George R. Dempster

Copyright (2002) * 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

George R. Dempster


Photographic Archives, Knoxville News-Sentinel

Although he lived in Fountain City only a few years (1928-1932), George R. Dempster should be included in the first rank of those "Fountain Citians Who Made a Difference." His former home has long been a showplace at arguably the most visible address in Fountain City at Broadway and Gibbs Drive. Now known as the Dempster-Francis House, the home was built in the early 1920s by real-estate developer B.L. Chambers.1

Those who know of Mr. Dempsterís contribution to American industry and to the political scene on local, state and national levels will find it hard to believe that he stood on the Court House steps in 1932 during the Great Depression and observed as his home was being auctioned to the highest bidder. His career was marked by periods of adversity, but nothing ever diminished his native drive for very long. His years in Panama would set the tone for his distinguished career.2

Beginning almost with the arrival of his parents on American shores, the Dempsters would make a contribution in their community. His parents, John (1848-1915) and Ann (Doherty) Dempster (1850-1934), were married in Coberg, Canada and came to Knoxville shortly thereafter in the Fall of 1872. John Dempster came from his birthplace in Perth, Scotland and his wife, Ann, from her native County Cork in Ireland. They met and married on this side of the Atlantic. Three of Johnís brothers, James, William and George, immigrated also but another brother, Thomas, remained at home and later became Lord Provost of Perth from 1925 to 1932. 3 4

George Dempster established a flourmill at Mossy Creek (now Jefferson City) and James founded the Dempster Machine Shops in Knoxville, operated later by several succeeding generations.  John Dempster with his partner established a grist mill, the Scott-Dempster Milling Company, on First Creek at Clinch Avenue and Crozier (now South Central). It was an ambitious mill with a millrace extending practically to present-day Vine Avenue with an overshot waterwheel 20 feet in diameter. The mill served the community for many years.

George Roby Dempster was born on September 16, 1887. The family home was near the East Knoxville junction of Main and Cumberland, then one of Knox Countyís most fashionable neighborhoods. While John and Ann Dempster lived there, most of the eleven Dempster children (five boys and six girls) were born, most of them delivered by Chalmers Deaderick, M.D., prominent Knoxville physician. Eight of the children survived to adulthood. The Dempster boys were: William James (1876-1937), John Scrimgeour (1885-1958), George Roby (1887-1964), Thomas Cameron (1889-1964) and Robert Bruce (1891-1966). The girls were: Ann Blanche D. (Moffett) (1872-1962), Lorena May D. (McMillan) (1879-1946) and Ida Taylor D. (Moore) (1883-1974). Two girls, Elicia Jessie (1874-1880) and Lila Georgia (1877-1879), died in early childhood and Cinnie Boyd (1881-1907) died when she was only 25 years old.

Young George showed how ambitious he was very early. During his grade school and high school years he carried both the morning Knoxville Journal and Tribune and the afternoon Knoxville Sentinel. When he was fourteen and school vacation time came, he applied for a job in construction with the W.J. Oliver Construction Company, a Knoxville business and one of the largest of its type at that time. They would not hire him because of his age so he hoboed to northern Virginia, gave a false age and was hired on as a laborer for the C&O Railroad. He moved up quickly to track worker, brakeman and then fireman. At the time the C&O was "double-tracking" from Orange Court House, Virginia to Washington tunneling directly under the Capitol.

He returned to school in Knoxville the following year and, when he was 16, got a job running a locomotive in South Georgia with the AB&A Railroad for a short while. Then, eager to see the world, he signed on as an oiler and water tender on one of the Ward Liners and set sail for New York. On the high seas outside Cape Hatteras the Chief Engineer asked his age and, in an unguarded moment, George answered "16." He was promptly fired but received free passage the remainder of the way to New York.

A week after he landed in New York, he decided he would seek work on the West Coast. He rode on top of box cars, passenger cars and on the blind baggage car until he reached Council Bluffs, Iowa, where a hobo jungle of 5,000, George included, was stranded because of a railroad strike on the Union Pacific. When the strike was over, he headed back East; visiting the St. Louis Exposition on the way. Finally, he was old enough to get a job with contractor W.J. Oliver, who was "double-tracking" the Big Four Railroad in Indiana. 

He continued to work for Oliver between school years. The Oliver Company had bid to become the contractor for the Panama Canal in 1907 and George Dempster hoped to have a job on the project. Oliver had the low bid but, after much negotiating by President Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of War William Howard Taft, the government decided to hire their own workers for the gigantic task.

