It Takes a Village (& Kingsport’s History)

Recently, while strolling through P & J Antiques in downtown Kingsport, I stumbled across the book Kingsport, Tennessee: A Planned American City by the late ETSU Professor and Kingsport native Margaret Ripley Wolfe.  As I am also a Kingsport native and a history “fanatic” (it was my undergrad), I eagerly purchased the surprising find.  I was previously unaware of the existence of this book, or the author for that matter, and so I welcomed the chance to read about my city from a “fresh” perspective.

In Wolfe’s words:

“Kingsport, Tennessee, was the first thoroughly diversified, professionally planned, and privately financed city in twentieth-century America. The advent of this so-called model city, a glittering new industrial jewel in the green mountains, offered area residents an alternative to rural life and staid small-town existence as the new century dawned. Neither an Appalachian hamlet nor a company town, Kingsport developed as a self-proclaimed “All-American City.”  [It was] Produced by the marriage of New South philosophy and Progressivism, [and] born of a passing historical moment when capitalists turned their attention to Southern Appalachia…”

Wolfe’s book goes on to elaborate the fact that it was the vision and collaboration of a few key individuals, including John B. Dennis and J. Fred Johnson, who are responsible for modern Kingsport’s creation and early success (Wolfe does not discuss the earlier town of “King’s Port” and its impact on modern Kingsport’s history).  This study of Kingsport’s early success highlights the fact that collaboration, shared vision, and common goals can result in remarkable achievements, including (but not limited) to the founding of a modern, thriving city.  Dennis alone could not build Kingsport, nor alone could Johnson, George Eastman, James W. Dobyns, or any of the other key dozen individuals involved in Kingsport’s early history.  It took a village to build the city.

This is an example of success which can be replicated in your business, workplace, non-profits, churches, or any other environment which involves more than one individual (which is essentially anywhere).  If you have not already done so (or if it has been a while since last performed), sit down with your team and discuss the team’s mission, vision, and objectives.  What do you want?  How can your strengths contribute to this?  What skills are missing and who might be available to fill the gaps?  Yes, alone you are all singularly important, but together you can achieve so much more.   It takes a village.

In addition, Wolfe’s study of Kingsport is an example of how a rising tide raises all ships, which is yet another success principle.  Today, over fifty-three thousand residents call Kingsport home, enjoying a standard of living typically not found in more rural areas of the country, including access to exceptional healthcare, education, and other amenities of modern life.  All this, because a few individuals came together with a common mission.  This demonstrates how success typically benefits not only those most closely associated with a project, but rather reaches out to impact countless others.  One hundred years after Kingsport’s founding, we all should still be thankful for the work of Dennis and the other founders in creating a city we can call home.  In your own endeavors, never forget that countless others will, in one form or another, be impacted by what you do.  Success is not your own.  Success raises everyone.  Success is a village.

Sadly, what happens when there is a lack of collaboration, shared vision, and common goals?  Stagnation follows.  In the second half of Wolfe’s book, she elaborates on how these factors (and external ones beyond the city’s control) negatively impacted Kingsport’s growth in the second half of the twentieth century.  This should serve as a warning in our own daily efforts, reminding us to continually collaborate with others to produce the results we seek in our personal, professional, and community lives.  Thankfully, Kingsport in the last two decades has begun to turn back towards collaboration in its approach to governance and outlook.  Coupled with the recent pushes for regionalism, the signs are still present that Kingsport’s best days are still ahead of us, something which I am sure Dennis and the founders would be proud of.

In closing, here is a reminder from the sixteenth century poet John Donne that we are all merely pieces of the larger puzzle: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  It takes a village to achieve great things.

Jeremiah Clark, M.A., is the co-owner of Appalachian Digital, a website development agency.  He is also a Lead Systems Analyst with the Cleveland Clinic Healthcare System.  You can contact Jeremiah at or connect with him on LinkedIn at Jeremiah Clark.