William R. Moore
William R. Moore School of Technology in the 1940s
All photographs courtesy of Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries
Dear Vance: Who was William R. Moore, and why does he have a downtown building and a school on Poplar named after him?
— m.k., memphis.
Dear M.K.: Not only that, but he has what I consider the most imposing monument in Forest Hill Cemetery. In fact, if you see it from a distance, with its larger-than-life bronze figure posed majestically atop a high limestone pedestal, you probably think it is the Lauderdale Memorial. It’s an easy mistake to make.
But in the grand scheme of things, even as a Lauderdale I have to admit (somewhat grudgingly) that my family has not left the same mark on Memphis as Moore. Press-Scimitar columnist Eldon Roark once described him as “perhaps the most unusual character who ever influenced the destiny of Memphis.” Another historian called him “one of the outstanding Memphians of all time.”
Of course, this was before I was born, you understand.
Still, William — or as he preferred it, Wm. — R. Moore was by all accounts a remarkable fellow. He was born in 1830 in Alabama to a family that was considered aristocratic; Moore’s father traced his ancestry back to Oliver Cromwell. But when that father died just six months after Moore’s birth, the family was left destitute, and had to take up farming. They moved around a lot, eventually landing in the little community of Beech Grove, Tennessee.
Moore never went to school. At the age of 12 he became a clerk in a county store, and he must have had a knack for business, because in his teens he moved to Nashville and began clerking in one of that city’s largest dry goods stores. Perhaps I should explain that “dry goods” means all kinds of merchandise, including hardware, clothing, fabric, clocks, sewing machines, silverware, you name it — just about everything except groceries.
The ambitious lad then moved to New York City, where he began to prosper in the retail business, and by 1859, when he’d made enough money, he came to Memphis, at the time the fastest-growing city in the South.
He quickly became what he considered “this city’s most insulted resident.” With the Civil War looming, it didn’t help that Moore not only opposed secession but openly supported Abraham Lincoln. As historian Paul Coppock noted, “he was publicly abused, vilified, and held in contempt. The attack was so severe the Presbyterian congregation of which he was a member threw him out.”
When the war began, he quietly stayed in business, and he did something rather clever. Perhaps suspecting that Confederate money would be worthless if — and when — the South lost the war, he didn’t save it. Instead, he bought lots of downtown property with it, and when the war was over, while his business rivals found themselves bankrupt, Moore found himself a wealthy landowner and one of the richest men in the city.
This “insulted man” was elected to Congress in 1880 and was even encouraged to run for governor, but he declined, focusing instead on his business and civic ventures here. And they were numerous. Among other things, during the horrible yellow fever epidemic of 1879, it was Moore who first proposed a sanitation committee to improve our community’s drinking water system, and as a result (though it wasn’t recognized at the time), eradicating the breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that were causing the deadly plague.
His firm grew and prospered. He opened branch offices in Atlanta and built an eight-story headquarters and warehouse building in downtown Memphis with his name carved in stone across the top. It must have been a rather curious place to work. Among other things, Moore was absolutely opposed to alcohol, claiming that even a sip would give anyone a “muddled brain.” So he specified that any employee had the right to “tattle” on co-workers who drank, and if they were big shots in the company, they could even lose their partnership. After all, as Moore explained in the company handbook, “no man deliberately sets out in life’s career to become a drunkard, but occasional drinking leads to habitual drinking, and habitual drinking leads inevitably to both financial insolvency and the drunkard’s grave.”
At the age of 58, he married a woman with the remarkable name of Charlotte Blood, and newspaper accounts describe them living in the “Blood Residence” on Union, a noble-looking edifice despite the distinctly creepy name.
Even with his wealth and success, Moore began to obsess about his legacy. When he retired in 1902, he decided he wanted people to remember him for building one of the finest schools in the South. According to an old Press-Scimitar account, “from then until his death his time was largely filled with dreaming and planning for his college.”
Moore died in 1909 and was buried in the massive stone vault that sits outside the entrance of the Forest Hill Mausoleum. He divided his fortune two ways, with part going to his wife, and the remainder — some $500,000 — going to the school he had envisioned.
Some things just don’t work out the way you expect. For one thing, half a million dollars wasn’t enough to build a really fine college. And the wife got a pretty good share of the rest. So plans for the school were put on hold until the death of Charlotte Blood Moore in Chicago in 1919, and then attorneys couldn’t locate her will. Good grief. When they finally found this document, it didn’t seem to agree with her husband’s intentions regarding the school. One problem was that there still wasn’t enough money, so a group of trustees invested the funds. I certainly wish these fellows had been around to help the Lauderdales, because they quickly doubled the original investment, and when it finally reached way more than a million dollars, they decided it was finally time to build the new school — three decades after the death of its founder.
On April 11, 1939, the brand-new William R. Moore School of Technology did open, and what a place it was. Perhaps because of his own lack of “book learning” Moore didn’t want an emphasis on liberal arts. Instead, as the school’s first president put it, “He didn’t say anything about wanting academic subjects taught. He wanted boys to get training that would enable them to make a good living.”
The school at Poplar and Bellevue stood three stories high and included classrooms, an auditorium, a library, and even a museum. A mechanical and architectural drawing room took up the entire third floor, and wings along the sides held spacious workshops for the technical training program. These were extensive: Students could concentrate in drafting, electricity, machine shop, internal combustion engines, welding, carpentry, cabinet-making, metalworking, and much more.
And this was definitely hands-on work, involving rather elaborate projects. Forget about those shoddy bookends some of you made in shop classes; a 1940 Moore School of Technology bulletin shows a full-scale playhouse, complete with electric lights, brick fireplace, and even an alcove for a “toy telephone.” And at Moore, students worked on real cars and built real furniture.
“Thus students getting instruction in the shops of the William R. Moore School,” said the 1940 bulletin, “will be well prepared to go directly into positions of responsibility in industrial plants.”
And how much would students pay for this opportunity? Just a few dollars. Tuition was free; the only expense was incidental costs such as 25 cents for rental of drafting equipment, or $4.50 for uniforms.
The William R. Moore dry goods business went through various ownership changes over the years, and finally closed. The nice downtown building is still standing; it was recently converted into the Toyota Center overlooking AutoZone Park.
And the school? It’s going strong, now called Moore Tech. Now there are plenty of people — and the Lauderdales are among them — who tend to look down on so-called trade schools because they don’t have the cachet of the Harvards or the Vanderbilts, and they rarely (if ever) field decent football teams. But I invite you to visit the Moore Tech website and notice the job placement figures for the professions taught here, and you might be astonished that in today’s dreary economy, close to 100 percent of Moore Tech grads find jobs.
That’s impressive. William R. Moore would be mighty proud.