John L. Humbard

Copyright 2004 * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference

John L. Humbard

Master Road Builder

(Photo Courtesy of Ben L. Crawford)

What Fountain Citian supervised the construction of the following projects:

Finally, what Fountain Citian headed a $9,000,000 road building program in the early 1950s for Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and became the Emperorís personal friend?

The answer to all of those questions is John L. Humbard, master road builder.

A great-grandson of Isaac Joseph Humbard, an East Tennessee pioneer, John Levi Humbard was born on February 23, 1892 in Knoxville. His parents were Samuel Levi Humbard (1865-1930) and Anna Laura Joseph Humbard (1870-1960). 

Samuel was born in Cocke County, the son of George and Julia Frances Humbard. When he was only 12-years old, he apprenticed himself as a harness maker. By 1882 he had become proprietor of the Knoxville Collar Company, exclusive makers of horse collars, and employed up to five men in the business. He first located on Market Square, but later moved to Emory Park and, for his last few years, operated on the section of Jackson Avenue that later became McCalla.

Samuel and Anna Laura Humbard had six children: John L., Benjamin P., Joseph G. (1894-1937), Louise H. (Halliburton) (1903-1975), Sarah H. (Moore) (1907-1958) and Richard P. (1911-1988). The family home was on Brooks Road in East Knoxville.

Their eldest, John L. Humbard, was a graduate of Knoxville High School and of St. Joseph College at Emmitsburg, Maryland. Soon after returning to Knoxville, he founded the Humbard Construction Company and operated it from 1920 to 1932. As with many local firms, the company went into receivership in the Great Depression. Humbardís engineering expertise soon won him employment in the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads. 

By 1934 he was very busy with construction of the road from Pigeon Forge to Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains, which was considered one of the most difficult highway projects ever attempted in the United States up to that time.  Humbard hewed a roadbed out of precipitous mountainsides that were almost perpendicular in places. He devised methods of ferrying material and equipment up the steep mountains and would later observe, "How well I remember that (project). Not only did we have the rough terrain to overcome, but the weather gave us a fit. At that height (5,048 feet at the Gap), itís not only cold as the devil, but thereís a lot of snow. We had 84 inches on that project."

Almost immediately after that assignment, he went to another tough mountain job on the Blue Ridge Skyway, including bridging of the treacherous Linville Gorge. Soon he was into his overseas career and building roads through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Alaska and the Virgin Islands.

In the early 1940s he was assigned to supervise the construction of the 50-mile long, $4,000,000 Colon to Panama City Isthmian highway, designed to help provide defense for the Canal. It was built through a wilderness with 19 bridges and many 100-foot cuts with some fills as high as 109 feet. The jungles were filled with bushmaster and fer-de-lance snakes, both among the most deadly. Workers killed more than 100 snakes during the construction. Once a poisonous bushmaster leaped into a passing truck loaded with laborers, but was killed before it could strike. Black panthers and spotted tigers were also a menace. However, by working night and day, he completed the highway in almost record time.

John Humbard in Ethiopia with Haile Selassie, Circa 1950

(Photo Courtesy of Ben L. Crawford)

In 1951 Humbard was appointed Director of the Imperial Ethiopian Highway Authority for a $9,000,000 road building program. With his 42 American technicians and an Ethiopian and European workforce that would eventually number 4200, he began a highway system that would cover 5000 miles and funnel produce from the countryís provinces through 2500 miles of secondary roads.

When Emperor Haile Selassie and his royal retinue made an inspection of an early construction site, Humbard arranged an awe-inspiring demonstration for them. He aligned five bulldozers, two to a side and one topping the center, and soon swept out a mile or two of road "before their very eyes." Needless to say, the Emperor was impressed. Before long Humbardís management style had the men as anxious as he always was to get things done.

Eventually his highway authority would include its own health program for the workers with a public health doctor, a mobile clinic and sanitary facilities for all the work camps. Concerned with the diet of his workers, Humbard provided bread and vegetables for them during the annual 200 days of fasting required by their religion when they were not permitted fowl, eggs, butter or oil. One of his statements summarized these efforts: "I believe in taking the wrinkles out of a manís stomach before demanding a real dayís work."

Humbardís close friend, Lee Morgan Davis, reported his assessment of Haile Selassie in a January 6, 1955, article in the Knoxville News-Sentinel entitled, "John L. Humbard, Internationally Famed Road Builder, Dies at 62." Humbard observed, "Itís a pleasure to work with that head of state. Haile Selassie is on the ball. His questions are right to the point. You have to be on your toes. Heís plenty aware that it will take an adequate highway system to tap his countryís fabulous resources."

The Emperor also had high regard for his chosen highway engineer. When he came to Washington on a state visit, he sent Humbard a letter inviting him to the diplomatic reception. When Emperor Selassie spotted Humbard in the reception line, he stepped forward to grasp both his hands and held up the line for minutes while they visited. The ruler even enlisted his Knoxville friend to shop for him by commissioning the purchase of a two-bedroom trailer with a royal purple exterior. He also ordered four smaller automobiles to supplement his fleet of Cadillacs and his two Rolls-Royces.

