John B. Dennis, financier and creator of modern Kingsport, was born in Gardiner, Maine, the eldest son of David and Julia Bartlett Dennis. His father was a prominent businessman and president of the Merchants National Bank of Gardiner, and Dennis received his early education in the local public schools and attended Cornell University for three years. At the end of his junior year, he transferred to Columbia College and graduated with an A.B. degree in 1887. During the following years he became involved in the investment and security business, working for several brokerage firms in Boston and New York. In 1890 he became associated with the newly organized private banking firm of Blair and Company of New York. Within three years Dennis had received a partnership in the firm, and for the next twenty years he engaged in banking, promotional, and reorganization activities.
Around 1914 the directors of Kingsport Farms authorized Dennis, as the Blair and Company representative, to purchase approximately 6,355 acres of land in Sullivan and Hawkins Counties from the Carter Coal Company. The Kingsport Improvement Company (KIC) then purchased land for a proposed town from Kingsport Farms. With controlling interest in both companies, Dennis provided financial backing for the establishment of Kingsport.
As proponents of progressivism and its emphasis on rationality, efficiency, and expertise, Dennis and KIC president J. Fred Johnson obtained advice from experts in city planning and government. When it was incorporated in 1917, Kingsport became the first Tennessee municipality with a city-manager form of government. From the beginning, the city was zoned for industrial, residential, and commercial development.
The planners implemented an interlocking concept of industrial development that recruited specific industries designed to complement one another and advance technological change and growth. Dennis persuaded Kodak founder George Eastman to locate a plant in Kingsport. Dennis served as chairman of the board of Kingsport Press, which became one of the largest bookmakers in the world. In 1924 Dennis recruited Borden Mills of Massachusetts to locate a subsidiary mill in Kingsport.
Dennis made Kingsport his primary residence and in 1928 purchased Rotherwood, a large nineteenth-century estate, where he entertained potential investors and industrialists. Augusta, Georgia, native Lola Anderson, a Cornell graduate and Kingsport’s resident landscape artist and nursery owner, married Dennis in 1929. Dennis sold Rotherwood to the U.S. Army in 1941, and the commanding officers of nearby Holston Defense Corporation lived there during the war. In 1946 Dennis exercised his option to repurchase the home and then sold it to Tennessee Eastman executive Herbert G. Stone. Dennis died in Asheville in 1947 and is buried in Kingsport.