By Earl Hendry
In our Oct. 21 column, we published the first installment of an article by Mr. John F. Lee Jr. of Williamson County on the subject of our own Civil War Gen. John T. Wilder – of Tweetsie Railroad, Roan Mountain, Cranberry Mine and Cloudland Hotel fame. Mr. Lee is a retired architect and his father was raised from the age of twelve by the General and his second wife, John’s Great Aunt — Dr. Dora Lee Wilder. Reprinted below is the second part of his long, unpublished, but fascinating article penned about this extraordinary couple and his father’s life as a boy with them in Knoxville and in Monterey, where Gen. Wilder established his last hostelry in 1909, the Imperial Hotel. Unlike the General’s lavish Cloudland Hotel atop The Roan, the Imperial was built as a commercial hotel close alongside the Tennessee Central Railroad in Monterey, where it still stands today. Here then is the second part of a word portrait on Gen. John T. Wilder and his little-known doctor-wife that none of us has ever seen before.
(Second Part of SEARCHING FOR MY AUNT DORA by John F. Lee Jr.)
“General Wilder at one time was considered an extremely wealthy man, but he had lost a great deal of his money in the Panic of 1893 and never fully recovered. He associated with many of the elite in his time.
My father was given a dollar by General Wilder while the couple was visiting.
My father, being fond of bananas, went to the grocery store and bought a dollar’s worth of bananas. When he returned home his mother looked at the amount of bananas and made him take them back. That number of bananas was quite heavy.
Dora and General wilder moved to Knoxvile, Tennessee, where he had resided with his two daughters, Miss Mary and Miss Martha Wilder. With General Wilder’s influence, the Medical Department at the University of Tennessee considered allowing Dora to attend. The administration took a vote of the senior class as to whether her presence would be acceptable to them. They voted in the affirmative and volunteered not to make ungentlemanly remarks in anatomy class.
Dora was accepted and took her senior year at the University Tennessee. Graduating in the spring, she was given a license to practice the medical profession.
In the family it was always considered that our Aunt Dora was the first woman to graduate from the Medical Department at the University of Tennessee and the first woman in Tennessee to receive a license. The archives at Tennessee Technical University at Cookeville holds the Dora Lee Wilder Smith Collection which contains her report cards from the University of Indianapolis and the University of Tennessee.
Some of the newspapers in large cities reported about the marriage that old General Wilder had married an under age young girl. Aunt Dora was not bothered by this. She thought it amusing. The age difference was not as extreme as the papers had reported. General Wilder built a house on a small amount of acreage that they named Cherry Hill on the Tennessee River close to downtown Knoxville. This river held many memories for Aunt Dora. It is fed by the joining of the French Broad River and the Holston River a few miles north of Cherry Hill. The French Broad runs
through the land where she was raised in Alexander [NC]. The soil at Cherry Hill was so rich and produced such abundance, that during the summer they would send a cart into Knoxville and sell vegetables.
General Wilder was a very active, energetic, tall, and stout person, always involved in perusing his ideas and bring them to fruition. In time these characteristics did not lend themselves to Aunt Dora’s practice of medicine. In an era when the male was dominant, her profession became secondary. She continued to do what she could.
She found that on the western plateau of the Cumberland Mountains, the mountain men often did not want a male doctor physically touching their wives. This gave her an advantage. However, in the case of a birth, she often complained that they waited too long before coming. There would be little that she could do, but she would always try.
My older brother remembers she had an office in the basement of the Imperial Hotel [at Monterey]. My father would tell that she amputated the severely damaged leg of a railroad man who had been in an accident. This took place in the basement of the hotel with several people watching through a basement window.
In 1906 the health of her brother began to fail; he and his family returned to Alexander. For one year he taught in the local school and then died in 1907 leaving a widow and four children. General Wilder and Aunt Dora took the oldest daughter Kate who was 14 to live with them. The mother took the two youngest girls, Dora and Marion and, went to live in Baltimore with her sister; and she placed the twelve year old boy in an orphanage in Asheville. Soon General Wilder and Aunt Dora made arrangements for the son to be also sent to them. The son was my father, John Francis Lee and he was eternally thankful to them.
(This look at the life of Gen. John T. Wilder and his wife, Dr. Dora Lee Wilder, will continue in the next Tennessee Heritage column.)