Hiram Oscar Kerns

Hiram Oscar Kerns image

Hiram Oscar Kerns (December 14, 1853 – June 27, 1931) [birth date from tombstone, Townes Funeral Home has December 14, 1852] and his son, John Blair Kerns (December 2, 1902 – September 17, 1980) made important contributions to a number of Danville and State institutions during their lifetimes.

Although his parents were living in Gloucester County, Virginia, Hiram Oscar Kerns was born in Paradise, Pennsylvania where his mother had gone to her parents’ home for a visit. Both the paternal and maternal forbears of Mr. Kerns were from Pennsylvania and his father, Maris Vernon Kerns (April 19, 1827 – November 17, 1884) and his mother, Emma Jane Lefevre (September 20, 1833 – March 1904) were born there. Maris’ parents were Eli Kerns (April 8, 1789 – July 2, 1848) and Hannah Vernon (January 4, 1798 – 1890) and his grandfather was William Kearns (about 1748 – June 6, 1839). Maris was a contractor of mill construction and built water powered grist mills of various kinds in eleven states, including five in Gloucester County, having become well known as a reliable, capable builder of milling plants. Most of his life was spent in Virginia where he died in Gloucester County at age 63. He and his wife had eight children. He served in the Fifth Virginia Regiment from Gloucester County in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was for a time the regimental bugler. He was captured by Union forces and spent nine months confined at Point Lookout prison.

On the maternal side Lefevre descent is traced to William Lefevre, a contemporary of William Penn in Pennsylvania and through Hannah Vernon, grandmother of Hiram Oscar Kerns, to William Vernon, a younger brother of Lord Vernon of England, who came with his brother George to Pennsylvania with William Penn. The Vernons trace their descent in England to the days of William the Conqueror when a Vernon came with William from Normandy.

Hiram O. Kerns attended local schools and Gloucester Academy before beginning his business life in 1874 as a miller. Later he was collector of taxes in Gloucester County. He married Julia Florence Trevillian of Gloucester County in February 1875. She was the daughter of Augustus Smith Trevillian, of an old Virginia family and a veteran of the Thirty-fourth Regiment of Virginia volunteers, CSA, in the Civil War.

Oscar and Julia Kerns eventually had twelve children: Clarence, who died in infancy; Oscar Littleton who migrated to Birmingham, Alabama; Gertrude Lee who married R. H. Robertson and lived in Pocomoke City, Maryland; Florence Martin; Ruby Trevillian, a teacher; Maris Vernon who became a railroad man; Stella J. who married Dr. Clyde Bailey; Benton (or Burton) who served in the U. S. Navy; Trevillian Augustus, a machinist; Hiram Oscar, Jr., who ran the Kerns mill at Sutherlin; Stanley Maris (or Martin); and John Blair.

After his marriage, H. O. Kerns operated a hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee before moving to King and Queen County, Virginia in 1878 where he engaged in milling until 1880 when he came to Sutherlin in Halifax County to install equipment in the water powered grist mill on Barker’s Creek about fifteen miles east of Danville on the Richmond and Danville Railroad owned by Maj. William Sutherlin of Danville. In 1884 Kerns purchased the mill from Sutherlin and expanded the business around the mill to include a foundry for making castings for general farm use, a blacksmith shop, a general wagon and buggy repair shop, a saw mill, a casket making operation and an undertaking establishment. He was quite successful in these enterprises. In 1889, John W. Ferrell, who had operated a grocery store on Colquhoun Street and Main Street, opened a large furniture and undertaking establishment at 533, 535 and 539 Main Street in Danville. The location was previously occupied by William Henry Covey, a cabinet maker and undertaker. Oscar Kerns purchased a half interest in the business as an outlet for caskets from his factory which then operated as Kerns and Ferrell. Frederick William Townes began working for the firm in 1889 and eventually bought the undertaking portion of the business from Kerns. Blair Kerns, Oscar’s son, married Townes’ daughter Irvin and was a part of the business which became F. W. Townes and Son Funeral Home until his death.

