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Very few American families can trace their ancestry beyond three or four generations. This is due to the lack of a historical spirit among the early settlers of a country. They make no records, and only vague traditions carry their histories down to other generations. When the Branson family came to America cannot be accurately determined. It is, however, certain that early in the eighteenth century Thomas Branson came from England and settled in Chatham County, N. C. This makes the Branson family one of the old families of North Carolina, and identifies them with all the periods of the State’s growth.
William Henry Branson belonged to the fifth generation from Thomas Branson. William’s father was named Thomas, doubtless for the original Branson, and was born in Randolph County, near Asheboro, in the year 1800. For four generations the Branson family remained in this section of the State, a fact which indicates an indisposition to rove from point to point in search of easier fortunes.
Thomas Branson, the father of William H. Branson, was twice married; the first time to Miss Mary Lewellyn, the second time to Mrs. Prescott, who was a Miss Buck. William was the only child by this second wife. He was born near Cedar Falls, Randolph County, May 23, 1860. His father was a blacksmith, a vocation of large importance in the first half of the nineteenth century. The blacksmith was then a manufacturer, making not only all the implements of farming, but all the pieces of iron furniture in the best homes. Longfellow’s “Village Blacksmith” commemorates the true dignity and character of the hero of the anvil. So Thomas Branson was a central figure in the industry of his community. He is described as a man with a large and erect frame, strong intellect, and noble character. He was a man of deep convictions, and held to them with unshaken fidelity; he was energetic and honest in all business transactions, while his genial nature drew about him a host of friends. One who knew him said, “Never was there a more upright man than Thomas Branson.” His second wife was a woman of genial nature, and very full of energy. Their only son, William Henry, got a good start in his parents, and his record fully sustained their character in the larger world of activity to which he belonged.
Thomas Branson died when William was very young. This, joined with the extremely poor educational facilities, gave young William no opportunity to attend any other than a local school. Nevertheless, he succeeded in grasping the principles of arithmetic before he was twelve years old, for he never attended school after that age. Nature had endowed him with large mental powers, and from the earliest he seemed to have superior control over his faculties of mind. Young men who cite such instances to defend their indifference to educational opportunities, should first be sure that nature has extended to them such a beneficent hand as it held out to him. He not only had faculties, but they had impetus, and he was always learning. Minds run down, and growth is arrested, but he had the genius of endless growth.
His half sister, Miss Jennie Prescott, married Mr. J. A. Odell, a merchant in the town of Greensboro, N. C. At the age of twelve he went to live with them as a member of the family. This was a new era in William’s life. Mr. Odell is not only a man of stalwart character, but his business genius puts him among the business leaders of the South Atlantic States. Young Branson had the life of this man to touch him from the intimate relation of the home at his most impressible age. This may be called good fortune by some men; it was destiny to William Branson. He went into the Odell home, and the Odell home went into him. He worked in the store as a clerk, and developed his powers to deal with large and varied classes of men. A young boy behind the counter of a busy store is not in the poorest school. To succeed as a clerk requires energetic study and large self-control. William succeeded.
He did not receive a salary for the first four years. He was a member of the Odell home, and was cared for as a son. His fidelity to the home relations was so marked that his sister was never forced to punish him. Mr. and Mrs. Odell always knew his plans, and as long as he was with them, he never left the home without their knowledge and approval. To him manliness and honor were inseparable, and freedom was obedience to duty and truth. It is no surprise that the confidence which grew up in those years never diminished in later years.
William was sixteen years old when the Centennial Exhibition came on in Philadelphia. Mr. Odell, as an expression of appreciation of him and his work, took him to Philadelphia. This opportunity to look out on the world and feel the throb of its energy and genius, meant much to this lad of sixteen years. He did not return home the same boy; he did not live again in the same world; he came back a larger boy in a larger world. The country school in Randolph county, the Odell home and store, and the trip to Philadelphia, and at the same time a short visit to New York, were the schools in which William H. Branson was educated. In the first, he gained access to books; in the second, access to business and society; in the third, access to the impulses of the world. These three attainments in the possession of a highly endowed man aggregated no small capital with which to begin life.
When William returned to Greensboro from Philadelphia he had his wardrobe and fifteen cents in cash. From this time he became an employee of Mr. Odell on a salary of fifteen dollars a month. Thus he entered on his business career. In this day of restless youth, impatient for a rapid rise to easy and lucrative positions, the history of William H. Branson is a sharp reproof. He began at what men call the “bottom round,” not because those who loved him could not have elevated him at once to a higher position, but because their wisdom suggested a better plan. Men rule best who have served most faithfully in every sphere to be ruled. Young Cornelius Vanderbilt is a common laborer in the shops of the New York Central Railroad in order that he may be a better president of the system. Rapid progress means early bankruptcy, and against this calamity young Branson was trained. As the years passed his salary grew, so having learned to live on a small salary, he knew how to save from a larger one. The best product of education is the control that it gives a man of all the powers of his nature. To think accurately is not enough. Unless a man can master his moral desires, high thinking will prove to be disastrous thinking. William Branson had been trained to deny useless desires, and he was no longer in the way of his own success.
