A greeting card sent in 1953 wishing the president and the entire State Farm Insurance corporation a Merry Christmas sealed the deal to bring the first major white-collar employer to Murfreesboro.
Tommy Martin, dubbed “Mr. Murfreesboro," speaks with Richard Stockton and Jack McFarland in 1954 while at the future site of State Farm Insurance regional office in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of Ferrell's Studio)
But it wasn’t a normal Christmas card — far from it.
It measured 4 feet wide and 6 feet tall. Attached were the photographs of graduating female high school students.
“And our best wishes for a Happy New Year, which will include locating your new offices in Murfreesboro,” stated the card.
Adial H. Rust, then president of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., said “the remarkable spirit and enthusiasm displayed by the people of Murfreesboro was the deciding factor” in selecting the city for their operations center.
Other factors for choosing Murfreesboro he said were “excellent travel and postal facilities … outstanding hotel and motel accommodations, and above all, the top quality talent which stands ready to fill the many jobs we had and have open, as well as those which our steady growth will continue to provide.”
But it really was a self-appointed and self-financed Industrial Development Board representing the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce that kept State Farm from locating its South Central branch office in Murfreesboro instead of Nashville. In those days, the Chamber was a small one- or two-person operation.
This group of family men, small business owners, bank executives and World War II veterans was the first to market the city and promote its amenities to secure jobs for future generations. They took a genuine and selfless interest in the economic vitality of the city where they lived.
Core members of this informal group are no longer living but their legacy lives on. They were Tommy Martin, a Mutual of New York insurance agent; Al Miffin, president of Murfreesboro Bank & Trust (now SunTrust Bank); Grady Haynes, owner of Haynes Bros. Lumber Co.; Rollie Holden, owner of Holden Hardware; and Jack McFarland, publisher of The Daily News Journal.
Other members of the greater Murfreesboro committee include: Ceil Elrod Jr., Jennings A. Jones, Clyde Fite, Herbert Young, Barton Dement Jr., Robert Overall, Ellis Gray, Charles H. Clark, Virgil Trimm, Judge Shelton H. Edwards, Bernard Goldstein, Carl Hickerson and Q.M. Rucker.
This group — sometimes referred to as the "Murfreesboro Mafia" perhaps for their fierce determination — took meetings, answered questions and visited companies to spread their message.
“They were some of the first cheerleaders for Murfreesboro,” said Joe B. Jackson, who served as Murfreesboro mayor from 1982-98. “It was the beginning of what (economic development) we are seeing now.”
Now in recognition of the work they did, many have streets, bridges and buildings across the city named after them.
According to the book “Tennessee County History Series: Rutherford County” by Mabel Pittard, the committee formed in 1950 to recruit companies to the county.
According to newspaper reports, the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce appointed a formal committee around 1953 to come up with plans for industrial development including offering financial incentives to corporations.
Swartzbaugh Manufacturing Co., a manufacturer of hospital and food service equipment, was the first company the group helped recruit in 1951, according to Pittard’s book.
Other movers and shakers from the time said State Farm was recruited in 1954 and Swartzbaugh came later around 1957.
“This blue-chip industrial firm (Swartzbaugh) opened the way for a diverse group of high-caliber industries that were to find friendly operational bases in the county during the next three decades,” stated the book.
Some of these industries include: Alton Box Company, maker of corrugated shipping containers; Better Bilt Aluminum Company, maker of storm doors and windows; Bridgestone Firestone Co.; Chromalox, electric heating elements; Cummings Inc., illuminated signs; General Electric, electric motors; Greer Smyrna, lock nuts; Heil Quaker, distributor of air and heating units; Heritage Farms Dairy; Hodge Manufacturing Co., automotive parts; International Paper Co., corrugated shipping cartons; Paramount Packing Co., flexible packaging material; Perfect Equipment Co., wheel balancing weights; Samsonite, manufacturer of folding furniture; and White Stag, sports clothing.
“That was the beginning of interest being shown in this area,” Jackson said.
They were the first to point out and then promote the city’s available labor force and proximity to interstate systems, railroads and airports, he said.
“All of these were selling points,” Jackson said.
Murfreesboro’s economic base prior to the 1950s was predominately agricultural. There were few companies that employed a significant number of people such as Red Rose Dairy, Rutherford County Creamery, Murfreesboro Pure Milk, Consumers Ice Cream, the Cedar Bucket Factory, Buser Weaving and Middle Tennessee State College (now Middle Tennesse State University).
“Murfreesboro was really proud to be a college town,” said Ralph Vaughn, Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce president from 1986-97. “They were not really active in recruiting industry.”
Following World War II, industry leaders began to realize that they didn’t have to locate their main offices in cities like New York and Chicago instead they could locate their offices in smaller cities across the country.
At the same time, forward-thinking Murfreesboro residents returning home from the war, from seeing the world began to realize they needed to get involved in local government and contribute to the long-term prosperity of their home.
“I think that all of these fathers of Murfreesboro thought that Murfreesboro could offer more to their children,” said Bob Mifflin, Al Mifflin’s son. “Back then, kids would go off to college and nine times out of 10 they would never return to Murfreesboro unless their parents had a business for them to come back to.”
“There was City Café and that was it,” he said joking.
Securing State Farm
Ceil Elrod III remembers hearing as a child that the deal to bring State Farm’s office and about 300 jobs to Murfreesboro was signed in his childhood home at the corner of West Main Street and Middle Tennessee Boulevard.
“My mother always said the deal with Richard Stockton (chairman of the board of State Farm) was signed in our living room,” he said.
