Articles & Stories

John Dixon Caudill:

A Big Sandy Business Legend


By G. C. Ratliff - 1946
Submitted by Janice Lowe Blackburn

In 1885 John Dixon Caudill was 31 years of age and Pikeville, Pike County, Kentucky, was a small village, without a railroad or a highway. Mr. Caudill had been in the mercantile business in Whitesburg, Letcher County, and in the Shelby Valley of Pike County. Being far-sighted and industrious, he saw the possibilities at Pike-ville and scouted for a chance there.
When the property on Main Street, opposite the Colonel Dill home, was advertised to be sold in court, John D. Caudill was on hand with the determination and the cash to buy it. The property, consisting of two two-story brick buildings, a dwelling, and a store, cost him $3,800; which was a lot of money in that day. Mr. Caudill knew that Pikeville needed him, and he needed Pikeville. He dreamed of serving the entire upper Big Sandy Valley with mercantile needs. That dream came true. He became a business legend in the area.
During those days, orders had to be placed with wholesale houses months ahead, and the goods were shipped up the river by steamboat whenever there was a tide. Sometimes there were seven months when the river was low and there was no transportation. Mr. Caudill took care of his business by ordering unusually large amounts of goods, and, at times, he'd charter a steamboat all the way from the mouth of the river to haul his merchandise. He had items, therefore, which could not be obtained anywhere else. Wagons were driven many miles distant from his store and loaded to capacity.

John Dixon Caudill and his first wife, Caroline Dotson, were early settlers in Pike County. John owned property on Main Street in Pikeville where he had a mercantile business for 53 years. After Caroline's death, he married Mollie Sword. He had 18 children, was a member of the Regular Baptist Church, and during his lifetime read the Bible more than 155 times.

(Photos courtesy of Janice Blackburn)

John D. Caudill became a household name over several counties for 20 years. This was before the railroad reached Pikeville in 1905. When transportation was no longer a problem, and goods could be gotten quickly, he ordered as his needs demanded.
Mr. Caudill was born at Whitesburg on October 5, 1854, to Stephen J. Caudill and Elizabeth Adams Caudill. He entered the mercantile field in his hometown at an early age.
His first wife, Caroline Dotson, preceded him in death by 40 years. There were born to this union William H.; Stephen J.; Samuel; John, Jr.; Susan Elizabeth; Etta Jane; Annie; and Jettie.
Mr. Caudill's second wife was Mollie Sword Caudill. To this union were born Charles, Paul, James, Mrs. Charles E. Grote, Mrs. Theodore Hoskins, Mrs. Wallace Etheridge, Mildred, and Mrs. G. J. Sanders.
There were surviving at the time of Mr. Caudill's death, in 1938, three sisters: Mrs. J. F. Riley, Los Angeles, California; Mrs. Jane Long, Kansas City, Missouri; and Mrs. Sue Walters, Virginia. There were 38 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Etta Jane Caudill Lowe was a daughter of John D. and Caroline Dotson Caudill of Pikeville, Pike County, Kentucky. Etta was born in 1885 and died in 1970. The photo was taken possibly at Big Creek where she resided. Woodrow Lowe, her son, was born in 1913 and died in 2002.
(Photos courtesy of Janice Blackburn, Woodrow's daughter.)

Mr. Caudill was fond of hunting and fishing and delighted to tell stories of his catch. Being one of the most respected citizens of the county, he was often called for jury duty in both local and federal courts. He was interested in civic enterprises.
He was never happier than when seated in his chair in the store reading his Bible. On October 20, 1928, he wrote a letter to his son, Stephen, who was away for some reason. In that letter he gave his son good advice. Later the letter got back into Mr. Caudill's hands, and he scribbled on the back of it the following:
"John D. Caudill, Pikeville, Kentucky, age 74, married twice. Has had 18 (this total differs from previous listing) children, 16 still living. Has 38 grandchildren, all living. A member of Regular Baptist Church, was converted 34 years ago. Has read the Bible through 155 times, since 1889, and am now reading it again. At the age of 46 my eyesight was not good, but since I started reading the Bible my eyesight has returned, and now I can read the finest of print. I have never used glasses. I came to Pikeville 43 years ago and entered the mercantile business and have occupied the same building since I started. Have accumulated a nice little fortune by honesty, hard work, and saving. My advice to all is to read the Bible and obey its teachings, work hard, and be honest, this is the best road to happiness."
This prized letter is in the possession of Stephen J. Caudill.
According to Mr. Caudill's own figures, he had read the Bible through an average of four times per year between 1889 and 1923. He lived ten years longer, dying in 1938. If he kept up this rate, he read it through 40 times more, making a total of about 195 times during his life, which is no doubt a record.
He would always close up his store on Saturday and go to his church, then open up when he returned in mid-afternoon. Nothing except an emergency could have kept him from church.
For 53 years he lived in the two-story brick home and did business in the old store building. The bricks that went into these buildings were made on the Bowles farm, across the river from Pikeville, and the lumber was from virgin poplar trees from neighboring forests, sawed and dressed by hand. The brick walls are 16 inches thick.
The counters in the store are 21 feet long, and the tops are made of two 16-inch virgin poplar boards. All boards are bolted securely together. There are extra board shelves near the ceiling, made of these fine poplar boards. Hat boxes and other bulky items were placed on these high shelves.
On February 8, 1946, or almost eight years after Mrs. Caudill's death, the property was sold at public auction. The plot, measuring 165' x194,' was divided into small lots and auctioned to the highest bidder. The place, which sold in court in 1885 for $3,800, brought a total of $177,000.
Herbert L. Clark, an enterprising young businessman, purchased the old store and the ground it occupied for $34,000. The So-wards brothers bought the adjoining lots and have built a fine three-story business and office building on it. Sparks brothers, of Paintsville, acquired the lots, on which the old brick home stood. They had the building torn down and hauled away. Early this year, Sparks sold the property to Walters-Keene Motor Company, who converted it into a car sales lot.
I believe it is safe to say that the Caudill property is now worth $500,000.
Mr. Clark is seeking that the interior of the store building is kept in its original condition. Nothing has been changed. He operates a large farmers' supply store here, and is covering almost as wide a section as did Mr. Caudill back in the early days. Mr. Clark has built an addition on the rear, a 35'x40' block, two-story structure, reaching back to the alley.
The old Caudill store building is all that remains of the landmarks of years gone. Across the street, opposite Walter-Keene Motors is the car sales lot of Johnson Motor Sales, where the old Colonel Dill home stood until a few weeks ago. The old Bowles home, that stood on the present city park, near the post office, is gone, and with it another landmark which the people of this section should have cherished. In that home, James A. Garfield was sworn in as general in the Union Army.

Janice Faye Blackburn, 167 Swinge Camp Branch, Hatfield, KY 41514, shares this article with our readers.

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