Whittle: Legends live in Courier archives

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Legends live in the archives of The Cannon Courier, a newspaper dating back across three centuries that has had some of the most notable and colorful editors and publishers in Tennessee newspapering history.

Men with the names Bragg, Smith and Bryson headlined the list of talented and committed Woodbury newspapermen through most of last century.

The late Minor Bragg, father of (the late) state Rep. John Bragg and grandfather of Circuit Judge David Bragg and Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Bragg, likely had the most far-reaching journalism career of all Courier publishers, after he branched out to establish The Rutherford Courier in Murfreesboro and Smyrna before his death in the 1950s. 

After starting his Rutherford County newspaper, Minor Bragg sold his interest in the Cannon Courier in 1933, to Hayden Smith, the youngest publisher in Courier history and uncle to Andy Bryson, who later owned and published the newspaper.

"Uncle Hayden first bought the paper while still a student at Woodbury High School," noted immediate-past Courier publisher Andy Bryson.

David and Tommy Bragg later published the Courier from 1980 to 1995, when they sold the Courier to Andy Bryson and his sister, Susan Sain. Andy had worked at the Courier from his childhood when his uncles, R. Mel Bryson and Hayden Smith, were editors and publishers of the publication.

Retired high school sports radio broadcaster John Hood had a close friendship with Mel Bryson.

"I broadcast high school games solo on the Woodbury station, and got to know Mel Bryson personally and professionally," described Hood, a former state representative and radio legend. "Broadcasting was quite different then, for example, we'd tape the football games, and then broadcast them the next morning, since it was a daytime station.

"Mel was a man about town, involved in all aspects of community life in Cannon County," Hood hailed. "I recall calling one game on the side of a hill, out in the weather elements at Monterey. Mel and his newspaper people were there too, braving the elements while covering The Lions football team. He was a well-versed talented man, who had a lot of allegiance to his profession and community."

Hood credited local media in Woodbury and Murfreesboro with helping link Cannon and Rutherford counties, socially and economically.

"I was a newspaper delivery boy for Minor Bragg when he had the Rutherford Courier, which published twice weekly in Murfreesboro, after he moved from Cannon County," Hood traced aback across the decades. "Although John Bragg never represented his native Cannon County as a whole, in his earliest legislative days he represented Rutherford and part of Cannon.  However, it was him solely, who later secured funding and construction of John Bragg Highway, the modern,  safer four-lane boulevard that links the two communities together.

"Plus, MTSU, with thousands of students from throughout Cannon County throughout the last 100 years, has helped forge a permanent link between the two communities," Hood credits.

Dr. William "Bill" Jennings, a respected historian of all things Woodbury and Cannon County, also described community impact of the weekly newspaper.

"Of course, Minor Bragg, dating back to the 1930s with those old Linotype and flat-bed presses on which the papers of that era were printed, was a colorful, creative and yes, courageous old school editor/publisher," described Jennings.

"Publishers like Minor Bragg, Mel Bryson, Austin Jennings and Hayden Smith remain urban legends here today," he continued. "They were all very well respected, and very loyal to their community, dating through to more modern times when the Courier was later published by Tommy and David Bragg,  grandsons to newspaper pioneer Minor Bragg, and immediate past publisher/editor Andy Bryson."

As the young son of Minor Bragg, John Bragg, who became a statewide political leader later in life, painfully lost three fingers in a commercial job-printing press at the Courier office in the 1920s. It was a major and severe injury to an 8-year-old boy in that era of limited medical capabilities.

"Father (John Bragg) lost part of his left hand, plus his middle, index and other middle fingers when he tried to retrieve a fallen piece of paper that had fell out of the old Chandler & Price Platen Press that did commercial printing jobs," recalls Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Bragg, the late legislator's son. "Dr. Adams (namesake of Adams Memorial Library in Woodbury) treated him, stopped the profusely bleeding wounds, and saved the rest of his mangled left hand. Fortunately, Dad was right handed, so it never held him back personally or professionally."

Lifelong Cannon resident and retired banker Bill Smith remembers young John Bragg's return to school.

"The whole school turned out in assembly, welcoming John back after his severe injury," Smith recounted. "He never let that handicap bother him one bit in life."

Not many Cannon residents today realize Minor Bragg taught at Bradyville School in the 1920s, and also had interests in a funeral home, a radio station and grocery store in Woodbury, all before he made newspaper history at the Cannon Courier. He died in 1966.

"I have a picture of Granddad Minor Bragg peddling Fuller Brushes in the 1920s in front of a business in Murfreesboro," Mayor Bragg described. "There's always been personal and business links for the Bragg family in both Cannon and Rutherford counties."

Current Woodbury Mayor Harold Patrick, whose family, like the Jennings, goes back multiple generations in Cannon County, recalls past Courier leaders' impact on community life.

"When I first ran for justice of the peace in 1974, I went to see Mel Bryson, the publisher, to make my political announcement," Patrick noted. "I didn't know what to say, and told Mel that. Mel took a pen out of his desk, and wrote out my announcement in a matter of minutes. He was a talented wordsmith. He took my picture, and there I was, on the front page of the next week's edition. No matter my requests, he always produced excellent pieces of work, whether it was news stories or advertisements. He was a trustworthy newspaperman."

Patrick touched on the era when he was elected county executive of Cannon County in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"I was county executive when Tommy and David took control of the paper," Patrick added. "David served as publisher, and became a dear trusted friend whom I would often call for advice on issues I encountered on behalf of county government. As Woodbury's mayor, I've grown to admire Tommy Bragg and the challenges he faces as mayor of Murfreesboro."

Loyalty to community has consistently been a hallmark of those newspaper pioneers, Patrick and Jennings agreed.

"Andy Bryson carried on that loyalty tradition. For example, he always bought his personal and company vehicles, and had them serviced at Jennings Motors, before we closed the dealer ship  doors in 2009, ending 87 years of selling and servicing cars and trucks by the Jennings family in Woodbury. He believed in supporting all Cannon County-based businesses, churches and civic clubs. Plus, Andy was a very, very hard worker, who loved sports and his community," Jennings accounted.

Mayor Patrick echoed historian Jennings' account of Andy Bryson's community service and impact.

"Andy Bryson, well, for certain, no one ever outworked him at the newspaper, for you could see his vehicles at the office way before daylight each work day, except on Wednesdays when he'd slip away to work in one of his beloved golf games," Patrick assessed. "Like his predecessors, including his Uncles Mel Bryson and Hayden Smith, Andy continued the excellent tradition of fair and thorough news coverage. A talented and loyal friend to our community, Andy helped bring the Courier into the modern era."

Jennings recalled his own college days when he had the Courier sent to his university.

"The Courier has always been uniquely Cannon County, offering a true snap-shot of social life here," Jennings said. "When the Courier would get to my college fraternity house, my fellow students would line up wanting to read the unique rural style of personal journalism in the Courier, including who visited who, who had a birthday party enjoyed by all, and who came to visit Aunt Susie on her sick bed up on Short Mountain."

Jennings talked about the historical impact of the Courier.

"I can't recommend enough for our educators to take our young people to the Adams Memorial Library and go through Courier microfilm archives, to get a glimpse of life as carved out for our generations by our forefathers," Jennings encouraged. 

Regionally well-known newspaperman Ron Fryar bought the Courier in July 2009, from Andy Bryson.

"When Andy Bryson sold the Courier, he handed it off to Ron Fryar, obviously a very talented modern-day newspaperman," Jennings described. "And judging from the community has seen, Publisher Fryar will take the paper farther into the 21st Century in appearance and content."

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Dan Whittle
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