At the organization of the Durham Cotton Mill, in 1884, Mr. J. A. Odell was elected President, and William H. Branson was chosen Secretary and Treasurer. Young Branson was practically placed at the head of this new enterprise, for through him Mr. Odell directed the business. At this time the cotton manufacturing interest entered on the period of expansion in the South Atlantic States. The growth was rapid, but the fact that untrained men were necessarily placed at the head of new mills, made it a critical period. Not only were new markets to be opened and new business affiliations formed, but unexperienced labor was to be trained, and new social relations were to be adjusted. It was into the midst of these problems that Mr. Branson was suddenly thrown. He met them with an assuring faith. He was born to lead men. He knew how to plan a work, and to organize and inspire his forces. No crisis could throw him into a spasm of excitement, but he was calmest when the ordinary man was most excited. During the business panic of the first years of this decade, he showed no timidity, but maintained that stability which alone can secure the integrity of business. Business genius is rare enough, and great enough to command the admiration of all true men, and only a moral quackery discounts it. It is as foolish to think that every man can build or control large business enterprises, as it is to expect every man to write Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Goethe’s Faust. This talent belongs to the few, just as the poetic genius is a rare talent. Too much may be attributed to opportunity, or so-called “good fortune,” but the real opportunity is the man. The modern teachers of economy rest their hopes too much in natural agencies, expecting to produce wealth by changing circumstances. The problem is to be solved in the man, not in the conditions, for the man who lacks the power to control circumstances, lacks the very element of success. Mr. Branson did not wait for times to change and conditions to become better, he changed the conditions. The real leader of men will never lack men to lead. By the force of moral energy the public mind moves about him as an appointed center. He seeks nothing; everything seeks him. The large number of enterprises that sought the fostering care of Mr. Branson illustrates the truthfulness of the statement. He was a Trustee of Trinity College, a Member of the Executive Committee of Trinity College, Trustee of Greensboro Female College, Director of the Fidelity Bank, Secretary and Treasurer of Durham Cotton Mill and Pearl Cotton Mill, Director of the Durham and Oxford Railroad, Director of Odell Manufacturing Company, Treasurer of the Joint Board of Finance of the North Carolina Conference, Steward of Carr Church, a Trustee of Church property, and associated in some way with various other institutions. These were not honorary positions, but enterprises which sought the wise direction of this strong man. So they were to him responsibilities, and got from his closest study and faithful direction. In the meetings of these Boards he was always active. Mr. Branson’s success as a businessman cannot be attributed to any one element of character. He was a man whose faculties compassed large and varied spheres, so that he put into his plans ideas gathered from many points of view, and protected on every side.
Men who have large aptitudes for business rarely develop social tastes. There is an antagonism between the two spheres, and only men of great adaptability can so harmonize them as to make them serve each other. The businessman regards a social occasion as a waste of time, and when forced into a social assembly, finds himself cramped and vexed. Close calculations and stern facts injure, if they do not destroy, those sentiments upon which society rests. The loss of faculties is a common calamity, especially the more unselfish faculties that cannot be traded in the markets. Mr. Branson was an exception to this rule. He could lay aside the calculations of the office, dismiss from his mind the conditions of the market, shut out the roar of machinery, and throw himself with genial enthusiasm into a lawn party of his little girl, or a social function of largest proportions. He was not dragged into these; he had a highly developed social nature. Three things made him social. He was naturally a man of deep and refined sympathies, and could not, therefore, find his life’s satisfaction in himself. The second cause is found in the genial associations of the Odell home. In it he had his natural social sentiments trained and gratified. The third cause was a happy marriage. December 17, 1885, he was married to Miss Clara Sargent, of Greensboro, N. C. Two lives may make one great life, or they may destroy each other. The union in married life is not a legal agreement, to which society sets its approval. It is a mystical unity, where two thoughts and two impulses so fuse into each other as to consume all separate identity in a new and larger expression. This, and this alone, is marriage. Legal contracts and ecclesiastical ceremonies cannot so unite what nature has forever divorced. The law of congeniality is as rigid as the law of gravity, and ruin can only come from an attempt to reverse it. Forced nature is wrecked history. William Branson and Clara Sargent were married. She was to him the ideal woman. Genial, sympathetic, loving, and faithful, she was to him a poem, the passion of whose movement was a divine impulse, keeping alive the diviner sides of his nature. With him, she could never degenerate into a soft social show; with her, he could never become a hardened man of the market. Society is at its best, or its worst, in the home. In this house it was at its best. Mr. Branson had his business day, but when that ended he gave himself to his family. The city of Durham will not forget the evening rides he took with his family. The sight was a sermon on “how to love and how to be loved.” Little William, his only son, was sent to the home of a neighbor on the morning of the accident that robbed him of a father, and was not allowed to return home till night. He was brought into his mother’s room just at the hour of the day when the family circle was at its best. The little fellow at a moment felt the distress of his father’s absence, and his first utterance was, “Mamma, where is papa?” His little life had its joys in the hours of a father’s presence in the home. Little Annie’s parties, his wife’s social occasions, companionship with his friends, and the annual social functions of Trinity College, all received his best contributions of joy and gladness.
