Rayburn’s Roane roots

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Longest-serving speaker of House known for integrity

By Terri Likens, Editor

Roane County’s ties to a  an icon in federal government were re-established recently.

Last month, a historical marker was resurrected noting that Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving speaker of the House in U.S. Congress, was born and spent his first five years of life here.

Rayburn is more commonly associated with Texas, where his family moved in 1887, but he never forgot his Roane County ties and visited regularly until he died in 1961.

His father, William Marion Rayburn, was a Confederate soldier.

His mother, Martha, was a Waller, a family that still has ties to East Roane County, where Sam was born in 1882.

They moved to a 40-acre cotton farm in Texas, following other members of the Waller family.

The historical marker was first placed in East Roane County shortly after Rayburn’s death. The plaque was installed at an Interstate 40 parking area that, for a while, was linked to prostitution and trouble, and then it disappeared.

State Sen. Ken Yager, an avid local history buff, and Celia Simon of the Roane Hertage Commission set about finding it and erecting it in a more quiet setting.

Now the marker stands near the old Macedonia Church near the Roane Regional Business and Technology Park. The church has ties to his mother’s family, whose land was donated for a cemetery near the church.

When Rayburn died of pancreatic cancer in 1961, his colleagues in the House called him “the greatest lawmaker in the history of the United States.”

Not long before he died, Rayburn said, “I am one man in public life who is satisfied, who has achieved every ambition of his youth.”

He was not known for polished speeches, but he occasionally was able to swing a close vote in the House by one of his rare,  usually brief, speeches.

Rayburn also steadfastly refused the influence of money on legislation.

He shrugged off pay and gifts, even returning a fine horse that one powermonger sent him secretly.

One of his last visits to Roane County is believed to be in 1960, shortly before his death.

Along with the historical marker, the I-40 bridge over the Clinch River near Kingston is named in honor of Rayburn.

A small plaque, erected in 1964, still can be seen on the bridge.