John I. Copeland: Fountain City’s eccentric genius

Dr. Jim TumblinFountain City, Our Town Stories

Franklin D. Roosevelt had his eccentric genius, a man named Louis M. Howe. Downtown Knoxville had its John R. Neal. And Fountain City’s eccentric genius was John Isaac Copeland. Probably “marching to a different drummer” makes life difficult, but those who do so can make a difference.

Louis M. Howe (1871-1936) met Franklin Roosevelt in 1911 when he took on Tammany Hall in a bid for a seat in the New York state Senate. Howe admired Roosevelt’s persistence and eventual victory in that race and recognized that he was presidential timber. He became the advisor who would follow FDR through the governor’s office and to the White House. Although Eleanor Roosevelt disliked his eccentricities, his odoriferous Sweet Caporal cigarettes and his unkempt ways; she recognized Howe’s political genius.

John Randolph Neal (1876-1959) earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee at age 14 and was at one time the youngest UT graduate. He later earned a law degree (Vanderbilt) and a doctorate (Columbia).

Neal eventually ran his own law school (the John R. Neal School of Law), was elected to the state legislature, brought Clarence Darrow into the Scopes Monkey Trial, served with Darrow during the trial and, much later, advised President Roosevelt on the establishment of the TVA.

In later years, he would be seen in downtown Knoxville’s S&W Cafeteria with his hair uncombed, his shoes untied, his clothes unkempt and thousands of dollars in negotiable bonds in the inside pocket of his ragged coat, which he sometimes left hanging on the cafeteria coat rack for days.

John Isaac Copeland was born in the Wheat Community (13 miles from Harriman) on May 14, 1880, the fifth of eight children of James Knox and Mary Catherine Qualls Copeland. He did not start formal schooling until he was a teenager, first attending Mount Horeb School on Bear Creek near his home. The family farm became a part of the Oak Ridge Atomic Energy Commission compound. He would observe later that he had split firewood along Bear Creek in his youth and that the Atomic Energy Commission was splitting uranium atoms there later.

At age 19, after only two years at Roane College in the Wheat community, he began teaching. Copeland taught at several schools in both Roane and Anderson counties, but he came to Knox County in 1908 and taught at Lebanon, Carpenter, Ball Camp, Rocky Hill and Heiskell Station.

For a year, Copeland returned to teach at Anderson County’s Scarboro High School. When he came back to teach at Heiskell Station, he also sold insurance for a Knoxville concern. He decided that to teach school and sell insurance both he would need an automobile and bought a Hupmobile 20 – a vehicle he described as “being about as large as a big wheelbarrow.”

During the first month of ownership, the car cost $168 in repairs and his teacher’s salary was only $65 per month. Always resourceful, he decided that to keep the car he would need to become his own mechanic. He pushed the car into a former cowshed and went to work. He later was quoted as saying, “(I) overhauled it completely. Took out some of the factory parts and put in some I made myself. Never had a minute’s trouble with it after that.”

Copeland said there were nine others in Fountain City who owned automobiles in 1912. When they heard of Copeland’s success with his car, they were soon seeking his services for repairs. A mechanic did not need a shop in those early days, but simply went to the owner’s home and worked in the back yard. However, in about 1913, as he became busier, he founded Fountain City’s first garage near the intersection of Garden Avenue and Broadway, where he also maintained living quarters. Sometime later, he added the sale of gasoline and, as late as 1924, Copeland’s was the only gas station north of downtown Knoxville.

(Interestingly, Copeland was a mentor to C. Tolbert “Smut” Smith Jr., founder of the Fountain City Wrecker Service, which now occupies the property that was the first location of Copeland’s Garage. Smith established his business in 1942 with a single old Weaver hand-cranked wrecker, a gift of John I. Copeland, and now owns 18 of various sizes, including “Brutus,” the largest.)

John I. Copeland was described as something of a wizard with electricity at an early time in its development. When he was working on a Model T Ford and needed to “kill” the engine to do some further work on it, he simply put his two hands across the four spark plugs and grounded out the electrical charge to the magneto. This saved some time and the few steps it would take to turn off the ignition. Experts report that this may have resulted in as much as a 20,000-volt shock (although of low amperage), but John did not even flinch. This is not a recommended procedure as moisture in the ground or on the pavement on which one is standing could establish a “ground” and be very dangerous.

Over the years, Copeland became an institution in Fountain City and his garage was the community’s largest. He worked hard and repaired a lot of cars, but he always found time for some fun. Roy Acuff was a frequent after-school visitor there. Prior to Acuff’s sunstroke in 1929, his father had given him some elementary instruction on the fiddle, but it was John I. Copeland who taught him how to really play and encouraged him during his almost two years of convalescence. He also taught Roy many of the hundreds of plaintive ballads and lively tunes from his repertoire. Copeland’s garage was the scene of many sessions during which Roy honed the skills that would later make him a star of the Grand Ole Opry and “The King of Country Music.”

More than 50 years later, some Fountain Citians recall that Copeland tutored them after school, usually in mathematics and algebra. Bob Johnson, founder of the Bob Johnson Insurance Agency, credited Copeland for assisting him with math during his early school career. In just a few tutoring sessions Bob developed math skills that stood him in good stead through high school, the university and in running a large business.

Vic Weals, in a 1950 article, quoted Joe Harrington remembering his long-time friend, “Over 30 years ago (the 1920s), he (Copeland) was talking about the power of atoms and the energy available if they could be harnessed. He kept a modern library in the garage and was well read in modern science.”

A number of traits exemplified John I. Copeland, such as his scholarly bent and his ability to successfully mentor the youth of the community. Perhaps no other hobbies would have fitted his personality like his fiddle playing and his fox hunting. He loved his fox hounds and kept them “at the ready” in a pen behind the garage so he could leave at a moment’s notice to fox hunt with two or three of his buddies.

John I. Copeland was 71 when he passed away on May 14, 1951, at St. Mary’s Hospital. Although he had experienced circulatory problems for some time, the immediate cause of his death was influenza. Gentry Mortuary assisted in the service and he was buried in the Fountain City Methodist Church Cemetery. His friends erected a monument in his honor.

Jim Tumblin, retired optometrist and active historian, writes a monthly series called “Fountain City: Places That Made a Difference” for

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