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Longtime businessman Rhea Browder, who with his brothers, Joe and Ed Browder, formed Harriman Oil Co. in the late 1930s amid the Great Depression, died Monday at 97.
So pivotal was the role the family played in Harriman politics and business that a section is dedicated to them in the popular Walter Pulliam book, “Harriman: The Town That Temperance Built.”
The historian and editor said this week he got to know the Browders well during his 30 years as a newspaper man in Harriman.
“They were very influential in Harriman, particularly after World War II. Very progressive and leaders in Harriman,” Pulliam wrote.
Harriman, after World War II, was booming.
“And I’m sure they contributed to it, great prosperity in Harriman,” Pulliam wrote.
The Browder influence was more direct on Steve Kirkham, who worked with the Browders at Harriman Oil beginning in 1973.
He later bought out Rhea and his nephew, Sam Browder, in 1997.
Kirkham remembers the lessons learned and time spent with Rhea fondly.
“Rhea was a great partner and great friend. He was an extremely loyal and appreciative partner. Everything he ever told me, he would do it,” Kirkham said.
Friends and business associates could trust a verbal contract when Browder made one, Kirkham said.
The Browder family owned 544 acres in the Wheat community that was purchased by the government for the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge. Rhea
Browder was shipped to Europe with the U.S. Coast Guard in 1942.
The Browders’ political influence was significant. Pulliam credited them with persuading the state to build the new Roane Street bridge across the Emory River. The bridge was later named after their father, William Hamilton Browder.
The brothers also helped get Interstate 40 routed through Harriman, a significant move that has benefited the city tremendously.
Harriman Oil Co. served Roane and surrounding counties and at one time during World War II the company’s Vermont Gateway Shell Station in Oak Ridge was recognized for selling more gas per day than any other gas station in the United States.
The brothers later founded Rocky Top Markets, which has now grown to include more than 40 convenience stores.
In addition to Harriman Oil Co., which at one time was the largest distributor for Shell Oil Company in Tennessee, the brothers formed other partnerships in Roane County.
The Browder brothers started East Tennessee Motor Co. in Knoxville and Harriman, East Tennessee Truck in Knoxville, and Central Florida Oil Co. in Ocala, Fla.
They operated Harriman Motor Co., a Ford dealership that was later sold to Jerry Duncan, who made the dealership Jerry Duncan Ford.
They also operated the Rockwood Motor Co. and Peggy Ann Truck Stop, according to Pulliam’s book.
Among their numerous real estate ventures, they are credited with developing West Hills.
The family was active in the Democratic Party.
Rhea Browder was the only person appointed to three terms on the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission, the predecessor to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and was instrumental in the formation of the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area in Campbell and Scott counties.
He also served many years on the Tennessee Boat Safety Advisory Board, was a Shriner and Mason.
The family will receive friends from noon to 1 p.m. Friday at Kyker Funeral Home in Harriman.
“Rhea was top shelf,” he said. “He was a man of his word. He was old school. He would do what it took to live up to his word.”