Mifflin also recalls his mother Kate Currin (Bell) Mifflin asking his father what sold State Farm on Murfreesboro.
His father said it was Middle Tennessee State University, stating that it would start offering night classes so State Farm employees could finish college or earn advanced degrees at night.
Jack McFarland, the owner and publisher of the DNJ then, used his friendship with Stockton to get a meeting with State Farm executives to have them consider Murfreesboro instead of Nashville for its South Central office.
“State Farm didn’t think they could get the employment they needed (in Murfreesboro,” said Jack Weatherford, senior chairman of MidSouth Bank. “There were several insurance companies based in Nashville.”
Dan Barringer, State Farm archivist, said following WWII State Farm began decentralizing its operations to smaller communities as a way to be more efficient and handle growth.
State Farm was looking at communities where people liked to live, he said.
“We wanted a central location between Tennessee and Kentucky,” Barringer said.
State Farm announced it would open a new facility in Nashville to handle claims and underwriting for property, casualty and life insurance in 1953.
Barringer said State Farm received letters from members of the Murfreesboro community and other outreach that led the company to change its decision.
State Farm purchased five acres to build a $400,000, one-story building between Northwest Broad Street and Memorial Boulevard in 1954.
The announcement of State Farm deciding to open an operations center in Murfreesboro and the subsequent opening drew huge media attention. The Daily News Journal had a special State Farm edition April 10, 1955. It was front-page news on The Rutherford Courier.
The city of Murfreesboro welcomed State Farm with a mammoth parade around the Square and down Broad Street on the facility’s opening day April 11, 1955. A huge sign along West Main Street welcomed State Farm along with approximately 100 transplants from company headquarters in Bloomington, Ill. and other locations to Murfreesboro.
The Central High School and Training School marching bands led the parade around the square. Middle Tennessee State College’s ROTC drill team saluted employees.
Tommy Martin served as master of ceremonies, the Rev. Ralph M. Llewellyn gave the invocation and Murfreesboro Mayor A.L. Todd Jr. and Judge Shelton Edwards offered a special welcome.
State Farm’s Murfreesboro Operations Center now located at 2500 Memorial Boulevard is still one of Murfreesboro’s largest companies employing 1,550.
Tommy Martin is often called "Mr. Murfreesboro" for his love and promotion of the city.
“He was the most positive person you could meet in your life,” Vaughn said.
Martin was a deeply religious man who opened a Mutual of New York Insurance Agency on the Square in 1936 and operated it until the company forced him to retire at the age of 83 in 1996. He died in 2000.
Vaughn remembers a story Martin once told him.
“He told me that prior to going into the State Farm president’s office for the scheduled meeting Tommy quickly excused himself, went into the men’s restroom and prayed for wisdom,” he said. “His prayer was answered and the rest is history.”
Al Mifflin is known as a jovial yet serious man. He was president of Murfreesboro Bank & Trust from 1954 until his death in 1970.
“He was one of those that when he entered the room he commanded attention because of his largeness,” Bob Mifflin said. Al was 6 foot 4 inches tall and weighed around 400 pounds.
Rollie and Katherine Holden with his brother and sister-in-law Horace and Alberta opened Holden Hardware on Maple Street on Public Square in 1948. Rollie and Katherine became sole owners later. Rollie Holden Sr. served on the Murfreesboro City Council from 1954-62 and served in the state Legislature in the late 1940s. He died in 1999.
“I think he grew up with an ethic that if you were a part of the community you participated,” Aurelia Holden, Rollie Holden’s daughter, said. “He opened a business. He was a part of the community.”
Rollie Holden Jr. now operates Holden Hardware.
“Dad was never one who really emphasized his own part (in industrial recruitment efforts),” he said. “There were a lot of people involved with that process.
“He was a young businessman here in town,” Holden Jr. continued. “That was kind of his nature to go out. He realized that this is what this area needed.”
Terry Haynes, who now runs Haynes Bros. Lumber, said his father was very business-minded and often worked behind the scenes. Grady started Haynes Bros. Lumber with several of his brothers in 1952.
Grady Haynes knew bringing in new industry was going to be a “win-win situation for all business owners,” he said.
“He used to tell me that things weren’t very prosperous around Murfreesboro,” he said.
McFarland, who never married, is remembered as being very philanthropic. He ran the DNJ until his death.
“He gave a lot back to the university and to the community,” Elrod III said.
Elrod III said his father was a “real promoter.” He started WGNS Radio in 1945 and owned it until the early 1960s.
Elrod Jr. would use his radio station to promote local industry. He would set up live broadcasts on the Public Square during those days and interview State Farm officials and other local executives.
“He was a very polished individual,” Elrod III said. “They were in a position, my mother (Betty) and my father, to entertain people from out of state. They promoted the area to try to get them interested in locating their business here.
“They were kind of the hospitality couple,” he added.
Laying the foundation
The recruitment of State Farm laid the foundation for other industry to come to Murfreesboro and for a formal economic development council, said some of today’s movers and shakers.
“State Farm was just a big breakthrough,” Weatherford said. “That was our beginning.”
State Farm executives even joined in the effort after settling in Murfreesboro.
“I think they laid the foundation for the way Murfreesboro is right now, and the growth that has come,” said Terry Haynes, who is active in the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce.
Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Bragg said the city has this group of business leaders to thank for the city’s current prosperity.
“I often say that what we have experienced in the last six to 10 years has really been the continuation of the early economic development that our business leaders did in the 1950s,” he said of the city’s nationally ranked population and job growth. “I think they were able to do is build a consensus that if Murfreesboro was going to be success over a long period of time, they were going to have to keep business flowing and support MTSU.”