New South advocate and first Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture, Joseph B. Killebrew was born May 29, 1831, in Montgomery County, the son of Bryan Whitfield and Elizabeth Smith Ligon Killebrew. In 1835 Bryan Killebrew bought a farm in adjoining Stewart County and moved his family there. The following year, Elizabeth Killebrew died and Joseph Killebrew began a series of changes in residence that variously placed him in the home of his aunts, his grandfather, and his father and stepmother.
In 1851 Killebrew entered Franklin College, the Middle Tennessee school operated by Tolbert Fanning. By the following December, he had exhausted his funds, however, and accepted a position teaching mathematics at the Clarksville school of John D. Tyler. In 1853 George S. Wimberly, a widower who had married Killebrew's aunt Judith Kesee, recognized the intellectual capabilities of Killebrew and offered to finance his college education at the institution of his choice. Killebrew chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he graduated in June 1857.
Killebrew returned to Clarksville, read law, and entered the bar. In August 1857 his benefactor Wimberly died, having named Killebrew as the executor of his estate. In December Killebrew married Wimberly's daughter and only surviving child, Mary Catherine. The Killebrews were married for over forty-eight years and were the parents of seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood.
With the marriage, Killebrew assumed responsibility for the management of the Wimberly lands and twenty-two slaves. By 1865, with the addition of the dowager lands and a neighboring farm, the estate included nine hundred acres of land. By avoiding antagonizing either the Union or Confederate army and through skillful management of his lands, Killebrew emerged from the Civil War debt-free and with his property intact.
In 1870 Killebrew became agricultural editor of the Nashville Union and American and began his public advocacy of New South principles: improvement and extension of the system of public education, encouragement of immigration to the South, development of natural resources for industrialization, and improvement of agriculture. His writings attracted immediate attention. He tied agricultural development to industrialization and advocated a four-part agricultural program that included the breakup of large landholdings into smaller, independent farms; the diversification of crops to reduce southern agricultural dependence on cotton and tobacco; the enrichment of soil through subsoiling, crop rotation, and the use of commercial fertilizers; and a program to attract European immigrants to farm unoccupied and idle land.
Killebrew proved to be as skilled at speechmaking as he was in writing, and he frequently traveled to courthouses to address farmers on the benefits of his programs. Despite his superior education, farmers apparently perceived him as one of their own and clamored to hear his speeches.
At Killebrew's urging and in response to the demands of like-minded farmers, the Tennessee General Assembly established a Bureau of Agriculture in December 1871. Made up of two appointed citizens from each of the three grand divisions, the bureau published crop reports and provided information about the timber and mineral resources of the state. As secretary of the bureau, the task of gathering, preparing, and publishing this information fell to Killebrew. In 1875 the state legislature reorganized the Agricultural Bureau and placed it under the administration of a commissioner; Killebrew was appointed the first commissioner of agriculture, a position he held until 1880.
In 1872 Killebrew, with the backing of a number of prominent Middle Tennessee farmers, published the first issue of the Rural Sun, which served as an organ of the Bureau of Agriculture, promoting immigration, development of timber and mineral resources, and industrialization. In 1874 Killebrew published Introduction to the Resources of Tennessee, a volume of almost twelve hundred pages outlining the agricultural, mineral, and timber resources in each county.
With the election of Republican Alvin Hawkins in 1880, Killebrew left the Agricultural Bureau. Thereafter, he devoted his time to iron, coal, and railroad interests although he continued to write about agriculture, particularly tobacco cultivation. In the 1880s he conducted geological surveys for iron and coal deposits and traveled to Mexico to support his interests in the Refugion Gold and Silver Mining Company. During the Depression of 1893, Killebrew lost considerable money as the result of the collapse of the iron industry in Tennessee. In 1894 he became immigration agent for the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad.
Killebrew retired to his Montgomery County farm in 1904 and died in March 1906, only weeks after the death of his wife. As his biographer notes, Killebrew began his career as an agrarian, but ended as a Whig-industrialist.
Samuel B. Smith, “Joseph Buckner Killebrew and the New South Movement in Tennessee” (Ph.D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 1962)