John L. Humbard married Wilma Elizabeth Cameron (1894-1948), daughter of Joseph W. and Emma Nichols Cameron, in about 1916. Her father operated the South Knoxville Stockyards off Maryville Pike, one of two local stockyards in 1920.

The Humbards built their large home on Kesterwood Drive at Jacksboro Pike in 1919. In later years, while John worked in many countries, Wilma managed the two servants who had quarters there and oversaw cultivation and maintenance of the wildflowers, shrubs and trees John had collected along the right-of-way of the Great Smoky Parkway during its construction. Many of the plants he collected still thrive on the property today. Not the least of the servantís duties was caring for and exercising Johnís faithful friendóhis standard-size Schnauzer--who is buried under the lamppost in the front yard of their former home. Wilma also found time for recreation and became an outstanding tournament golfer.

They lived in their treasured home for some 35 years. The distinctive entrance, the attractive brick exterior, the large fireplaces in two rooms with their decorative mantels, the high ceilings with exposed beams, the exquisite woodwork and the slate roof--all represented his high standards. One unusual feature is the mosaic floor of exotic marble collected in each country he visited around the world. There are eleven rooms plus four bathrooms and a separate apartment with kitchen and closet; also a garage, laundry room and large screened-in porch.

Tragically, Wilma Cameron Humbard died on March 14, 1948, at 55 years of age while visiting her sister, Mrs. A.P. Thissell, in Laredo, Texas. She is buried in the Cameron Family Plot at Woodlawn Cemetery. Among her pallbearers were their close family friends George Dempster, Clyde Key, Dr. Herbert Acuff, Dr. W.T. DeSautelle and John Conner.

Contemplating retirement several years later, but in declining health as a result of the arduous work he had performed for years often in primitive conditions, John Humbard bought a 100-year old brick house and farm (Cold Stream Farm) in Monroe County. He restored it in absorbing detail and established a herd of prize Herefords on the surrounding acres near Madisonville. He had planned to entertain his old friends there. Although he was honored by many foreign rulers, confidant of many Washington insiders and a member of social clubs in a number of capitols, he still treasured most his friends in the construction field in East Tennessee, including George R. Dempster and Neal Adams.

Ironically, he had completed the restoration too late to fulfill his planned retirement. His last 19 months were spent in a series of stays in hospitals and clinics. After a month at the famous Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans, he lived his final days at St. Maryís Hospital and passed away on January 5, 1955, at 62 years of age.

John Humbard was honored with the Gold Medal of Achievement by Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer for his work in Ethiopia, appointed a colonel on Gov. Frank Clementís staff, knighted by the Panamanian Government and universally praised for his engineering achievements. He was a member of St. James Episcopal Church. His services were held by Rev. John Bull at Mannís Mortuary, followed by interrment with his father and other members of the Humbard family in Lynnhurst Cemetery. Neal Adams, Bob Broome, John W. Conner, George R. Dempster, Frank Venable and John Waldrop served as pallbearers. He was survived by his mother who lived an additional five years, his brothers, Ben and Richard, and his sisters, Mrs. Louise H. Halliburton and Mrs. Sarah H. Moore.

The John L. Humbard Home on Kesterwood Drive

(Photo Courtesy of Ben L. Crawford)

The Humbard House has been faithfully restored by George and Margaret (Margo) Campbell who bought it from Thomas and Thelma Arp in 1966. Upon Mr. Campbellís death, their daughter Becky, her husband, W. Harvey Smeltzer, and their three children, Elizabeth, Jonathan and Rebekah, have also occupied and further restored several features of the historic home. They added a recreation room, carefully matching the brick exterior and slate roof, as the Arps had done earlier. Margo Lovelace Campbell and her daughter, Becky Smeltzer, are descendants of Jacob Lones Sr. of Middlebrook Pike and aficionados of East Tennessee history. They are members of the First Families of Tennessee, as is Harvey, a descendant of Joseph Kinkead of Hawkins County. John and Wilma Humbard could not have chosen better stewards of their home place.

Authorís Note: The author wishes to thank Mr. Humbardís nephew, Ben L. Crawford of Shannon, Ga., who helped with the research for this article and also provided a number of photographs, which will become a part of the Fountain City Heritage Collection. Thanks go also to Annette Hartigan, historian of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mrs. Margo Campbell and Mr. and Mrs. Harvey (Becky Campbell) Smeltzer, present owners of the Humbard House. Thanks also to Robert A. McGinnis, local historian, who assisted with details on the Cameron family and Wilma Cameron Humbard. Interestingly, the property at Jacksboro and Kesterwood Drive was once a part of the George E. and Lennie Maloney and Charles R. and Lula E. Gibbs 17-acre tract and bordered Gaines Harrillís acreage. The author would be interested in talking with others investigating the Gibbs-Maloney and Harrill plats.

d-humbard (12/9/04= 30 paragraphs, 1277 words; 2/16/05 46 paragraphs, 1954 words)