His social nature did him great service in his business relations. It not only gave him ready access to the sympathies of men with whom he had transactions, but it saved his business plans and methods from the monotony of hard and cold mechanism. Between the manager and the laborer there must be something more than a contract. Otherwise, trickery and suspicions arise that hinder, if they do not ruin, an enterprise. Legislation can do very little, if it can do anything, to prevent friction between capital and labor. Likely, it has created more friction than it has prevented. The friction has its rise in that margin which lies outside of legal control, a sphere which modern sociologists have ignored. There must be a point of personal contact between labor and capital, and no increase in wages will ever act as a substitute for this personal and moral bond. Labor wants the inspiration of personal regard; capital wants the assurance of personal confidence. The necessity is a common necessity. Mr. Branson solved the problem, just as very many other wise men have solved it. He touched the lives of those who worked under him with a sincere sympathy and regard. He did not patronize them, as he did not patronize any man. He never called them his “operatives,” “hands” or “laborers,” but “our people.” This was not a conventionalism, for he held them in the high esteem of kinship, and never met them on any other basis. The entire community organized around him with perfect confidence. Free himself from the feelings of lordship, they were free from the sense of serfdom. Friction is not possible under such conditions, and the sorrow of “our people” when this man was smitten down, attested the wisdom and sincerity of his leadership.
When Mr. Branson was seventeen years old he was converted at a meeting held in West Market Methodist church, in Greensboro, N. C. At the same time he joined the Methodist church. His parents were Methodists, and his associations after he left the home of his mother, preserved in him the faith of the household. He was never a bad boy, and knew nothing of “sowing wild oats,” an expression used to apologize for the unnecessary sins of youth. The most intimate companion of his boyhood tells with joy that he never heard young Branson use an impure word, or relate an unclean joke. Upon this foundation of purity and integrity rested his faith in the power of Christ to save him. Into his church membership he put all of his energies. He was a great churchman, studying the doctrines and polity of his church, and using his knowledge for its best interests. He was no bigot, but he was loyal at all times to the church of his choice. In every matter affecting the work of his church, he supported an aggressive policy, and took a broad view of every movement. With the ethics of narrow and selfish men he had no sympathy. Though young, he was one of the most potent factors in the North Carolina Conference. In his own church, his pastor found him an ideal layman, true to his vows, active in all church work, and the center of greatest influence. He was not only active in the business of the church, but in revival services gave his energies to the one work of saving his fellowman. As treasurer of the Joint Board of Finance the entire financial work of the year in the North Carolina Conference passed under his review. He was always present at the sessions of the Conference, never allowing business to keep him away, or to call him home before his work was finished. No man ever heard him complain that the church work interfered with his business. He did not carry his factories to the Conference sessions, and did not fret to return to them. Such fidelity commands confidence, and his church was glad to honor him. Some men use church honors for selfish ends, and seek them for distant aims. Mr. Branson sought nothing; everything sought him. Twice he was a member of the General Conference; the first time at the session of 1894, in Memphis, Tennessee, and as an alternate in the last session, which met in Baltimore, Maryland, May 1898. In this body he was an important legislator. Broadminded, aggressive, and wise, he threw his influence where he judged best for the life and progress of the church. His faith could not be disturbed by those alarmists whose mental horizons were tortured with imaginary storms. “Their wild dreams do not disturb me,” he would say.
Our Bishops are wise and godly men and we can risk them,” was fundamental with him. Some men are monumental characters whose records impart assurance and give great stability to cardinal truth. In the church, William H. Branson was such a character.
He was a true man. His appearance spoke out the magnificence of his character. Tall and erect, weighing nearly two hundred pounds, with a large head, broad brow, bright and expressive eye, strong features, and noble movement, he was the embodiment of high honor and noble impulses. He had the model figure of a hero. God does not build such temples in which to house bats; the occupant of such a divine structure has exalted rights which, if obeyed, makes him God’s nobleman. William H. Branson obeyed them. He was just reaching up to that period of life when everything is full of glad prophecies. All the years of his life were years of apparent preparation, and his friends rejoiced that the depth and breadth of the foundation measured an immense future. In the glow of these hopes, death came to him while he was in the path of duty, the only path in which he ever made a footprint. A darker shadow never fell on any community than the one that came to the city of Durham when, on the seventh day of April 1899, William H. Branson, by a fearful accident, was taken away. In him seemed to be unborn history. It will have its birth in higher realms, for there is no cessation of life. Noble powers may not have sufficient time in this life, they will get it in the life beyond.