His formal education had ended with his graduation from Girls High School (the future Knoxville High School) in 1906. George was president of his graduating class. He did return to school in the early 1930s to attend the John R. Neal School of Law for one year. Although he barely failed to pass the bar exam after only one year of law school, he never found the need to repeat the exam.

Nineteen-year-old George and his younger brother, Tom, both pretending to be older than they were, became civilian employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission in Panama, under Colonel (later General) George W. Goethals. It was George Dempster who rode the first steam shovel placed in service on the Pacific Division of the Canal, excavating for the locks at Miraflores and Pedro Miguel. He scooped the very first shovel of earth from the Pacific side of the giant shipway. 

Living in the barracks with laborers from all over the world and working in mosquito infested swampland, George contracted both typhoid and malaria. Who should become his physician but the famous Colonel (later General) William C. Gorgas, who had conquered yellow fever and bubonic plague and was now battling malaria?5

The standard treatment for typhoid at the time was a starvation diet of cracked ice and two glasses of milk a day. When his weight dropped to 86 pounds, Colonel Gorgas again saw him and prescribed eggnog. Reflecting his lifelong opposition to alcohol (also tobacco), George refused and Gorgas said, "Young man, you have the distinction of being the only patient I have ever had who refused to take my prescription and unless you do you will be dead within a week."

Respectfully, George refused and the colonel left. An old friend in an adjoining bed had a different ailment and his treatment called for double rations. Since he was only nibbling on his food, George asked if he could eat it. The friend, having overheard the doctor, warned George of the consequences. George said, "Iíll be dead anyway in a week and I want to die on a full stomach." The friend said, "Itís OK with me." For three meals a day, the friend would nibble and George would wipe the platter clean. The majority of typhoid patients in the ward died on the starvation diet. Eventually, medicine adopted the George Dempster treatment plan, not knowing that he had discovered it. He would relate many years later in writing his unpublished memoirs, "since that date in 1909 I have never even had a headache."

His memoirs describe several exciting and often life-threatening episodes in his life:

George Dempster was absorbing engineering and mechanical skills under the tutelage of the worldís finest engineers of the time. But, ironically, his first invention caused him to be "reported for discharge." An old-time steam shovel engineer testified that "George Dempster is the laziest man on the Panama Canal because he is trying to invent a mechanical device to dump the dipper on his shovel." An investigation followed which indicated the need for the equipment and, eventually, all shovels on the Canal project were equipped with similar devices.

As president of the Panama Local of the Associated Union of Steam Shovel and Dredge men, George met with the other members of the committee to take up grievances with Colonel Goethals. After their first meeting one Sunday morning, the top brass departed leaving just the colonel and the committee. The colonel unbuttoned his jacket, put his feet up on the desk, passed cigarettes around and said, "When I think you are right I will see that you get a fair deal; when I think you are wrong I will d--- soon tell you about it." Although Goethals had autocratic powers, he remembered the workers first names and addressed them that way. He also gave credit when credit was due and performed feats of engineering and construction that, George Dempster felt, had never been matched. Perhaps this exposure to an exemplary leader provided the model for Dempsterís expertise in his work and his skill in labor relations later in life.

Although he would remain in Panama from 1907 to 1912, George returned home to marry Frances M. Seymour on March 21, 1911, in a marriage performed in the stately manse of First Presbyterian Church (until recently the seat of the Knoxville Academy of Medicine at Walnut and Cumberland) by the venerable pastor of the church, the Rev. James Park. George and Frances described their arrival at the manse in a Buick open car with all the old-fashioned controls and a rubber bulb horn on the running board. Frances accompanied him back to Panama for his final year there.

Upon his return to Knoxville he and his brothers, Tom and John, organized the Dempster Construction Company. They built highways, railroads and water-powered dams in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky. By 1922 they had 26 shovels operating on various jobs, all the way from three-quarter yard buckets to the largest strip-mining shovel in the world at the time. Later, brothers Bob and Will J. came into the firm. Then they founded the Dempster Machinery Company.

Things developed rapidly for both firms, but then came the Great Depression. Both the construction firm and the machinery firm were forced into bankruptcy. George stood on the Court House steps one morning and watched as his Fountain City home on Gibbs Drive was auctioned to the highest bidder. The depression crushed many lesser men, but not George Dempster.

By the end of his career he would hold over 75 patents, but his best known patent was the one that revolutionized solid waste disposal. In 1935 he conceived the idea of the Dempster-Dumpster to facilitate construction work. Competitors saw it working so well that they asked that similar units be made for them. Shortly thereafter, he patented the idea and, before long, the five brothers were devoting their entire time to manufacturing Dumpsters at Dempster Brothers, Inc.

