Just as Harry T. Burn seemed to shift in his vote on the ratification of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago this Aug. 18, so, too, did he move around in his later work and life.
As a result, numerous reminders can be found throughout East Tennessee of this man who, at the age of 24, cast a tie-breaking vote to help Tennessee become the 36th and final state needed to ratify the amendment for women’s suffrage.
For those interested in combining a little local sightseeing with a remembrance of the historic event during this centennial year, plenty of reminders can still be found of Burn and the general suffrage movement.
Sites across East Tennessee
A visit to the quaint McMinn County town of Niota, just 45 minutes down Interstate 75, is considered the most recommended for any day traveler looking for Burn- or suffrage-related sites, but a few can also be found in Knoxville, Rockwood, Kingston and Sweetwater.
East Tennessean Tyler Boyd, a Burn relative who recently wrote the book, “Tennessee Statesman: Harry T. Burn,” pinpointed several of these sites for Knox News.
In Knoxville, one can see on the south end of Market Square the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial sculpture of pioneering Tennessee suffragists Lizzie Crozier French, Anne Dallas Dudley and Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, which was unveiled in 2006. French was from Knoxville and is buried at Old Gray Cemetery.
Nearby at 601 S. Gay St. is the Burn Memorial sculpture, also done by Alan LeQuire of Nashville and dedicated in 2018. It features Burn and his mother, Febb Burn, who many credit with helping him find his true conviction to vote for ratification after she wrote him a letter just before the critical vote.
Boyd said the Ossoli Circle Women’s Club, now at 2511 Kingston Pike, also had a number of supporters of the suffrage movement as members a century ago.
One can also check out reminders of the Knox County House members who voted for ratification as well during that special session. Rep. Joe E. Wade, for example, lived at 341 E. Oklahoma Ave. in North Knoxville and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in South Knoxville.
In Rockwood, where Burn was a banker beginning in the 1950s, one can see his former First National Bank, which is now a Regions Bank, at Rockwood Street and Chamberlain Avenue. His favorite color was green, Boyd said, and the bank features green bricks. He and his wife, Ellen, also worshiped at First Presbyterian Church of Rockwood just down the street.
In Kingston is the branch of his bank on Kentucky Street across from the Old Roane County Courthouse. “Harry kept a lot of his valuables in a safe deposit box here, including Febb’s famous letter,” said Boyd of the building, which is now a Simmons Bank.
The famous letter is now preserved at the McClung Historical Collection in Knoxville.
Burn also tried to encourage the development of the nearby Midtown area where the TVA Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant is, he said.
In Sweetwater, which straddles Monroe and McMinn counties, Burn’s law office from 1927 to 1951 was on the second floor of the Scruggs Building, now called New Block and located where Morris Street ends near Main Street.
One of his still-standing Sweetwater residences, according to Boyd, is the second house on the left on McCaslin Avenue after one turns off Mayes Avenue.
Niota is the farthest place from Knoxville among the Burn sites – other than the Chattanooga area where Burn worked for the railroad as a very young man – but it is only about 45 minutes off Interstate Exit 56.
For Knoxville residents used to witnessing suburban growth, it is contrasting to visit not only because of the history, but also because it still has some pretty countryside around it and the town itself appears to have retained many reminders from 1920.
On U.S. 11 by the only traffic light in town are the Niota Cemetery where he is buried, as well as a state historical marker to him. Burn’s grave is easy to find, as it is in the middle of the cemetery – although one does have to look through several other Burn family member markers to find it.
Burn, who lived until 1977, is buried by a somewhat modest marker, as is his wife, the younger Ellen Folsom Cottrell, who lived until 1998. The most impressive marker is that to his parents, James and Febb Burn, and sister, Sara, who died as a child. His father, who worked for the railroad, had died of typhoid fever in 1916 and so did not live to see his son’s unusual moment of fame.
One row north of these two generations of Burns is the grave of Harry T. Burn, Jr., the legislator’s only child, who died in 2016 and had no children.
The state historical marker located on the edge of the cemetery along the highway talks about the elder Harry Burn’s life, including his time as a state senator from 1949-53 — decades after his four years in the state House — and, of course, his role in the ratification vote.
A little north of the marker on the highway is the Crescent Sock Company, which still has a red brick building away from the road dating to when Harry Burn’s father co-founded it as the Crescent Hosiery Mill in 1902. Tyler Boyd’s mother and other relatives still own and operate the family business.
Over on Main Street one block east of the highway you’ll see one of the prettiest buildings in town: the historic Niota United Methodist Church, where Burn’s mother attended.
“Febb Ensminger Burn was raised a Methodist in Athens,” said Boyd. “Although she attended First Baptist Church of Niota with her husband, I don’t believe she ever joined. Once he passed away, she began attending the Methodist church. Her funeral was at the Methodist church.”
About 100 yards north of the church, at the corner of Burn and Main streets, is where Harry Burn was born and raised. The home was demolished in the 1970s, and it is part of the First Baptist Church grounds now.
Another 100 yards or so north is the Niota Depot. Built in 1854, it is the oldest standing rail depot in Tennessee. Burn’s father was stationmaster there, and it also has a connection to the legislator’s mother.
“Febb’s famous letter to Harry traveled from a train that departed the depot bound for Nashville,” said Boyd.
About 50-75 yards south and on the same side of the street as the depot is the tiny Niota Public Library. On one side of it is the large Niota Suffrage Mural, which was unveiled in January to kick off the centennial year.
Done by artist Jade Lewis, it features scenes of Harry Burn with his famous letter from Febb Burn, early suffrage pioneer Susan B. Anthony and later suffrage advocates Ida B. Wells and Alice Paul. The colorful display does give some neat visualization to Niota’s brief-but-unique connection to the suffrage movement.
At 818 E. Farrell St. a mile or so north of downtown is the home where Harry Burn and his family lived starting in 1914 and where the noted Tennessean retreated later in life.
It is a nice-looking estate – in a small-town way, with cows along the entrance driveway – and the family was reportedly uncomfortable calling it a mansion over the years.
The residence, now owned by someone outside the family, also has some Union and Confederate soldier statues and ornamentation on the front gate, perhaps a nod to the fact Burn’s ancestors fought for both the Union and Confederacy.
Burn later helped settle the battle over suffrage in a way that virtually everyone today considers positive, and a century later, reminders of his life are scattered over East Tennessee, much like his political legacy.