H. O. Kerns served as president of the South Boston Savings Bank which was merged with the P. & M. National Bank of South Boston. On December 29, 1908 subscribers for $100,000 of capital stock in a proposed national bank in Danville met at the rooms of the Commercial Association of Danville, elected directors and accepted the name “American National Bank of Danville”. On January 9, 1909, at a meeting of the Directors, H. O. Kerns was elected President. The charter for the bank was issued on February 15, 1909 and the bank opened for business on February 17, 1909. The bank was originally owned largely by farmers and was formed for the purpose of doing business with farmers and to extend them special facilities. Kerns continued to serve as President until 1920. During his presidency the bank moved from its original location in the quarters previously occupied by the Union Exchange Bank at the corner of Main and Market Streets to the Rialto Building on lower Main Street in 1911 then to the Dudley building at the corner of Main and Union Streets where it remained until 1933 except for a brief period in 1919 during which it moved to temporary quarters due to a fire in the Dudley Building. During the period of Kerns’ presidency deposits of the bank reached over $1.6 million. Kerns was later named chairman of the board of the bank and held that position until his death.

H. O. Kerns was intimately connected with the handling of the tobacco crop of Virginia and North Carolina, was president of the Bright Tobacco Grower’s Protective Association of Virginia and North Carolina and as such fought and won a notable conflict with the American Tobacco Company trust which in the early 1900s controlled prices on tobacco and kept them very low because of their monopoly. Kerns urged farmers to hold their tobacco until satisfactory prices could be obtained for their 1906 crop and 700 farmers met and pledged 1,500,000 pounds toward that end and successfully broke the monopoly.

H. O. Kerns was a Democrat in politics and represented Halifax County for one term in the Virginia State Senate. He was a lifelong member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, having joined as a lad of fourteen years. The Kerns family gave land for the Methodist Church in Sutherlin and many of the family are buried there. Kerns Mill Road and Kerns Church Road in Sutherlin are named for the family. H. O. Kerns was one of the most influential laymen of his church giving freely of his business experience, his wisdom and his means to its service. He served as a steward of the Danville district, recording steward of his church, superintendent of the Sunday School and a lay reader for many years. He served as president of the Sons of the Fifth Virginia Calvary.

Although heavily involved in Danville affairs, Kerns maintained his home in Sutherlin until December 31, 1917 when it was destroyed by fire, after which he purchased a home at 490 West Main Street in Danville in the spring of 1918 where he lived until his death. During the latter years of his life his daughter, Stella, and her husband, Dr. Clyde L. Bailey, lived with him at this address. The Baileys had a daughter, Stella, who married William Kent (Kent) Adams and lived at 191 Beverly Road.

H. O. Kerns was very active in the Masonic fraternity, having been made a Mason in Botetourt Lodge, No. 7, in Gloucester, Virginia in 1876 and having been elected Master of that Lodge in 1878. In 1886, having moved to Sutherlin, Virginia, he organized Peyton Cole Lodge, No 54, and became Master of that lodge in 1890 and in that same year was appointed District Deputy Grand Master for that District. He entered the York Rite branch of Masonry by joining Euclid Royal Arch Chapter, No. 15 in Danville in 1884 and Dove Commandery, No 7, in Danville in 1891. He was made a member of the Committee on Work of the Grand Lodge and in 1900 was elected grand Master of Masons in Virginia, being one of two men from Danville elected to that high office, the other being Ben W. Beach who was elected in 1926. While Grand Master, assisted by Ernest Williams of Lynchburg, the two men by their acumen and financial experience were able to save the Grand Lodge Masonic Temple in Richmond which was in grave danger of being lost due to the financial depression then existing. While presiding at Grand Lodge in Richmond a telegram was handed to him stating that his youngest son had just been born. By action of the Grand Lodge the boy was named John Blair Kerns after Virginia’s first Grand Master of Masons, John Blair, and on February 12, 1924, in the presence of his father, the Grand Lodge in special communication, at the request of Roman Eagle Lodge No. 122 in Danville where he was a Fellow craft, conferred the Master Mason’s degree on John Blair Kerns. After his death, Hiram Oscar Kerns was interred with Masonic honors at Kerns’ Chapel at Sutherlin with his life-long friend, Past Grand Master Ben W. Beach officiating, assisted by a great gathering of his friends and fellow Masons.