Mayor Dempster with the Dempster Dumpster

Photographic Archives, Knoxville News-Sentinel

Dempster Dumpsters reduced the cost of collecting, hauling and dumping garbage more than 75 percent compared to the cost of performing the task with conventional dump trucks. Eventually they were able to handle a 38,000-pound net load, plus the two ton weight of the bucket, all on a single-axle heavy-duty truck. By 1939 the company had designed and manufactured the Dempster-Balester, a hydraulic machine capable of crushing and bailing an entire automobile into a billet for shipping. The Russian government ordered sixteen Model 125 Balesters under lend lease and required that each machine be accompanied by 15 blueprints, obviously so they could build the machine themselves after the war.

Work with the U.S. Navy resulted in Dempster equipment being used all over the world. For instance, there were 125 Dumpsters on the docks in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Their work with the Navy and their reputation for welding and fabricating metal resulted in 15,000 pontoons supplied during WW-II with none of them being rejected upon inspection. Dempster Brothers ability with hydraulics enabled them to make and handle containers weighing over eight tons for the Hydrogen Bomb Plant in Georgia.

The company employed more than 450 people at their plant on Springdale Avenue and the Southern Railroad in the 1950s. Eleven buildings on 27 acres were devoted to manufacturing and repairing their equipment. They paid top wages and their benefit package was unexcelled at the time. More than 10 percent of the workers were physically handicapped, but not because of injuries at the plant for it had an outstanding safety record. At various times the plant acted as a training ground for expert welders and machinists who were later employed by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Atomic Energy Commission. Fortune Magazine reported that by 1952 the company was grossing $6,500,000 a year.7

Early in his marriage George worked out a "deal" with his spouse. Frances was a member of the Episcopal Church and a Republican. He was a Presbyterian and a Democrat. Observing that he disliked seeing a couple attending different churches, he proposed she choose one affiliation and he the other. She chose the Episcopal Church and he the Democrat party. This arrangement would continue throughout their married life.

No matter how busy he was at work, in civic affairs, on numerous volunteer boards in the community and as Vestryman at his church, he always had time for his family. The couple had three children: Josephine (Mrs. Harry G. Epperson), Ann Gordon (Mrs. Jack Hamilton) and George S., who spent five years in the Air Force in World War II in Alaska and the Pacific, and an additional four year tour at Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Mr. Dempster was not a Democrat in name only, rather he was a participant in politics. He served as campaign manager for Henry Horton in the 1928 gubernatorial election and, when Horton was elected, Dempster was named commissioner of finance and taxation for the State of Tennessee. The Governor later appointed him to the Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission. In 1929 he was appointed city manager of Knoxville, serving two years, and in 1935 he served another two-year term. Later he served two terms on City Council and was elected mayor for one four-year term (1952-1955), after the city switched to the mayoral form of government. In 1940 he ran for governor in the Democrat primary against the incumbent, Prentice Cooper, but suffered one of his few defeats at the polls.8

During his ten years at City Hall, Dempster was a hard-working, efficient administrator. One reporter stated that he would often talk to two callers simultaneously on the two telephones that sat on his desk. Sometimes an aggrieved citizen would call in only to have the mayor call the appropriate department head on the second phone to negotiate a solution.

He rarely needed to compromise and the many "monuments" he left behind in Knoxville attest to his managerial skills. But for his persistence we might not have the benefits of the Henley Street Bridge (fortunately, he insisted on four lanes when Council wanted only two), the Fifth Avenue viaduct, four branch libraries, the sewage disposal system, Chilhowee and Tyson Parks (he recommended their purchase), the Smithson (later Bill Meyer) Stadium, the gas plant, the municipal garage and many other civic improvements.

Always a supporter of minorities, Mr. Dempster employed the first black civil service secretary, built the first black fire department and conceived the black unit of the Knoxville General Hospital. He then persuaded the Rosenwald Fund to appropriate $50,000 toward its construction.

He was on the Advisory Board of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library and a board member of the United Cerebral Palsy Association, the Mental Health Association and the Knox County Association of Retarded Children. He founded the Dempster Memorial Sheltered Workshop and was a member of the Knoxville Executive Club, the Presidentís Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, the Nobel Awards Dinner Committee, the Committee for a Peaceful and Orderly Desegregation and a 32nd Degree Mason and Shriner. Mr. Dempster personally sponsored a talented blind pianist for a Sunday musical program on radio for twenty years.

