The name Penelope Bryan probably does not stir a memory for many Blount Countians today. To the by-gone residents of western Blount County, however, she was almost legendary.
Bryan’s story does not begin in Blount County. Born in 1888, she called New Orleans, La., her first home. Her upbringing was one of upper class refinement, considering her father E.F. Bryan was an Englishman “born to manor” as some people would say.
When he moved from New Orleans to Blount County, he brought not only his family (consisting of wife and three children), but his library, his Episcopal faith, his cultured manners, and values held by an upper class Victorian family. Because he suffered ill health in the climate of Louisiana, the fresh mountainous air of Blount County was a welcomed relief.
Though initially the rural atmosphere must have been a shock, Bryan’s father became well-liked by the locals of western Blount County, since he hired close to 500 laborers to work his 2,000-acre commercial farming enterprise. Daughter Penelope must have been a keen observer of farming operations because this knowledge certainly aided her in future years.
Supposition would lead us to believe as a child she perhaps had a governess or was sent to boarding school for her early education. A definite fact has her finishing college. Because of her family’s social and economic status, one must consider it was probably a female college, since most colleges were segregated by gender in the first years of the 1900s.
She may have attended one of the Southern Seven Sisters Colleges such as Agnes Scott. Being from New Orleans, perhaps Bryan went to Sophie Newcomb College, the female part of Tulane University. She might have attended Livingston College for Girls in Alabama under the leadership of the famed Julia Tutwiler.
As a side note, one must remember The University of Alabama only started admitting females in 1902 and only two females were admitted. Thirteen females were allowed to enroll at the university in 1904. Standard practice was to have the female students sit in the hallways to listen to instruction (or even outside listening through opened windows). We can assume Penelope did not have to suffer such indignities.
Upon completing college, this young lady returned to Blount County and opened a school for the children of her father’s tenants. In addition, she planned recreational activities to bring joy for these rural children.
Eventually, she migrated to New York and became a governess to the one daughter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who lived in the Hyde Park section of New York City. We assume Eleanor Roosevelt hired Penelope Bryan to teach the couple’s young daughter. Consider the teaching duties of a governess in that time period: grammar lessons, reading, writing, etiquette, French, water color painting, and poetry. With Anna Roosevelt, the pupil, becoming a prolific magazine and newspaper writer in adulthood, one could see her governess had provided the fundamentals for this future writing talent.
Meanwhile, father E.F. Bryan had developed a highly successful commercial enterprise in Blount County growing peaches, apples, pecans… The farm became so productive agricultural students from across the South came to view and analyze Bryan’s farming practices. A major part of his agricultural success was a spur rail line to the nearby L&N Railroad tracks; however, in 1914 the railroad relocated its tracks, starting the decline of his farming venture.
After her father’s death in 1934, Bryan became the farm manager. Her observations through the years would have given her an education a classroom could not provide. One must imagine the tenacity, especially as a female, to oversee a declining 2,000-acre operation.
Planting schedules, employee payroll and relations, market supply and demand, and keeping abreast of current agricultural innovations would be overwhelming components for such a large enterprise. Her efforts as a farm manager earned her the respect of many as she labored to maintain the livelihood of her father’s tenants.
As to her success we have no clue, but testimony from former workers praised her efforts. She died in 1962 at age 74 living on Highland Avenue in Birmingham. In her last will and testament, she remembered her church, her family, and her beloved former employees.
The subdivision of Smokerise, developed by Les Kelley, today occupies much of the Bryan estate. Living on Bryan Mountain, longtime Smokerise resident Mark Thompson recalls stories of the nearby cave lying parallel to Rickwood Cavern across Interstate 65 serving as a cool storage facility for fruit awaiting transports. Another longtime resident, Phyllis Russell, recalls watermelons being grown on the mountain in the 1970s.
If anyone has additional information concerning the Bryan family and/or their farming operations, as well as any additional information on Penelope Bryan, please contact the Blount County Memorial Museum. The museum is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.