Professor tells of ‘extraordinary’ Reynolds couple

David Broyles Staff Reporter

September 15, 2013

Wake Forest University History Professor Dr. Michelle Gillespie’s talk about the relationship of Katharine and R.J. Reynolds could be summed up as the story of two extraordinary people who found each other and did extraordinary things.

Gillespie said her research, some of which was carried on in Mount Airy, indicated the two loved each other but their mutual respect is what made one partner’s talents complement the other.

Gillespie, a rural New Jersey native, talked to an audience of 40 people Saturday at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History as part of the museum’s fall history talks. She told the group she fell in love with Southern history during undergraduate work at Rice University in Texas. Gillespie said Southern historians were asking questions she found interesting and ultimately led her to concentrate on documenting ways women have contributed to history.

Upon accepting Wake’s invitation to become a faculty member in 1999, Gillespie and her family moved to Winston-Salem.

“I was struck by how the town there was dominated by history of certain families, especially the Reynolds family,” said Gillespie. “I was able to discover a large amount of Katharine’s papers at Reynolda House and that led me to discover she was a catalyst for the house and its landscaping. I found no one had written a biography about her and I said here’s an opportunity.”

It was later the researcher found out how R.J. Reynolds’ resources enabled Katharine to accomplish a lot of what she did. A lack of personal records on R.J. Reynolds complicated her work, and she finally had to begin again and write a dual biography of the couple. This work later became Gillespie’s book, “Katharine and R.J Reynolds; Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South.”

During this ten-year process, Gillespie learned of the ties Katharine Reynolds had to Surry County. Gillespie told the group Katherine grew up in a Mount Airy, which was transforming itself from rural to a market town or supply town for business. She was the daughter of Zachery Taylor Smith and Mary Jackson Smith, who were both known for their business savvy.

She told the group Katharine was one of the first to be enrolled in the public rated schools of the time in 1897 when the school went co-ed and allowed girls. Afterwards she attended the Normal Institute, which was a school training teachers to return and help educate and uplift the poor. According to Gillespie, Katharine later attended an elite school which trained young southern ladies in the social skills of the upper class. Katharine was highly successful in both schools.

R.J. Reynolds got his start under the mentorship of his affluent father, who was an innovative tobacco farmer and entrepreneur. The young Reynolds was sent out to the rural areas of Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina to sell his father’s chewing tobacco products.

“Reynolds left his father’s company and set up shop in Winston in 1875. The shrewd young businessman quickly grasped marketing and how to amass capital for future expansion and understood the town’s location and railroads would give access to a vast market,” she said.

She said it was much later Katharine, who was a cousin of R.J. Reynolds, met him through correspondence following the death of his mother. Katharine was later hired as one of four secretaries for Reynolds, (the other three were men), and the two married in 1905. In an unusual move for a woman of her time, she invested in stocks and turned here $35 a month salary into $10,000 a month by the time they were wed.

Gillespie described how the two were progressive without visibly challenging the status quo. She noted that Katharine had sought the advice of the Department of Agriculture as well as North Carolina State University to make their country estate a model farm to teach scientific farming methods to local residents. There, she set up school for her farm laborers where the children, though segregated, played together at recess and were given the same text books.

Reach David Broyles at or 719-1952.