Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Ready, Willis and Able – John Tilson's grandson shares story (Aug. 19, 2015 issue)

The evening was warm and pleasant as we sat on the porch of the old John Q. Tilson house on Tilson Mountain in the south end of Unicoi County. John Q.’s grandson Ken Murray was sharing stories of the Tilson family with our Unicoi County Historical Society. He explained that John Q., born in 1866, pursued what schooling he could in Unicoi County, then studied two years at Carson College, which later became today’s Carson Newman College. From there, John Q. set off for Yale University, where he received his Masters degree in law. And a few years later, John Q. was serving as Speaker of the House of the Connecticut General Assembly. Then he was elected Congressman for the state of Connecticut and eventually became the Majority Floor Leader of the U. S. House of Representatives.
During his 22 years in Congress, he presided over the House for more hours than anyone before him. Ken suggested that John Q.’s success had a lot to do with his parents, William Erwin Tilson and Katharine Sams, the daughter of early Unicoi County settler, James Brown Sams.
In his book, “THE TILSON FAMILY,” John Q. writes with great respect about his family. He talks a lot about William’s Uncle Bill Erwin, who was a prosperous landowner and saw miller for the time. One day when Uncle Bill and William were together, Bill said he would like to get rid of a three-foot- wide stump in one of his fields. He would give a silver dollar to anyone who could dig it out. Young William had a better idea. He hauled wood back to the stump and burned it out. William worked for his Uncle Bill and others until he had enough money to buy the land, which surrounds the Tilson home.
Opportunities for education were scarce for both William and John Q. Unicoi County wasn’t even a county when they were born. But both father and son studied with every traveling teacher who came their way. And though William didn’t go to Yale and become a congressman like his son, he held the office of Clerk and Master of Unicoi County’s Chancery Court for many years after the county was formed in 1875. William also served as a Justice of the Peace, which in Tennessee was a legislative and judicial office. And William was the one who built the house now called the John Q. Tilson house.
As our meeting wound down, Ken mentioned the Tilson Cemetery up the road and the local lore which claims that William said that if any of his sons rose to a higher degree of success than he did, their tombstone could be taller than their father’s. John Q.’s stone is taller than his father’s. But William’s achievements, Ken suggested, need to be remembered and appreciated in relation to his time and place in history, regardless of the height of his tombstone.