Meet Fountain City’s pioneer businesswoman and unofficial ‘mayor’

Dr. Jim TumblinFountain City, Our Town Stories

Some important Fountain City history was made on March 30, 1903, when a transaction was recorded on the Knox County deed books. Col. J.C. and Nannie J. Woodward and Sol H. and Mary A. George sold the lot on the corner of Hotel Ave. and Broadway to R.T. Miller and W.E. Cooper for $2,700.

Col. Woodward was the Lexington, Ky., “capitalist” who bought the Fountain Head Hotel, including the park and the lake properties, built the imposing Parkview Mansion and made Fountain City a “destination place” from about 1890. Sol H. George was a principal investor in the Fountain Head Hotel and the Fountain Head Railway (The Dummy Line) and would later establish George’s Department Store on Gay Street.

The arrival of another real estate magnate was also a significant development. Rufus Tate “R.T.” Miller (1849-1921) was born in Anderson County near Clinton. He received a liberal education there and left to seek his fortune in Knoxville. He soon married Sarah “Sallie” Hartley of Union County. Their marriage produced four sons and two daughters: Dossie (1882-1968), Hugh (1885-1956), Roise (1890-1951), Alba (Mrs. W.D. Wahl) (1897-1995), Charles (1900-1972) and R. Jewell (1906-1987).

Dossie Miller Cooper (1882-1868). From the balcony of her second story apartment in the Cooper Building, she “supervised” city workers and Central High School students for over 60 years. (Photo courtesy of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection)

The family home was at 2711 5th Ave. (now Holbrook) in the beautifully restored home that was awarded Town Hall’s Home Beautification Project of the Year in 2003.

R.T. Miller was elected trustee of Knox County in 1896 and held the office until 1899. Soon thereafter he established the R.T. Miller Real Estate Company with offices on Market Square and in Fountain City. The Deed Index at the Knox County Archives contains 26 pages with over 75 real estate transactions credited to R.T. Miller.

His properties included three parcels on Market Square, a 300-acre farm on Bull Run Creek, a 40-acre farm in Brushy Valley, a 55-acre farm on Loyston Pike, Lots Number 3, 7 and 8 on Hotel Avenue and more than 25 properties in old Fountain City, several involving multiple lots. Many were on 2nd (now Ocala), 5th (Holbrook) and 7th (Bernhurst). He donated the property on Holbrook where his church, First Baptist Church of Fountain City, is built.

With the acquisition of the corner property at Hotel and Broadway, Miller became a major player in the development of the area. The busy northern terminal of the Fountain Head Railway was just across the street and it was a center of activity. From 1890 to 1905, 10,000 fares were collected on an average day with many of the passengers visiting the park or the hotel. That made the newly acquired Miller-Cooper property a prime location for businesses that would locate there later in the century – including the Miller’s Fountain City Confectionery.

Dossie, the Millers’ oldest child, was born on Oct. 2, 1882. She and William Everett Cooper were married on April 10, 1902. William E. Cooper (1876-1930) was born in Knoxville, the son of William R. and Isabel Nave Cooper. A veteran of the Spanish-American War (1898), he worked in both the retail coal and real estate business locally.

Early city directory information is limited beyond the Knoxville city limits of the period; but, by 1905, the directory reveals that “R.T. Miller, grocer” occupied the southwest corner of Broadway and Hotel. In 1916, the “Fountain City Confr Co, drugs” is listed on the west side of Hotel. The 1917 directory lists the “Howard and Zion Drug Store” at that corner with James D. Howard and Dr. Elkanah Zion as the owners. Dr. Zion’s medical office was in his home at 2461 Broadway near Chickamauga.

By 1920, “W.E. Cooper, Confectioner” is listed specifically; but the location is identified only as “west side of Hotel.” The family owned three buildings in the first block of Hotel and it appears that Dossie and William Cooper and her brothers, Roise and Hugh Miller, used them to market either groceries or confections. During this time, confectioneries were very popular. The city directories contain long lists of businesses selling “Confections and Fruit,” eight wholesale and almost 60 retail confectioners in 1922, including the most famous Peter Kern and Co. on Market Square.

The Fountain City Confectionery Co. seems to have thrived for a while and the profits enabled Dossie and William Cooper to place a carousel behind the Hotel Avenue buildings on present-day Church Street. With their living quarters on the second floor of the first few Hotel Avenue businesses, the Coopers anchored the development of the business district.

William E. Cooper passed away on Oct. 22, 1930, at only 54 years of age. Dossie Miller Cooper presided over the activity on “her” corner for another 38 years. When Fountain City was annexed in 1962, Dossie Cooper called her friend Knoxville Mayor John Duncan and said, “John, you’ve taken my job away from me.” The mayor answered, “Never mind, Mrs. Cooper, I’ll give it back to you.” So, Miss Dossie resumed direction of activities along her block from the balcony of her apartment. Her “duties” included the supervision of the street cleaning crew. She was considered the unofficial “mayor” of Fountain City from the 1940s well into the 1960s.

Dossie Miller Cooper passed away on Nov. 23, 1968, at 86 years of age and is buried beside her husband and her parents in the family burial plat at Greenwood Cemetery.

Author’s Note. During recent restoration of the historic Hotel and Broadway location, numerous elixir and/or pharmaceutical glass bottles were found. Did a typical confectioner also dispense “fountain” drinks or did the bottles date to the time of the Howard and Zion Drug Store?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *