By Earl Hendry
In our last three columns we have printed the previously unpublished article by Mr. John F. Lee Jr. on the subject of our own Civil War Gen. John T. Wilder, builder of the world-famous Cloudland Hotel on Roan Mountain.
Mr. Lee’s father was raised from the age of 12 by the general and his second wife, John’s great aunt — Dr. Dora Lee Wilder (Tennessee’s first female medical doctor). Reprinted below is the post script of John’s previously unpublished article about this unusual couple and his father’s life as a boy with them in Knoxville and Monterey, Tenn.
The winters in Monterey were cold, snowy, and windy. In the 1920s, they began to hire someone to run the hotel during the winter months so that they [Doctor Wilder was remarried to P. B. Smith some years after General Wilder’s death] were able to go to Florida. Evidently Aunt Dora had enjoyed the Florida trips with General Wilder [prior to his death in 1917]. Eventually they settled in Cocoa, Florida, built two apartment buildings, bought an orange grove on the Indian River, and in the1930s built a nice three bedroom home. They continued these annual trips until P. B. died in May, 1959. He was buried in the French Broad Baptist Church in Alexander, North Carolina.
After P. B. died, Aunt Dora [Wilder] gave us a trunk full of his clothes that he had used in Minnesota. They were very formal morning coats, with striped pants, tails, black patent leather pumps with grained ribbons, silk socks and, white gloves. We had never seen him in anything but work clothes.
Aunt Dora continued to Iive in the hotel farmhouse [at Monterey, TN] and arrangements were made for local people to look after her. John and Myrtie Bilbrey were devoted friends. When she was dying, she was moved to the old hospital. During her last week, my mother went and stayed with her. The [Imperial] hotel was closed, so she stayed with John and Myrtie. Mother would stay with Aunt Dora until she was settled for the night. The front door of the hospital was locked that late, so she had to use the back door when she left. She had to walk up the alley to the main street and then down to the Bilbrey’s. Every night there was a group of old men sitting at the old hotel. They would stop talking and look at her. This frightened her, and she asked Mr. Bilbrey if they were all right. He told her that they knew who she was and why she was here. They were seeing that she got in safely, and then they left and went home. So she gave them a report on Aunt Dora’s condition every night.
Aunt Dora died on July 29, 1963. Her body was taken to the Goff Funeral Home. Aunt Dora wanted an Episcopal service. She had once been friends with the Killifers who had had an Episcopal mission in Monterey. A married daughter of the Killifer’s, Mag Harris, was living in Cookeville and arranged for a priest and Prayer Books from Cookeville;and a proper Episcopal Funeral was performed.
There were not many that knew the responses. Burial was in Alexander, North Carolina, in the French Broad Baptist church’s cemetery next to P. B.with her brother, mother and father. Her tombstone has her birth year as 1878; the family thinks this is a mistake and that it should be 1877.
Before the Funeral an old mountain woman came and asked if her daughter could come in to see Aunt Dora in her coffin. The daughter was middle aged, mentally and physical afflicted. The mother bought her up to the casket and said.
“l wanted you to see the woman that saved your life.” My father said [again] that it was a constant worry for Aunt Dora that the mountain men would wait too long before coming to get her.
Aunt Dora’s will left the house in Florida to her niece Dora Lee Harmer and the hotel farm to John F. Lee, my father. Her money was equally divided between her thirteen nieces and nephews. A lawyer in Florida handled the estate, and he would never give an accounting of the total estate [but] it would be reasonable to estimate the total amount of the estate somewhere around $200,000 to $250,000.