The Dempster marriage of 49 years ended on September 30, 1960, with the death of his beloved wife, Frances Seymour Dempster (1891-1960). The beautiful and gifted daughter of Digby Gordon Seymour, Sr. and Josephine (Douglass) Seymour, she was a talented church organist and, for a time, early in their marriage, taught school. Her father was a Harvard educated civil engineer who was chief engineer in building one of the transcontinental railroads.9

The Dempster family owned six homes in the area over the years, including their Fountain City home on Gibbs Drive. One home was on his 500-acre Hereford cattle farm fronting Fort Loudon Lake off Maryville Pike. After selling their home at 806 Scenic Drive, they purchased their final residence at 2061 Cherokee Boulevard which was all on one level so Mrs. Dempster would not need to climb stairs.

George Roby Dempster, the first generation, self-made son of immigrants to America--adventurer, inventor, manufacturer, public servant, businessman and philanthropist--succumbed to a heart attack on September 18, 1964. Over 1000 mourners attended his services at St. James Episcopal Church, described as the largest funeral ever held in Knoxville. U.S. Senators Albert Gore and Herbert S. Walters and former-Mayor Edmund Orgill of Memphis attended along with many other dignitaries. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery beside his wife. Truly, George R. Dempster made a contribution to his local community and to his country. His life and works made a difference.10

D-DMPSTR.DOC (3/26/01, 3/10/02, 7/26/02, 8/7/02, 8/26/02, 9/21/02)

1 Knoxville City Directories (1928-1932), McClung Historical Collection, Knoxville, Tennessee. A Fountain City historian recalls hearing that Mr. Dempster would have remained a Fountain Citian but that he needed to establish residency within the Knoxville city limits to fulfill his ambition to serve eventually in Knoxville city government. Of course, those years were also at the height of the Great Depression and that may also have had an influence.

2 Susan Church, "Francis Home--a Grand Reminder of Times Past," Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 21, 1997.

3 George S. Dempster, Autobiographical Essay (Unpublished), Dempster Papers, McClung Historical Collection, circa 1954.   Dr. Jan Merchant, Archivist of the Council Archive in Perth, Scotland, advises that Thomas Dempster was Lord Provost of Perth from 1925 to 1932 when he resigned his post and also resigned as a member of the Town Council.  Judging from the council minutes, which were very fulsome in praise of his achievements during his seven year tenure, he resigned due to ill health.  The Perthshire Advertiser, carried an obituary (with photograph) when Thomas died, aged 75 years on December 22, 1937.  He was a partner of the solicitors' firm of Messrs Robertson, Dempster & Co., WS in Perth and had two sons - R. Scott Dempster and Thomas G. Dempster, both Writers of the Signet - and three married daughters. 

The term Provost originally derives from the officer appointed to have charge of any royal estate, but came to be applied to an officer in charge of a burgh (town).  He is the head of the Council in much the same way as an English Mayor.  Usually, he is the chief magistrate.  Perth was a Royal Burgh until 1975, when there were widespread administrative changes.  As a Royal Burgh, Perth originally enjoyed special trading privileges. Perth is also a cathedral city and consequently, along with the four designated cities of Scotland (Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee), the Provost is entitled Lord Provost.

4 Carson Brewer, "Dempster, Ex-Mayor, Is Dead," Knoxville News-Sentinel, September 19, 1964.

5 Dempster, circa 1954; David McCullough, The Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, Simon and Schuster (New York, 1977); Benton J. Stong, "Construction Gang Was George Dempsterís Training School," Knoxville News-Sentinel, July 24, 1927.

6 By the 1950s, 120 cubic yard capacity shovels would be used in strip mining.  Of course, much larger ones are used today.

7 Dempster Brothers Company was founded by George Dempster in 1933, later sold to Carrier Corporation, then to Krug International. It closed in April 1987 when Krug International closed the plant and stunned the 250 workers who were on strike at the time. The Dempster Dumpster continued to be manufactured in California, Georgia and Canada. They are sold nationwide and shipped overseas to many countries.

8 Lucile Deaderick, Editor, Heart of the Valley (A History of Knoxville, Tennessee), East Tennessee Historical Society (Knoxville, 1976).

9 Bob Cunningham, "Heart Attack Fatal to Mrs. Dempster," Knoxville News-Sentinel, October 1, 1960.

10 Carson Brewer, "Dempster, Ex-Mayor Is Dead," Knoxville News-Sentinel, September 19, 1964; "George Dempster, Industrial, Civil Leader, Dies at 77," Knoxville Journal, September 19, 1964.

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