Anna Rorex Stokely established one of the nation’s major canning companies. She was the daughter of James Addison and Rebecca Badgett Rorex, born in 1852 on a farm along the French Broad River in Cocke County. In 1872 she married John Burnett Stokely and moved to his farm downstream from her homeplace. When her husband died at age forty-four, Anna Stokely was left with five sons, three daughters, and good land. Markets, however, were limited because of road conditions and lack of rail transportation, and Stokely faced financial problems. A woman of strong character and religious faith, she was determined not only that her sons receive a college education, but also that they follow their father’s example of hard work, and they joined hired hands in the fields as soon as they were physically able.
When the second son, James, returned home from college, he suggested that the farm try canning the vegetables it grew in order to sell foodstuffs in southern markets and better support the family. On January 1, 1898, the Stokely Brothers & Company formed with Anna R. Stokely and a neighbor, A. R. Swann, investing $1,300 each, and Stokely’s sons James R. and John M. Stokely putting up $650 each.
In the first season, four thousand cases of tomatoes were packed in a crude factory and shipped from the river landing on the family farm to Knoxville and Chattanooga. With this initial success, the family bought out Swann’s interest, brought in another of Stokely’s sons, William B., and reorganized the company into a partnership of four equal parts. Anna Stokely helped in the store, welcomed a growing stream of salesmen and national leaders in the food industry, and provided advice and encouragement to her sons running the canning operation.
An important factor in the family’s success was the distinct talent each brother brought to the company. James served as chief financial officer and president, William managed the farms and crops, and John made an excellent salesman. The other two brothers, MIT-educated George and Harvard Law School graduate Jehu, provided ideas in mechanical innovation and legal matters. With Anna Stokely at its center, Stokely Brothers grew, survived national financial panics, expanded to other sites, and yet remained a family enterprise.
On October 24, 1916, though, Anna and her son George died at a railroad crossing when their car stalled before an approaching train. John died three years later at age forty-three, and James died of a heart attack in 1922 at age forty-seven. Though the three original family founders of the company were gone, Stokely’s grandsons not only kept the business going but expanded it. Stokely Brothers became Stokely-Van Camp in 1933 and developed a national market. More than three decades later the company first produced Gatorade, capping its earlier successes. Anna Stokely’s family business evolved and advanced through the twentieth century before being bought in recent years. Stokely’s finest product, though, was the sense of family bonding and commitment to community responsibility she instilled in her children.