Brownlow, a railroad engineer, newspaper owner and postmaster, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives by Tennessee’s 1st District in 1896.
According to historical accounts, he tried to join the 8th Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry Regiment in the Union Army at age 13, but didn’t pass muster because he was deemed too young.
Though he wasn’t allowed to serve in the military, his contributions to the country’s veterans and Johnson City’s development remain etched into the community more than 100 years later.
In 1900, Congressman Brownlow introduced legislation to establish a branch of the National Home for Volunteer Soldiers in Johnson City. Northeast Tennessee was a stronghold for Union support in a state that seceded during the war, he argued, and its loyal veterans, many of whom risked their homes and lives in the Confederate-controlled territory, were important to the war effort.
Brownlow told the committee considering the placement of the soldiers’ home that more troops came to the Union Army from Tennessee than from any other state in the South, and he estimated 30,000 came from his district alone.
"Had these soldiers gone with the South, there was doubt as to what might have been the success of the Confederacy," Brownlow told the committee.
Reports in Johnson City’s newspaper The Comet detail a three-minute meeting between Brownlow and the managing board of the soldiers’ home during which the congressman laid out his case. In those few minutes, the newspaper reported Brownlow had flipped the board members to support the Johnson City location and had convinced them to increase appropriations for the facility from $250,000 to $1 million.
After the new branch proposal passed both houses of Congress, land was purchased and construction started in 1901.
Architect Joseph H. Freedlander was chosen to lead the ambitious project, which took three years and 1,000 workers to build the institution’s first 37 buildings.
The self-sufficient town had 8 barracks for 2,500 men, a mess hall, an infirmary, officers and surgeons quarters, an administrative building, a power house, a laundry, an ice house, a hotel, a chapel, a theater, a bandstand, a jail and a morgue.
Johnson City, smaller than Greeneville at the time, had a total assessed property value of $750,000. The investment in the Mountain Home branch dwarfed the town, costing between $2 million and $3 million to build.
The branch, like other soldiers’ homes, attracted tourists with its zoo, housing bear, elk, deer and peacocks, two large lakes with swans, a tennis court and a rose garden.
Its opening did wonders for Johnson City’s recognition and economic development. The city’s population of 5,000 in 1901 more than doubled by the time the Mountain Home branch was occupied by residents.
Today, the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center offers services to 170,000 veterans living in 41 surrounding counties in Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky. The historic campus is also home to East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine and Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy.