Erwin library offers a look back in time

Sue Guinn Legg • Apr 16, 2018 at 4:21 PM

ERWIN - At the former Clinchfield Railroad Depot that houses  Erwin’s Col. J.F. Toney Memorial Library, anyone curious about the history of the handsome, red brick building can step inside for step back in time.

The depot ticket windows behind the library’s checkout desk, the freight scales and sliding freight doors in its children’s room and the architectural drawings for the building’s 1925 construction that hang in the main room of the library were preserved in the building’s restoration and are pointed to with pride by the library staff.

A portrait of Col. James Frank Toney, the Erwin merchant, newspaper publisher and statesman for whom the library is named, can be found on the wall near the main entrance. And just across the room is a photo of Toney’s grandson, Kenneth Scott Toney Sr., who purchased the depot from CSX Transportation in 1989, helped with its restoration and donated it to the town for use as the library.

A collection of excerpts from an autobiography penned by J.F. Toney in 1937 is on file in the library’s history room and offer a deeper look at the town’s history.

An addendum attached to the excerpts by his grandson notes that J.F. Toney was 13 years old when his father was “taken from his sick bed and killed by Confederate renegades, leaving him on his own to help support his mother,” 14-year-old sister and three younger siblings.

In his autobiography, J.F. Toney wrote that he was born in 1850 in a section of Unicoi County that was then still a part of Carter County. He lived there until he was 17, attending a country school three or four months each year and spending the remainder at work on the Longmire farm where much of the town of Erwin was later laid out.

“Many a day I spent plowing and hoeing … on the same corner north of Union Street” that by 1937 was occupied Erwin’s buildings of commerce and government.

As a young man, Toney spent four enjoyable years working  in a general store before opening a mercantile of his own with “fair success.” At age 19, he married Fannie Bell Miller of Rogersville and together they raised 10 children to adulthood.

While still in his 20s, he was elected Circuit Court Clerk and was distinguished as the youngest elected county clerk in Tennessee. In 1896, he was elected to the first of his two four-year terms in the state legislature. And afterward he spent ten years in state office to which he was appointed by the governor.

On March 19, 1891 Toney established the “Erwin Magnet,” and continued as the newspaper’s owner and publisher for the next 36 years, “at all times ready, willing and anxious to give publicity through its columns to any movement which had the tendency of upbuilding and betterment of our town or county.”

In 1921, he was appointed to the staff of Governor Alf Taylor who bestowed on him the rank of colonel.

As for his military service, Toney wrote that during the Spanish American War he was recommended for a captaincy by his friend, Gen. John T. Wilder, but declined the post “for many reasons other than my incompetency.”

“My military training and competency were limited. My desire to fight was at a low ebb” and “I declined for I could not leave my wife and small children.”

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the library is located at 201 Nolichuckey Avenue. Hours area 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Monday - Friday and 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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