Mountain Builders

(Editor’s Note: This week’s installment, Part 2 on Dr. John Brinkley, is condensed from the Oct. 13, 1994, Sylva Herald. It details the late Bill Smith’s memories of Dr. Brinkley along with letters Brinkley himself wrote to Smith’s father. A longtime local educator who was principal at Sylva Elementary and then Fairview (1956-1984), Smith served one term as a county commissioner (1990-94) and was elected to the Sylva town board in 1997. He died in 1999 before he could compile the Brinkley letters into a book. The story remains in present tense, as it was written after a series of 1994 interviews with Smith.)

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One of the more colorful characters ever to come from Jackson County was Dr. John R. Brinkley Jr. Orphaned when he was 10 years old, Brinkley gained fame and fortune as a radio medicine man and “goat-gland specialist.”

The son of a country doctor, Brinkley was born in Beta and raised near East LaPorte by his great-aunt, Sally Mingus. He left Jackson County as a teen and put himself through medical school in Kansas City. He hit on the idea of treating impotence by transplanting goat testicles into human males, and performed hundreds of such “surgeries” at hospitals he founded in Milford, Kansas; Del Rio, Texas; and Little Rock, Arkansas.

In October 1991, Life magazine described Brinkley as a “notorious quack” and said he had made millions “treating the curse of impotence by transplanting goat glands into the groins of unfortunate human males.” The Life article went on to say that Brinkley “advertised this and other ghastly snake-oil restoratives over his own radio station, speaking in a bedside manner that was hugely popular with the country folk he suckered.”

Since U.S. law limited radio stations to 50,000 watts, Brinkley built his own across the border in Mexico. “It was then the most powerful in the world, booming northward of 500,000 watts, blanketing the U.S.,” said Life.

Bill Smith grew up near Brinkley’s boyhood home and remembers the doctor well. Smith’s father, Will Smith, went to school with Brinkley in Tuckasegee and worked for Brinkley from 1936-38, after Brinkley purchased property there.

‘Beat all we’d ever seen’

“When we first saw him, he came here with diamonds all over him – it beat all we’d ever seen,” Smith said. That was in 1936, when Brinkley returned to Jackson County to look over the property before buying it. Will Smith had written to Brinkley on behalf of Laura Wike, Brinkley’s former mother-in-law. Brinkley’s first wife, Sally (Wike) had taken the couple’s three daughters and left her husband while he was a medical student, Smith said, and there was bitterness between Brinkley and the Wikes.

Smith said the Wikes needed to sell the farm because the Federal Land Bank was about to foreclose on the property.

Brinkley replied to Will Smith that he wasn’t interested – he didn’t want anything to do with the Wikes, and he didn’t want to come back here, Smith said. A few days later another letter arrived saying Brinkley was coming to see the place. Smith said Brinkley, his second wife, Minnie, and their son, “Johnnie-Boy,” drove up to the Smith home in a big, black, 16-cylinder Cadillac, resplendent with gold hubcaps and a gold hood ornament, driven by a chauffeur.

“My mother prepared a good meal and they thanked her. A few weeks later the Brinkleys sent a 16-place set of China from England to show their appreciation,” Smith said.

Brinkley bought the farm and hired Will Smith to supervise its operation. During the time his father worked for Brinkley, Smith said letters arrived regularly from Del Rio, where Brinkley built his mansion across the Rio Grande from his radio station.

“He wrote like he was talking to you. He would write my daddy a whole page telling him what to do. Then two or three days later he’d write again, changing his mind about everything and blessing my daddy out,” Smith said.

From steers to hogs

Brinkley was determined to make the place profitable and tried various schemes to make money. First he built two brick silos (still visible from N.C. 107) and decided to go into the cattle business. He told Smith’s father to buy 25 steers. That fall Brinkley sold the steers and decided to acquire registered cattle. Purebred Herefords were purchased somewhere out west, and Brinkley paid $200 each for the cows and $2,000 for the stock brute. “People here had never heard of such,” Smith said. The Herefords didn’t produce, and Brinkley decided he’d try Texas longhorns. He wrote Will Smith and told him to expect a boxcar-load of cattle and to have a strong truck when he met the train.

