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Born in Beta (one of the communities between Sylva and Balsam) on July 8, 1885, Dr. John R. Brinkley was raised alongside the Tuckaseigee River near East LaPorte by his great aunt (also his stepmother) Sarah Mingus Brinkley.
Brinkley left Sylva penniless but found fame and fortune during the 1920s and 1930s after he hit upon the idea of treating male impotence by transplanting goat glands into humans, performing hundreds of surgeries in hospitals he founded in Milford, Kansas, Del Rio, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas.
“Brinkley had national fame during his lifetime, but what’s interesting to Jackson County is not simply that he was born and raised here – it’s that he acknowledged and embraced his origins, even in his authorized biography,” said local historian and Jackson County Genealogical Society Librarian George Frizzell. “He eventually bought a summer home here, made financial investments in the county, and celebrated his family ties by placing monuments. He enjoyed attention in Jackson County, such as frequent articles in the newspaper and ‘Brinkley Days’ celebrations at Tuckasegee. What’s fascinating about him is not only his dubious medical career, which receives the most attention, but also his shrewd embrace of radio for advertising and promotional activities and that all of this gave him a political career.”
Kansas authorities brought Brinkley to trial in 1930, citing fraud and deception with regard to his questionable surgeries, and successfully stripped Brinkley of his medical license. According to the July 17, 1930, Jackson County Journal, several local men traveled to the trial. “V.V. Hooper, Julius Painter and Robert L. Madison are in Milford, Kansas, where they have been summoned to appear in behalf of Dr. John Brinkley, in the trial in progress there.”
After losing his license in Kansas, Brinkley built a new hospital in Del Rio, where he also constructed the world’s most powerful radio station across the Rio Grande River in Mexico, out of reach of U.S. regulation. He hosted a program that introduced country music luminaries like the Carter Family to a national audience.
Brinkley ended his career in bankruptcy court and died a broken man in 1942, but along the way he revolutionized political campaigning, introducing radio advertising, sound trucks and airplane travel during his 1930 write-in attempt to win the Kansas governorship after Kansas officials took his license. Though not initially taken seriously as a candidate, Brinkley attracted such huge crowds traveling the state in his airplane that state officials – just three days before the election – changed the rules, saying that only ballots reading “J.R. Brinkley” would count. With no time to protest, Brinkley got on the radio and reminded Kansans non-stop that they needed to write “J period R period B-R-I-N-K-L-E-Y,” and that no other spelling would do. When votes were tallied, Brinkley had 183,278, not counting the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 ballots with “Doctor Brinkley” or other variations. His two opponents’ totals were 217,171 and 216,920, which means Brinkley likely would have won under the old standard of voter intent.
That insight into the 1930 election is found in a 2008 Brinkley biography, “Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam” by Pope Brock.
While Brock’s book doesn’t include much about Brinkley’s early life, or Jackson County, it does paint a detailed (and typically unflattering) picture of the goat-gland specialist’s activities after he left Western North Carolina.
Brinkley himself, however, never forgot his roots. Despite investigations into his unconventional medical methods, area newspapers treated Brinkley as a celebrity, and his Jackson County comings and goings were often front-page news.
That all changed after he was revealed to be a fraud. Hardly a mention of Brinkley is to be found in local newspapers in the three decades after his death. The Sylva Herald’s landmark 1951 Jackson County Centennial section makes no mention of Brinkley, despite his national prominence and notoriety less than two decades earlier.
Once he came into wealth and power, Brinkley himself created markers here. He acquired the Jack Wike farm in Tuckasegee in 1932, purchasing the property from his former mother-in-law, Laura Hooper Wike, and her son Claude. He immediately marked it as his own by ordering the construction of rock walls lining the driveway, with “Dr. John R.” on the left side and “Brinkley” on the right. (The gates to his mansion in Del Rio also proclaimed his name. “It was the home he created there – a mission-style manor and grounds near the Rio Grande – that had Texas talking: 16 acres of naked self-regard, part Versailles, part Barnum & Bailey.”)
That Tuckasegee property now belongs to Tommy Beutell and serves as the base for Wolf Creek Tree Farm. Brinkley’s name spelled out in white stones against mostly gray rock is still visible, and the ongoing construction and re-routing of N.C. 107 between East LaPorte and Tuckasegee will not impact those walls.
