Did you know that 40% of Fortune 500 companies are family businesses? Family business forms an extremely valuable segment of American society, yet it has steadfastly received insufficient attention.
“Before the multinational corporation, there was family business,” writes William O’Hara in Centuries of Success. “Before the Industrial Revolution, there was family business. Before the enlightenment of Greece and the empire of Rome, there was family business.” In case you’re wondering, THE oldest currently functioning, continuously family-owned firm is Osaka Japan’s Kongo Gumi, founded in 578 A.D. and now in its 40th generation!
In Appalachia, two firms make the list of the 100 oldest companies in the world (compiled by Family Business magazine), all of which are continuously family-owned firms—all of which can indisputably claim to have outlasted governments, nations, cities and once-powerful corporations.
As might be expected, the age differences between the oldest family businesses in the various US states reflect the dates of settlement of the East, Midwest, and Far West. Generally, the oldest business in a young state has not been around nearly as long as the oldest in an old state.
The Stuart Land Co. of Virginia ranks at #96 on the Oldest 100 Worldwide list (it’s the 17th oldest company in the USA). Today’s Stuart Land and Cattle Company encompasses 20,000 acres in the state’s Russell, Tazewell, and Washington counties. In 1774, Henry Smith II started Clifton Farm in Rosedale, VA on land deeded to him by Patrick Henry, then Colonial Governor of Virginia, as a reward for building an Indian fort on the Clinch River.
When his great-granddaughter Mary Taylor Carter married William Alexander Stuart, she brought a dowry of 80,000 acres, which Stuart added to his own large land holding. The company is named after Stuart, brother of the famous Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. His son Henry Carter Stuart was governor of Virginia in the early 20th century. The company entered the cattle industry in 1884. Current proprietor and CEO William Alexander (Zan) Stuart (below left with wife Lynda) is an eighth-generation family member (Henry Carter Stuart was his great uncle). He has no children in the business, but his grandchildren may succeed him.
In 2002, The Nature Conservancy of Arlington, VA, an environmental group, purchased the rights to cut trees on the ranch as part of a novel approach to conserve wildlife habitat in the South, where most of the forest is privately owned. The conservancy pays the Stuart family a percentage of the appraised value of the timber in exchange for the rights to harvest trees on 5,750 acres of the ranch.
Tennessee’s oldest business, ranking #98 on the Oldest 100 Worldwide list, is St. John Milling Co. According to the Institute for Family Enterprise at Bryant College, it’s America’s oldest continuing family food-maker. Located in Watauga, TN, an area known as “The Bread Basket of the Southeast,” its operation has changed from a feed and milling business to now mainly processing animal feed.
Stone mason Jeremiah Dungan built the original foundation for a mill and stone manor (still standing), and ran the mill starting in 1778 with children Jeremiah and Mary D. Hendrix. The mill passed to son Jeremiah’s daughter Mary and her husband, John Houston (brother of frontier hero Sam Houston), and then to their sons John Jr. and William Houston. In 1866 George W. St. John (1837-1904), great-nephew of Jeremiah Dungan, took over.
His son James St. John (1874-1956) inherited the mill from his father in 1904. James’ son, George St. John, took over the mill’s daily operation in 1935, eventually installing an electric milling process using the knowledge he attained when he earned his electrical engineering degree from the University of Tennessee. Prior to that the mill had used a 16-foot water wheel to grind flour. George St. John was 95 when he died July 19 of this year. He had worked at the St. John Milling Co. since he was 5.
Today the mill is owned by George’s daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth and Ron Dawson (sixth generation), who’ve run it since the 1970s. Because of shifting boundaries, the company has paid taxes in three different states: North Carolina, Tennessee and the short-lived “State of Franklin.” It originally paid taxes to the Watauga Association — the first self-governing body in the American frontier.
sources: Centuries of Success: Lessons from the World’s Most Enduring Family Businesses, by William T. O’Hara, Adams Media, 2004