Governor Thomas C. Rye was born in a log cabin in 1863 to Wayne and Elizabeth Atchison Rye of Benton County. Growing up on his father’s farm, he attended county public schools. After studying law in Charlotte, North Carolina, he returned to Tennessee in 1884 to practice law in Camden, the county seat of Benton County, and in 1888 he married Betty Arnold.
Rye moved to Paris, Tennessee, in 1902, where he became district attorney general of Henry County from 1910 to 1914 and earned a reputation for strong law enforcement and a firm stand against bootleggers. As a prohibitionist unattached to party factionalism, Rye became an acceptable Democratic candidate for the 1914 gubernatorial race. In an effort to unite the party, the Democrats wrote a platform favoring prohibition. Rye received the support of Luke Lea, founder of the Nashville Tennessean, and former governor Malcolm R. Patterson, a recent convert to the prohibition cause. Republicans and Independents nominated Ben W. Hooper for a third term, but Rye won the election with a vote of 137,656 to 116,667.
During Rye’s administration, the state’s industrial growth flourished as a result of the prosperity that accompanied World War I. The Alcoa aluminum plant established near Maryville and the DuPont munitions factory established at Hadley’s Bend of the Cumberland River near Nashville employed thousands of Tennesseans. Rye’s administration is best known for the “Ouster Law,” enacted in January 1915. This law provided for the removal of any public official for incompetence or unwillingness to enforce the law. The measure targeted Memphis mayor Edward H. Crump, whose failure to enforce prohibition laws kept saloons open in that city. The state attorney general’s office filed suit in October 1915, initiating the action that removed Crump from office.
Other legislation under Rye’s two-term administration included the creation of the state highway department, the founding of a governor-appointed board to control state penal and charitable institutions, the registration of automobiles and trucks, a special highway tax to match federal funds, a general budget system, the organization of a state board of education, and the levying of a tax to support state high schools. A 1917 act significantly altered partisan politics by requiring primary elections rather than conventions to nominate party candidates.
At the end of his second term, Rye returned to his Paris law practice. He died on September 12, 1953, and is buried in Paris.