, farm buildings, and home. Her name alone was on all of the deeds, which was very rare in that time period (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits).
Katharine and R.J. Reynolds completed Reynolda Manor in 1917. Two generations of Reynolds lived on the 1,067 acre estate until it was opened to the public in 1965. According to a 1916 edition of Good Housekeeping, R.J. Reynolds’s study is “the kind of substantial comfort that appeals to big men, with big interests in life, who come here to argue over big things” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). Though R.J. Reynolds only lived a few months in his study, this insight proved to be true. Just six days before he died of what is now believed to be pancreatic cancer, R.J. Reynolds signed $240,000 to build two hospitals, one black and one white, with an equal amount of money. This contribution, the first of its kind from a southern man, finalized the view of R.J. Reynolds as “one of the most democratic of citizens” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits).
At the center of the house, the reception hall was a “large space that contained a front entryway, main stairway, fireplace” and enough furniture to comfortably accommodate the family and guests (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). It was an essential to a country home, and as Nancy Reynolds recalled in the 1920s, “Everything that happened in the house had to circulate in and out of this room. You were right in the midst of everything” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). In the corner of the hall is an Aeolian organ whose 2,566 pipes run behind the tapestries and through the ceiling, creating the ultimate surround sound. Katharine believed music had a power for relaxation and harmony, so the organ was used for funerals, weddings, and parties (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). Today the organ still has its original parts and is played a few times a week.
Katharine entertained many guests in the dining room and often had impromptu Sunday afternoon lunches with members of the community. Whoever sat at the head of the table could press a foot pedal to let the servants know when to bring the next course. Many famous and influential people dined in this room, such as President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of Navy, Josephus Daniels in 1918, and Edith Vanderbilt in 1922 (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). President Harry S. Truman also attended a luncheon in the dining room. The food was cooked in a downstairs kitchen and transported upstairs using a dumbwaiter. John Carter was first R.J. Reynolds’s valet and served in the Reynolda house as the head butler for two generations. Nancy remembered Carter as bossy, “particularly after Mother died… He’d tell us what to do, he ran the house, and that was it” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits).
Katharine promoted the idea of a model farm in which people could “learn the benefits of soil analysis, crop rotation, and other progressive methods” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits). She encouraged everyone to produce their own food. A statewide call for clean milk prompted her to start the Reynolda Dairy, using grass fed cows whose udders were cleaned before and after milking. The Reynolda Dairy provided milk for the family, village, customers, and the lunchroom. As a plaque in the Reynolda House says, “model farms were not established to make a profit so much as to assist in upgrading rural life” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits).
Katharine oversaw the greenhouse and garden, dairy farm, and domestic staff in her quaint office after her husband died. In a letter to her friend Annie Jean Gash, she wrote on December 10, 1917, “The farm is flourishing now. I am acting superintendent and good management is beginning to tell” (Reynolda House Museum of Art Exhibits).
In June 1921, Katharine married the headmaster of her school, J. Edward Johnston (Zerwick 102). Though she was much older than him, Johnston still wanted a child of his own. Their first attempt, a daughter, was born premature and died. The second baby, a son, was a healthy boy but due to her poor health, Katharine died three days later of an embolism at the age of 44. The trustees managed the finances and the children were left in the care of their uncle Will Reynolds, “who hired a cousin-in-law Robert E. Lassiter and his wife to care for them at Reynolds” (Zerwick 102). Both of the girls went to art school in France and ended up settling in Greenwich Connecticut. Both of the boys had little interest in education and focused their attention instead on flying (Zerwick 102).
The Next Generations
While many in the Reynolds family went on to accomplish great things, Zachary “Smith” Reynolds, the youngest, left the world early with a bit of scandal. Just after his 18th birthday, he married the daughter of a textile tycoon, Anne Cannon in 1929. Shortly after the birth of their first child, he “flew his wife to Reno for her divorce” (TIME). Anne got a $1,000,000 settlement for herself and her daughter. A week later, Smith secretly married singer Elsbeth “Libby” Holman and did not announce his marriage until May of 1932 when they returned from a tour of Europe in his plane (TIME). The family did not take too kindly to a second hasty marriage. On July 6, Smith and Libby threw a party for their friends at Reynolda, and Smith was found shot dead in the master bedroom sleeping porch. When Libby was indicted for murder, it was discovered that she was pregnant (TIME). She was released from custody, and to this day Smith’s death remains a mystery.
The Reynolda house came into the hands of the oldest daughter, Mary Reynolds Babcock, and her husband in 1934 when she bought the interests in Reynolda from the other heirs (Zerwick 106). Mary “managed the estate from a distance” (Zerwick 106), redecorating and renovating the house. She moved into the house when her husband enlisted in the Army for World War II and managed the expenses herself. In a letter to her sister in 1945 she confessed her concern about the future of Reynolda: “…I guess Reynolda will go on as is to live a longer life and end as an ancient ruin but with the charm of its homey atmosphere still there” (Zerwick 106). To “relieve some of the tax burden from the estate” Mary’s husband offered 350 acres to Wake Forest University, which kept the “house and gardens intact” (Zerwick 106). The family settled full time in Reynolda in 1948. Mary died in 1953 of cancer. She was 44 just like her mother (Zerwick 106).
Mary’s daughter, Barbara Babcock Millhouse, was in college studying art history when her mother died. After graduating, she began collecting art in New York as she studied design. In 1964, her husband established Reynolda House Inc., a “nonprofit organization that would build a collection of American art” (Zerwick 110). Barbara consulted with “curators of American art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art” who looked for paintings that best exemplified the work of significant American artists (Zerwick 110). The first paintings were from the Hudson River School style of painting, which was considered “embarrassing” in the 1960s. Barbara saw beyond that outlook and published a history of the art in that time period (Zerwick 110).
Today, Reynolda House serves as a museum that houses significant American artists. Many of the rooms have been restored to their original grandeur, as if Katharine and the children have just stepped away. Reynolda Village houses different shops and boutiques in buildings which used to house workers, equipment, and cows. The grounds are open for picnickers and hikers, and many events are still held in the expansive yard. Even though the Reynolds family no longer lives in Reynolda, they have ensured that the home that fostered so many dreams would continue serving the community R.J. and Katharine Reynolds built. The spirit of ‘others before self’ remains strong on the Reynolda estate.
“Law: Reynolds v. Reynolds.” TIME (1933): n. pag. Web. 27 Feb 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,744981-1,00.html>.
Reynolda House Museum Exhibits. Reynolda House Museum of American Art. 2250 Reynolda Road, Winston Salem, NC 27106. 05 Mar 2011.
Zerwick, Phoebe. “The Women of Reynolda.” Our State Down Home in North Carolina.Mar 2011: 98-112. Print.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samantha Bauer is from Winston Salem, NC and has spent many hours touring the Reynolda house and lazing about the Reynolda gardens. She is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying anthropology.