Rutledge Smith enjoyed careers in journalism, banking, and railroads. He was called “Major” by most people and was best known for his role in preparing the state for mobilization in both World War I and World War II. Born in Putnam County, Smith attended Washington Academy in Cookeville but soon left school to work on the railroad.
At the age of fifteen Smith worked as a rodman on the survey crew of the Knoxville and Nashville Railroad. From those humble beginnings, he rose through the ranks of what became the Tennessee Central Railroad to become chief industrial agent in 1910; promotions to executive general agent in 1913 and to superintendent and executive general agent in 1914 followed. Smith’s interests in railroads overshadowed most other ventures, and in 1910 he was named president of the Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama Railroad Company.
Smith simultaneously enjoyed a successful career in journalism. In 1888 he acquired one-half interest in the Cookeville Press and acted as the paper’s general manager and publisher. Primarily an organ of the local Democratic Party, the Press was published every Thursday and boasted a readership of two thousand subscribers. In 1893 he bought the rival Cookeville Courier, combining the two papers to create an expanded operation. In 1917 his involvement in other enterprises prompted Smith to sell the newspaper.
He was always involved in politics. In 1894 Smith became secretary to Congressman Benton McMillin. His move to Washington, D.C., provided the opportunity to improve his education, and Smith attended Georgetown University in the evenings. He later claimed to have been a founding member of the Washington Press Club. In 1908-9 Smith returned to Washington to act as the secretary to Senator James B. Frazier.
Smith’s interests in banking date to 1906, when he took a position as cashier at the People’s Bank of Cookeville. He assumed the presidency the following year. From 1907 to 1910 he served on the executive committee of the Tennessee Bankers Association.
Following the American declaration of war in April 1917, Smith attended a conference in Washington to formulate policy for mobilization. His advocacy of preparedness earned him the presidency of Tennessee’s Council for National Defense. In addition, Defense Secretary Newton Baker appointed Smith field representative for the southeast region of the Council for National Defense, which oversaw defense activities south of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi. Honorably discharged as a lieutenant colonel in 1919, Smith returned to civilian life with the Tennessee Central.
During the woman suffrage debate of 1919-20, Smith and his wife Graeme McGregor Smith engaged in a public, though not acrimonious, difference of views. Though Smith was opposed to suffrage, his wife became the first registered female voter in Davidson County.
During the late 1930s, Smith once again sounded the clarion for preparedness. Governor Prentice Cooper agreed and in 1940 established the Tennessee Preparedness Committee, the first such committee in the nation. He appointed Smith and Alvin C. York as advisors to the committee. Smith served as chairman of the Putnam County Home Guard during World War II.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Smith continued his interests in the Tennessee Central Railroad, serving as assistant president from 1931 until his retirement to Miami, Florida, in 1947.