John Blair Kerns

John Blair Kerns image

John Blair Kerns, who usually went by his middle name, Blair, was educated in the public schools of Danville and Danville Military Institute. He entered the funeral profession in the spring of 1918 with F. W. Townes who became his father-in-law when he married Townes’ daughter, Irvin on May 26, 1920. He received his professional education at the Renouard Training School for Embalmers of New York City in 1929. After the death of F. W. Townes, Sr., he engaged in the funeral business with F. W. Townes, Jr. as F. W. Townes & Son, Inc. of which firm he became vice president and later Chairman of the Board. He served as Master of Roman Eagle Lodge in 1934, as Noble Grand of the Dan River Lodge, No. 342, International Order of Odd fellows, and as Exalted Ruler of Danville Lodge No 227, Benevolent Protective Order of Elks. He served as a member of the Board of Stewards of Mount Vernon Methodist Church, a vice president of the Danville Lions Club and a member of the Board of Directors of the Danville Retail Merchants Association.

Blair Kerns was very active in the civic and business life of Danville. In 1961 he was President of the Anti-Tuberculosis League of Danville, Inc. which was operating Hilltop Nursing Home at 2526 North Main Street which had been converted from a tuberculosis sanatorium into a nursing home after the advent of antibiotics and other treatments had decreased the need for a tuberculosis treatment facility. Hilltop wished to build a facility which would be more suitable for a nursing home than the old tuberculosis sanatorium buildings which it then occupied. Blair Kerns secured a commitment for a grant of $192,500 under the Hill Burton Act to be applied toward the cost of the new construction, and requested a challenge grant from The Richardson Foundation in the amount of $100,000 with the remaining amount needed, approximately $60,000 to be raised by public subscription. The Richardson Foundation had been funded in 1935 by charitable contributions of well over $300 million from the family of Lunsford Richardson who had invented Vicks Vaporub and created a fortune from it. In 1961 the Foundation was being run by the son of Lunsford Richardson, Henry Smith Richardson, Sr., who had married Grace Jones, the daughter of Elisha K. and Annie H. Jones of Danville, who had lived with her parents at 855 Paxton Street until at least 1910. This connection of his wife to Danville caused Henry Smith Richardson, Sr. to look favorably upon Kerns’ request for funds, because he wanted something in her home town to be established as a perpetual memorial to her. As conditions for the grant, Richardson insisted upon ten stipulations which would insure perpetuity and good long term management of the new facility. Blair Kerns suggested that Roman Eagle Masonic Lodge, a prominent organization in Danville since 1820, be the sponsor of the new facility and this was acceptable to Richardson. Kerns persuaded the membership of Roman Eagle Lodge to accept the sponsorship and the name of the new facility was changed to Roman Eagle Memorial Home, Inc. with provisions that a majority of the Board of the facility would always be members of the Lodge and that the three stationed officers and the trustees of the Lodge would always be members of the Board. The provisions were accepted by all concerned, the Richardson grant was approved, the public subscription was successful and the new facility was built. It has since grown to become a full-service nursing home with 312 beds, a staff of over 350 and an annual budget of over $17 million. Blair Kerns was the first president of Roman Eagle Memorial Home, Inc. and served in that capacity for many years. A portrait of Grace Jones Richardson is prominently displayed in the Home.

John Blair Kerns and his wife, Irvin, had one daughter, Julia, who married a Smith and lived in Norfolk, Virginia. The family lived at 201 Marshal Terrace and Blair later lived at 126 Westmoreland Court after his wife’s death. Both Blair and his wife, Irvin, are buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Danville. For a short period of time there was a Kerns-Beach Masonic Lodge which met in Danville in the daytime rather than in the evening which is more common for Masonic Lodges.

Although the Kerns surname is no longer as prominent in Danville as it once was, the family and its contributions certainly played an important role in the history of the City and the State.