Other enduring local Brinkley symbols take the form of monuments he commissioned in the 1930s. The most notable of these are to his mother, who died before he was 6 years old, and to his stepmother, whom he called “Aunt Sally.” The latter marker is often invoked in reference to “Aunt Sally’s Curve” on N.C. 107 near East LaPorte, as it was placed in a sharp bend of the road. With the above-mentioned changes to 107, Aunt Sally’s Curve will be straightened and the monument Brinkley erected will no longer be as visible to passing motorists. A short road off the new highway is planned to allow travelers to access both Brinkley’s Aunt Sally memorial and the adjacent historical marker that commemorates his life.
The monument to Brinkley’s mother, Sarah Candace Burnett, in the old Love’s Chapel Cemetery off N.C. 107, cannot be seen from the road. It features an angel dominating a high pedestal; together the two rise some 10 feet. The inscription reads: “In Memory of My Mother/Sarah Candace Burnett/June 17, 1859-April 23, 1891.” On the base below, in letters approximately three times larger, he put his own name, “J.R. Brinkley, M.D.” There is no indication that Brinkley’s father ever married Sarah Burnett.
Aunt Sally is buried with Brinkley’s father in Wike Cemetery; Brinkley’s first wife, Sally, and one of their three daughters are also buried there.
As mentioned above, Brinkley was treated as a celebrity in local newspapers during the 1930s. One example is a March 19, 1936, Journal report titled, “Dr. Brinkley Came Home,” which describes a visit by Brinkley to inspect his Tuckasegee farm:
“Sunday, after making a flight in his own airplane from Del Rio to Spartanburg, where his red Cadillac coupe was awaiting him, he hurried to Sylva, to inspect the Jack Wike farm, which he recently purchased ... With his coupe, painted a brilliant red, and his name ‘Dr. John R. Brinkley, Del Rio, Texas,’ painted on the rear, he immediately caught the eyes of people here, and crowds gathered about him wherever he went.”
Another item, from the Sept. 3, 1936, Journal, is headlined “Dr. Brinkley Buys Plott Balsam Range.” According to the article, Brinkley’s 9,000-acre purchase included Black Rock, Waterrock Knob and Yellowface, and he planned to “stock the streams with trout and the forests with game,” and develop the property as a private game and fish preserve.
A Sept. 2, 1937, Journal story says Brinkley spoke to the local Chamber of Commerce and pleased a “huge” crowd when he promised that he will give Sylva and Jackson County “a million dollars worth of advertising on his radio, at Del Rio, Texas, this winter.”
Two weeks later, the Journal reported that Brinkley was already making good on that pledge as well as giving air time to local musicians. “Every night his voice tells the world about the wonders of this county and town. The results will be felt next summer.
“He took with him Samantha Bumgarner, Jim Corbin, Seb Cope, Alvin Nicholson, Wallace Wood, and other interpreters of mountain music, and they are presenting nightly programs from Del Rio.”
The Journal published Brinkley’s obituary on May 28, 1942. After reporting that Brinkley had been in poor health, it reports a few details of Brinkley’s early life: “He was born and reared in this county and was educated in the school of the famous Professor A.M. Dawson. He took up telegraphy in his spare time, at the railway station in Sylva, while he was carrying the mail from Sylva to Tuckasegee on horseback.” The obituary summarizes Brinkley’s exploits in Kansas and Texas, noting that Brinkley attracted such “wide attention” that the Saturday Evening Post “sent one of its crack writers to tell the Brinkley story.” The Journal describes Brinkley’s local land purchases, and closes the obituary with this paragraph: “Renewing old acquaintances in the county of his nativity and young manhood, Dr. Brinkley soon began telling the world about this region. For many months there was scarcely a broadcast from the Brinkley station that did not mention Jackson County and the attractions here for tourists and investors.”
How best to sum up such a life? Perhaps with the inscription from the historical marker located on N.C. 107 beside Brinkley’s tribute to his beloved Aunt Sally.
“Medical maverick, radio and advertising pioneer, candidate for governor of Kansas. Boyhood home stood across the river.”
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.