George R. Dempster: the later years

Dr. Jim TumblinFountain City, Our Town Stories

Editor’s Note: This is the continuation/conclusion of a March 19 KnoxTNToday article.


Although he would work on the Panama Canal from 1907 to 1912, George R. Dempster returned home to marry Frances M. Seymour on March 21, 1911. The marriage was performed in the stately manse of First Presbyterian Church by the venerable pastor of the church, the Rev. James Park. George and Frances arrived at the manse in a Buick open car with all the old-fashioned controls and a rubber bulb horn on the running board. Frances accompanied him back to Panama for his final year there.

Early in his marriage George Dempster worked out a “deal” with his spouse. Frances Seymour was a member of the Episcopal church and a Republican. He was a Presbyterian and a Democrat. Observing that he disliked seeing a couple attending different churches and differing in politics, he proposed she choose one affiliation and he the other. She chose the Episcopal church and he the Democratic Party. This arrangement would continue throughout their married life.

Upon his return to Knoxville, he and his brothers, Tom and John, organized the Dempster Construction Co. They built highways, railroads and dams in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky. By 1922, they had 26 shovels operating on various jobs, all the way from three-quarter yard buckets to the largest strip-mining shovel in the world at the time.

Things developed rapidly for these firms, but then came the Great Depression. Both the construction firm and the subsidiary machinery firm were forced into bankruptcy. George Dempster stood on the courthouse steps one morning and watched as his beloved Fountain City home on Gibbs Drive was auctioned to the highest bidder.

Dempster-Frances House: Built in the early 1920s, this was home to George and Frances Dempster and their family from 1928 to 1932.

The Dempsters lived in Fountain City only a few years (1928-1932) in the stately home that still stands at Gibbs Drive and Broadway. Now known as the Dempster-Francis House, it was built in the early 1920s by real-estate developer B.L. Chambers.

The Depression crushed many lesser men but not George Dempster. By the end of his career he would hold over 75 patents, but his best-known patent was the one that revolutionized solid-waste disposal. In 1935, he conceived the idea of the Dempster Dumpster. Competitors saw it working so well that they asked that similar units be made for them. Shortly thereafter, he patented the idea and before long the five brothers were devoting their entire time to manufacturing Dumpsters at Dempster Brothers Inc.

Dempster Dumpsters reduced the cost of collecting, hauling and dumping garbage more than 75 percent compared to the cost of performing the task with conventional dump trucks. Eventually they were able to handle a 38,000-pound net load, plus the two-ton weight of the bucket, all on a single-axle heavy-duty truck.

Work with the U.S. Navy resulted in Dempster equipment being used all over the world. For instance, there were 125 Dumpsters on the docks in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Their work with the Navy and their reputation for welding and fabricating metal resulted in 15,000 pontoons supplied during World War II with none of them being rejected upon inspection. Dempster Brothers’ ability with hydraulics enabled them to make and handle containers weighing over eight tons for what became known as the Savannah River Site, the hydrogen bomb plant on the Savannah River in South Carolina, in the early 1950s.

The company employed more than 450 people at its plant on Springdale Avenue and the Southern Railroad in the 1950s. Eleven buildings on 27 acres were devoted to manufacturing and repairing their equipment. They paid top wages, and their benefit package was unexcelled at the time. More than 10 percent of the workers were physically handicapped, but not because of injuries incurred at the plant for it had an outstanding safety record. At various times the plant acted as a training ground for expert welders and machinists who were later employed by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Atomic Energy Commission. Fortune Magazine reported that by 1952 the company was grossing $6.5 million a year.

(Dempster Brothers Co., founded in 1933, later sold to Carrier Corporation, then to Krug International. In April 1987 Krug closed the plant and stunned the 250 workers who were on strike at the time. The Dempster Dumpster continued to be manufactured in California, Georgia and Canada.)

No matter how busy he was at work, in civic affairs, on numerous volunteer boards in the community and as vestryman at his church, George Dempster always had time for his family. The couple had three children: Josephine (Mrs. Harry G. Epperson), Ann Gordon (Mrs. Jack Hamilton) and George S., who spent five years in the Air Force in World War II in Alaska and the Pacific and an additional four-year tour at Ardmore, Okla.

Mr. Dempster was not a Democrat in name only; rather he was a participant in politics. He served as campaign manager for Gov. Henry Horton in the 1928 gubernatorial election and, when Horton was elected, Dempster was named commissioner of Finance and Taxation for the state of Tennessee. The governor later appointed him to the Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission.

In 1929 he was appointed city manager of Knoxville, serving two years, and in 1935 he started another two-year term. Later he served two terms on City Council and was elected mayor for one four-year term (1952-1955), after the city switched to the mayoral form of government. In 1940 he ran for governor in the Democratic Primary against the incumbent, Prentice Cooper, but suffered one of his few defeats at the polls.

During his 10 years at City Hall, Dempster was a hard-working, efficient administrator. One reporter stated that he would often talk to two callers simultaneously on the two telephones that sat on his desk. Sometimes an aggrieved citizen would call in only to have the mayor call the appropriate department head on the second phone to negotiate a solution.

He rarely needed to compromise and the many “monuments” he left behind in Knoxville attest to his managerial skills. But for his persistence we might not have the benefits of the Henley Bridge (fortunately, he insisted on four lanes when council wanted only two), the Fifth Avenue viaduct, four branch libraries, the sewage-disposal system, Chilhowee and Tyson parks (he recommended their purchase), the Smithson (later Bill Meyer) Stadium, the gas plant, the municipal garage and many other civic improvements.

He was on the advisory board of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library and a board member of the United Cerebral Palsy Association, the Mental Health Association and the Knox County Association of Retarded Children. He founded the Dempster Memorial Sheltered Workshop and was a member of the Knoxville Executive Club, the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, the Nobel Awards Dinner Committee and the Committee for a Peaceful and Orderly Desegregation, and he was a 32nd Degree Mason and Shriner. Dempster personally sponsored a talented blind pianist for a Sunday musical program on the radio for 20 years.

The Dempster marriage of 49 years ended on Sept. 30, 1960, with the death of his beloved wife, Frances Seymour Dempster (1891-1960). The beautiful and gifted daughter of Digby Gordon Seymour Sr. and Josephine Douglass Seymour, she was a talented church organist and for a time taught school early in their marriage. Her father was a Harvard-educated civil engineer who was chief engineer in building one of the transcontinental railroads.

George Roby Dempster, the first generation, self-made son of immigrants to America – adventurer, inventor, manufacturer, public servant, businessman and philanthropist – succumbed to a heart attack on Sept. 18, 1964. Over 1,000 mourners attended his services at St. James Episcopal Church; it was described as the largest funeral ever held in Knoxville. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery beside his wife.

(Ed. note: You might also be interested in this Jim Tumblin story, which has info on Dempster’s Fountain City home.)

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