Smith went with his daddy and brother to pick up the Texas cattle. “Daddy backed the truck up to the boxcar so the cattle could go straight from the train car into the truck,” he said. “Those cattle went out of the boxcar and into the truck all right, but then they tore right out of the truck. There were cattle scattered all the way to Balsam.”

The longhorn experiment was another flop, Smith said, because most of those animals eventually had to be killed.

Next, Brinkley sent Will Smith to Winston-Salem to buy hogs. “He bought two or three huge hogs, and pretty soon we were supplying the county with hogs. But along about then, Brinkley decided my daddy didn’t really understand what he wanted to accomplish and sent in another man to manage the farm.”

“This is what runs me plain ‘nuts,’” Brinkley wrote the new manager in March 1937. “It seems Will could never understand that I am a businessman and want things run in a business way. In other words, Will is content to do like they have been doing over there since Adam and Eve, and wouldn’t join in with me on my ‘New Deal’ system of doing business.”

But Brinkley never actually fired Smith’s father. “Daddy knew how to handle him,” Smith said.

The next day Brinkley wrote the new farm manager, saying “I think that Will has full confidence and faith in everybody. If Will ever saw some fellow sleeping with his wife, Will wouldn’t believe it of his friend. He would walk off and go fishing, thinking that he probably had imagined it.”

Despite such feelings, Brinkley soon increased Will Smith’s pay from $50 to $60 a month, bought him a car – a two-door Chevrolet coupe – and sent him to oversee the timber-cutting on a huge tract of land Brinkley bought over near Soco, Smith said.

“Brinkley thought he could buy the place, sell timber, and then have lumber sawed and stored,” Smith said. “He thought war was coming and there would be a need for it.”

‘A brain that wouldn’t quit’

In April 1938, Brinkley sent Will Smith a telegram saying he was discontinuing his business interests in this area: “Am curtailing all activities until this recession changes. There will be bloody days ahead before we are through. Regards, J.R. Brinkley.” Smith said that not long after that, Brinkley got sick and was forced into bankruptcy. Brinkley died in 1942.

“In the eyes of a lot of people, Brinkley was a quack, but I can’t help admiring him,” Smith said. “He had a brain that wouldn’t quit – he had to be intelligent, he was just 50 years ahead of his time.”

Smith said Brinkley’s radio station, XERA, came in loud and clear in Jackson County and that his daddy would tune in every Saturday night to listen. During the show, Brinkley would often speak directly to people about their medical problems. “People would write to him and he’d tell them what to take.”

During the time Brinkley broadcast his radio program, he helped the careers of several musicians. Life magazine credits his show with popularizing the Carter Family, and Smith remembered that Brinkley took two local musicians – Samantha Bumgarner and Harry Cagle – out to Texas to play on the radio.

“Brinkley had a lot of different acts on his show,” Smith said. “He always kept it lively and entertaining so people would tune in.”

Brinkley was transplanting organs years before others thought of it, Smith said, adding that at least three men from Jackson County went to Brinkley’s hospital in Little Rock to have Brinkley’s operation to restore sexual function. “All three claimed the operation had worked. It was the talk of the county.”

Putting Jackson people to work

Brinkley came back to Jackson County and put people to work, Smith said. “It was after the Depression when we didn’t have anything. Brinkley provided a living for a lot of people, paying 10 cents an hour, which was a lot in those days.”

Around 1980, while in Texas to attend a meeting, Smith said he visited the Brinkley mansion in Del Rio. The wrought-iron gates said “Doctor Brinkley” and Smith said the house was filled with the finest furniture, including three exquisite grandfather clocks bought in Germany for $3,000 each. Minnie Brinkley was there, and she remembered Smith and gave him a tour of the mansion. Smith said he also drove into Mexico to try and find the location of Brinkley’s powerful radio station. “When we got to where we thought the towers had been, darned if there weren’t two or three goats in the field.

“If ever there was a true rags to riches story, Brinkley is it, Smith said. “He grew up the hard way, made a fortune, and owned the most powerful radio station in the world.”

Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.