J. B. “Jim” Empson was one of the “movers and shakers” here during the 20s and 30s. He began his career in sales: first handmade brooms, then real estate.
I think it’s safe to say he also got Portland “rolling.” He may have had the first car dealership in Portland; certainly the first Ford dealership, providing sales, service and tires and tubes.
Prior to 1908, only the well to do could afford the fancy carriages that were self-propelled and ran on wheels. Henry Ford began building the Ford Model T with a gasoline engine around 1908 and by the 20s they became more available to the average person.
They were only available in black because the black paint was easier to use and dried faster making them quicker to produce. Being the entrepreneur that J. B. Empson was, he realized the value in the automobile industry. We’re not sure when he first opened his establishment.
Around 1926 he was in a new brick building named Ford Motor Company on North Russell, now next to the Temple Theater. However, prior to that he was operating in a building on the south corner of Russell and High Street where he also sold Insurance and Farm Loans. There was Empson and Peden with a Ford emblem on the front of that building.
James Barry Empson, known as JB or Jim to everyone, was born to William and Rebecka Empson in Cross Plains in 1878. He married Mildred A. Simmons in 1907 and by 1910 they were living in Portland on College Street.
Their first born son, Ward, was one year old and Jim listed himself as an employer making brooms. When World War I came along, his draft registration listed his occupation as General Insurance, Real Estate and Farming. By then, he and Mildred had two more children, Wilburn and Lucille.
By the 1930 census they had moved to South Russell Street and added two more sons to the family, Duncan and Charles Donald. Little did they realize what an impact their family would have on this community.
In 1931, James and a partner, Prof. B.P. Smith, bought the Ford Dealership in Gallatin on East Main Street and called it Smith and Empson. James’ son Ward took over operation of the business. James divided his time between the two businesses.
While living in Gallatin Ward and his wife had a son, Frank. Frank Empson made a career in photography and working for The Nashville Tennessean. He is responsible for the photograph of our treasured image of the Portland Depot. Even though the building no longer stands it has been used in so many ways over the years to represent Portland and its history.
An interesting bit of information was found while researching our subject. It seems that in July of 1925, Mr. J. B. Empson was on a ship, the Govenor Cobb, sailing from Havana, Cuba, arriving at the Port of Key West, Fla. This was at a time when most people around here never traveled far from home. Wish we knew more!
His second son, Wilburn was beloved by many in Portland as their mail carrier - he walked the streets for many years with a friendly word of greeting to all. His wife Lola Mae Bradley Empson was the favorite teacher of many who went through school in Portland.
One of my special elementary school memories! Like a pebble tossed in a pool, the ripples of memories spread to Mrs. Lola Mae’s brother, Lawrence Bradley. Mr. Bradley was also a teacher in Sumner County High School where he directed the school choir.
Mr. Bradley and his wife, Mary, were the parents of John Ralph Bradley who opened his law practice in the Denton-Freedle Building in the early 80s and who currently serves Portland as City Attorney.
Duncan Empson was the next son. He, too, had such an impact on the community. When his father died, Duncan was still home with his mother and younger brother. He went to work in the local theater. He did everything necessary there making himself a valuable asset to the operation.
Duncan married Gussie Brown in 1946. She served the community as a high school teacher and librarian. With all the connections he made through the theater and her through the high school, they touched many young lives.
They later moved to Nashville where he worked as a photographer with The Nashville Tennessean. Duncan was always interested in his home community. He was very helpful in the revitalization efforts for restoring the Temple Theater where he spent so many hours.
J B Empson died suddenly of a heart attack in November of 1935. He was only 57. He and his wife Mildred, who lived to her 80s, are buried in Maple Hill Cemetery but through their legacy they played an important role in shaping the community that we love today.
Johnnie Freedle is a member of the Highland Rim Historical Society.